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Los Angeles Lakers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Basketball Insiders

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Here’s to new beginnings as the Los Angeles Lakers embark on their seasonal voyage without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant for the first time in 20 years. While no one within the organization was looking to kick dirt on his basketball grave, it is understandable if there is at least a slight amount of collective relief among the players as they head into a season with a significantly lower amount of expectations than this franchise is accustomed to. Any 17-win team coming off back-to-back-to-back “worst season ever” showings should be afforded such a luxury no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.

Diehard fans may still struggle to maintain perspective at times, but the freedom that should come from simply being free of the scrutiny that was a result of the extended farewell tour should be liberating for all parties. Newly hired head coach Luke Walton made it clear he intends to judge this team by the progress it shows rather than wins and losses. That’s because while he is obviously new to his official role, he also realizes the pressure that will already be on a team headlined by a second-year point guard and rookie scoring prospect. On top of that, Los Angeles will feverishly be looking for someone to ascend from the pack as the team’s new leader and wear the de facto “face of the franchise” tag.

The veteran additions of forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov should help with some of the transitioning, but there is obviously a ton of work to do in terms of reestablishing the team’s identity. Walton knows those things have to happen somewhat organically and wants to not only permit the process to take place, but also be afforded the same patience as he adjusts to life at the helm of a talented but still unproven team.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The dream of Russell Westbrook may have died, but with Brandon Ingram joining a core of youngsters that includes D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have reason to be optimistic about their future.

Timofey Mozgov became the poster child of the questionable contract, but he will absolutely fill a need for the Lakers this season. Though well past their primes, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon are each professionals who have been around the block in the NBA, and both know what it takes to be successful in the league.

The first season of the post-Kobe Bryant era will have one less distraction and could possibly result in more wins after just 17 last season. With Luke Walton presumably installing a free-flowing system that will help keep the young guns in Los Angeles loose and engaged, we will likely see some of the talent accumulated pay off this season. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, the Lakers may surprise a few this season and show some fight. The Warriors and Clippers are still far outside their reach, but they should be competitive for the third seed in the division. I’d still be inclined to put the Kings above them since they have the best player, but even that is no guarantee.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the upcoming season without Kobe Bryant for the first time in roughly two decades. This really is the beginning of a new era for the proud franchise and its fans. Fortunately, the team features a core of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. This strong nucleus will be led by rookie head coach Luke Walton, who will need to do a better job communicating with and developing the young guys than his predecessor Byron Scott did. The team also added veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, plus made a deal for Jose Calderon. Deng and Mozgov were given a lot of money over the next four years, so the Lakers will need real production on the court from these guys and not just leadership in the locker room. Despite overpaying for Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers finally have a path towards rebuilding their team and a bright young coach to lead the way.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Lakers fans are ready to see this team turn the corner, and with young talent just dripping from the roster it’s easy to see why they’re so excited. Brandon Ingram’s name often is whispered in the same sentence as Kevin Durant’s, D’Angelo Russell could be on the brink of something really interesting this season, and we know what kind of young talents the team has in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. On the other hand, they also excitedly doled out the summer’s worst contract to Timofey Mozgov and brought Chinese star Yi Jianlian back into the NBA after his exile spanning the better part of the last four seasons. There’s some fascinating young talent, but outside of Jose Calderon, Luol Deng and Yi, the “youngster” theme on this roster is pretty overwhelming. That means no matter how badly the Lakers faithful want to believe things will turn around quickly, they probably won’t, but at least they can sleep at night knowing things are back on the right track. It’s just going to take some time for it all to marinate.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lakers will head into training camp without the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant. Through a combination of injuries and Father Time, the franchise has been prepared to move on to the next chapter for quite some time now. The Lakers have plenty of young talent with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, and this summer the club invested in veteran free agent talent to surround their youth movement. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will be expected to help the young Lakers grow up and mature into top flight professionals and rookie head coach Luke Walton promises to remove the security blanket and throw his youngsters into the fire early. The Lakers will begin life after Bryant on the right foot, but unfortunately it won’t translate into significantly more wins in the short term.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

All eyes will be on Luke Walton as he makes his head coaching debut with the Lakers this season. Walton did a terrific job with the Warriors when called upon, but many people wonder if his success was simply due to the star-laden roster. This is Walton’s opportunity to show what he can do and silence his doubters. Talking to players this summer, it’s clear that Walton has already started to change the team’s culture and everyone seems excited to play his brand of basketball. This is an intriguing team – a mix of young talent and experienced veterans – but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers seriously competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Instead, this year is about getting Walton comfortable, turning things over to him and developing the young core as they buy in to the new system.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s important to note this isn’t solely asking which player will lead the team in scoring, although Russell should certainly have the ball in his hands enough to also challenge for that honor. The Lakers not only need Russell to be a multi-faceted and efficient scorer, but they’ll also need their 20-year-old point guard to be the type of floor general and leader that can also create offensive scoring opportunities for his teammates (3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 28.2 minutes per contest) while fostering a positive chemistry on the court and in the locker room. A tall task for any player, but especially for one as relatively inexperienced as Russell. Regardless, that’s the role these Lakers will need him to fill as they lay the new foundation.

Top Defensive Player: Luol Deng

Serious thought went into placing Ingram in this position given his potential to actually make a serious impact on that side of the ball as well, but he’ll undoubtedly face his fair share of growing pains as he continues to add strength and size to his frame. Deng may be new to the Los Angeles Mix, but the 31-year-old remains an above-average defender that can be utilized at several positions depending upon the matchup. Oft-injured during the middle section of career, the Lakers will also need him to display the type of durability that allowed him to play 72 or more games in each of the last two seasons for Miami.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Like we mentioned, the Lakers need Russell to be special. No other way to put it. The “ice in my veins” moments are great and will always be a part of the Sports Center package, but this team needs more steak than sizzle moving forward. Russell (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG as a rookie) is a better athlete than initially given credit and appears to be in better shape than he was at this point heading into his rookie campaign. Russell was a bit turnover prone at times as a rookie and saw his playing time and role fluctuate as a result, but the team has to hope the added conditioning and perhaps a slightly longer rope from the new staff could result in an increase in his overall productivity this season.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

Although unfair to expect a rookie player to “place the team on his back” with any regularity, one of the main reasons the Lakers drafted Ingram was because of his impressive offensive skill-set for a man of his size. Listed at 6’9 and likely right around 200-205 pounds by the time training camp starts later this month, Ingram can shoot over the top of most defenders as well as put the ball down and create off the dribble. Once he possesses the necessary strength to physically compete against the tougher or heavier opponents, this young man is going to be a matchup nightmare – throughout the flow of the game, but obviously in “clutch” moments as well. This team may not have all that many opportunities for moments of that nature this season, but Ingram could be one of the guys they look to go to from an early point in the year.

The Unheralded Player: Larry Nance Jr.

As beloved and appreciated as Nance Jr. is by the fan base on social media, it still feels like a good portion of folks not covering the team and outside of the market doesn’t realize how effective Nance Jr. could ultimately be under Walton. He’s much more than simply a high-flying act, as the 23-year-old former Wyoming Cowboy continues expanding his shooting range and has better touch around the basket than you might think. Nance Jr.’s greatest contribution could actually end up being on the defensive end and on the backboards, especially if he is able to earn additional playing time (20.2 MPG as a rookie in ‘15-16). He’s a high-energy guy that can not only be a disruptor near the basket and in the passing lanes, but also someone that will change ends with the quickest of big men and finish over the top of plenty as well.

Best New Addition: Brandon Ingram

We certainly don’t mean to be repetitive, and while cases could be made for Deng’s eventual impact and even how Mozgov could make a difference as a rim protector and in mentoring other young bigs like second-round pick Ivica Zubac (purple and gold fingers crossed, probably), the reality is Ingram is the best player they added this summer. They took him with the second overall pick because of that fact. Ingram is oozing with talent and potential and isn’t done growing into his frame.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Luke Walton

Walton returns to the organization after actually being traded away as a player at the 2012 deadline. Obviously, his path led him to even brighter things as a member of that successful Golden State Warriors’ staff over the past couple seasons, but few remember that his coaching career technically started back during the 2011 lockout when he took a position as an assistant under John Pastner and the same Memphis Tigers program that featured the exploits of a young Tarik Black. It’s almost shocking how quickly we’ve come full-circle, as Walton now has the opportunity to coach Black and this talented group of players for the organization he experienced so much success with as a player.

Walton may no longer have the luxury of coaching a team that is immediately within the title mix, but he’s certainly not returning to bare cupboards in terms of talent to work with. With any young coach, especially those also faced with the challenge of guiding primarily young talent, fans and the organization must have patience with this process since there will undoubtedly be games that lead to questions in the early going. Beyond the need to end the trend of having a revolving door on the bench (Walton is the fourth head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011), he’s being asked to oversee a total shift in culture and direction. Players are noticeably excited about the opportunity to play in his new system, which is obviously a good thing, but now comes the time to actually adapt the approach and learn how Walton wants the game played.

While much has been made about how well the offense will fit some of these players, the real challenge for Walton and staff will be in establishing a defensive identity with this roster. Not only will this staff have to continue teaching defensive principles, but they’ll also be tasked with the duty of convincing young players to take as much (if not more) pride in shutting someone down as they take in scoring on them. It may take time, but Walton is definitely equipped with a strong supporting cast of assistants to ease his transition into the head role. Former Laker player/coach Brian Shaw joins Jesse Mermuys and Mark Madsen, who was also retained by the organization. Casey Owens and Will Scott have also reportedly been promoted into assistant and coordinator roles as well.

2. Julius Randle

Perhaps the most interesting roster “battle” – or at least positional juxtaposition – could come from Randle and Nance Jr. While significantly chiseled and in much better shape than when he joined the organization, Randle is still a guy that wants to lower his shoulder and bull-rush you around the basket. Injury to his right hand aside, Randle has reportedly been working like a madman to improve all facets of his game this summer. Being able to keep the defense in a vulnerable position by continuing to add touch and range on his shot will likely be key to his ultimate success on the offensive end at this level, but he also needs to take a step forward as a defender. He was a walking double-double in ‘15-16 (34 total) and was at least willing to challenge at the rim some of the time, but fell prone to the same lapses, poor angles and improper footwork that tend to plague young defenders. He also tended to get himself into early foul trouble due to those undisciplined tactics and poor positioning, especially early in the year.

Playing alongside more able-bodied defenders could and probably should help, but Randle will also need to improve his attention to detail and at least provide a consistent effort on that end if he wants to keep Nance Jr., Deng and others from potentially taking some of his playing time. It wasn’t exactly clear why the last coaching staff didn’t look to utilize more Russell-to-Randle pick-and-roll action – if for no reason other than to simply make scoring a bit easier for him – but we should probably expect to see more of it moving forward. Being able to effectively score around the bucket with his right hand and spread the defense out with the jumpshot are each vital, but sometimes giving a young player that extra space or step with some good pick-and-roll action can also make the difference simply from a confidence and comfort standpoint. The concern could have been with Randle’s ability to change directions once he gets his momentum going, but the 21-year-old did show improvement with his awareness and body control throughout the year.

If you’re the Lakers, you might secretly love the idea of Nance Jr. functioning as a driving force behind Randle. As someone who has actually shown a fair amount of poise and maturity at an early age, Randle seems to possess a singular focus on simply being the best player he can be, and that will permit him to embrace the challenge in a manner that should be positive for both parties. The two of them could wind up pushing one another to the next level as players, and that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

3. Jordan Clarkson

Due to the traffic sensational headlines can garner during the free agency period, Clarkson’s four year, $50 million deal was somewhat swept under the rug this summer, but it has the potential to become an absolutely phenomenal value contract for this team. Clarkson (15.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG in ’15-16) may not have had the chance to join his teammates on Team USA’s Select squad, but that doesn’t mean the young man hasn’t been putting in serious work in the gym and weight room this summer. Fans and opponents alike may be in for a surprise when they see the results of his dedicated workout regimen as the third-year guard really appears to be exhausting all efforts in order to continue improving.

Clarkson was impressive as a rookie, particularly for a late second-round pick the Lakers actually purchased from the Wizards. He showed a solid level of improvement in year two, but if the 24-year-old can take yet another step as a playmaker and defender under the new regime then his deal would quickly become a steal. You don’t simply become a solid perimeter defender overnight, but Clarkson shows the physical tools of someone that is far more capable than he’s been in that department through two years.

The freedom of the new system will also need to come with discipline. Clarkson can get a bit “out over his skis” when attacking at times, but he can be the type of interchangeable player you want when adopting a less constrained system. He was up to 34.7 percent from deep with about as disjointed an offensive system as you can imagine, and should see far more quality looks moving forward. If Clarkson can consistently knock down the deep ball while developing into a player that can at least adequately defend a couple positions (as is the ultimate hope), the Lakers will be in business.

4. D’Angelo Russell

If Russell is truly that transcendent type of player that some scouts and analysts believed he could be when coming into the league, then we should start to see significant strides in his game on both sides of the ball as early as this year. Last year may have appeared to be an unmitigated disaster considering his difficulties with professionalism, with maintaining his role and even position on the court at times, but Russell did show some real flashes of brilliance at certain moments. Not quite enough to offset some of the sophomoric behavior and antics for some, but he was able to do enough to make the organization at least appear to remain comfortable with the idea of Russell at the helm.

Russell showed a clear ability to shoot the ball from distance at this level as the season wore on (38.8 percent or 57/147 from the start of February through the end of the season) and actually has a nice post-up and mid-post game you should probably anticipate seeing more and more of (especially against small or smallish opponents – yes, you, Isaiah Thomas and the like), but we have yet to see him consistently embrace being a playmaker as a Laker. After being intoxicated by comparisons to greats like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd when it came to his passing, it seemed as though Russell was a bit more comfortable attacking NBA defenders as a scorer than he was with generating offense for others.

To be clear, the 2015-16 Lakers didn’t have an awful lot of players capable of capitalizing on his creativity, but Russell also appeared to struggle against defenders that applied heavy pressure at times and he often adopted the “put your head down and go get a bucket” mentality many of today’s top scoring guards employ. With Walton likely to utilize a system similar to the one he was a part of in Golden State, there should be plenty of opportunities for Russell to display just how much ice his veins possess, but these Lakers need him to be dynamic and all-around offensive presence he was once advertised as being if they are to take the next step as a unit.

5. Brandon Ingram

We’d ask everyone to write, “I will not unfairly expect Ingram to immediately play like Kevin Durant” 100 times on the chalkboard if we thought it might help… but it won’t. Not with Ingram being built so similarly and being such a capable scorer at the same position. Especially not with guys like Durant himself making mention of it, as he did when the two faced one another during this summer’s Team USA training camp. While fans can’t be faulted for finding it difficult to curb their enthusiasm when it comes to this team, it will do all parties involved a service if a bit of patience is utilized with Ingram.

He’ll undoubtedly have some nights that look incredible along the way, but they’ll probably be balanced with some rough ones against certain teams, especially in the early portion of the season as he adjusts to the pace and physicality. As a swingman, Ingram is not only going to have to figure out how to consistently score against top defenders and schemes expressly designed with limiting his comfort in mind, but he’ll also be charged with the responsibility of at least slowing down some of the league’s most dynamic scorers on the other end.

Much like the reality that Russell was faced with as a rookie, Ingram will likely see a steady diet of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Gordon Hayward and probably even Rodney Hood all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Good luck with that.

“Don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows” may be one of the more commonly used clichés in sports when dealing with a young team or player, but it will need to be the approach taken with Ingram and most of these players. As long as they continue to show progress along the way, that’s all that can be fairly asked. If what we’ve seen from Ingram while a member at the University of Duke and during the Last Vegas Summer League are any indication of what is to come, then we have a feeling fans will be more than willing to wait for his total development.

6. Luol Deng

While Deng’s contract partially swept up in the general disappointment and outcry over the Lakers failing to bring in some of the summer’s top names, he is actually a really good addition to this team. He may be 31 and have some miles on his body, but as mentioned, he remains a relatively versatile defender that can be depended upon to knock down the deep ball at a respectable level (34.4 percent in ‘15-16, 35.5 in ‘14-15). Whether he’s used primarily at the small forward or Walton elects to move him around according to the lineup and opponent, Deng’s value won’t be limited to the box score.

He is the perfect guy for a locker room in need of guidance and professionalism. Last year in Miami really exemplified how Deng has somewhat seamlessly transitioned from being a primary focus and one of the main options of the offense – as he was throughout his time in Chicago – to a jack-of-all-trades member of the supporting cast. Quite honestly, it could have made a bit more sense for a player of Deng’s capability to join a roster that is closer to being an immediate playoff team.

However, Deng makes sense for L.A. While developing young talent, you need a glue guy like Deng to contribute and hold things together during the difficult periods that will come over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Similar to what guys like Joe Johnson (Utah Jazz) or even Al Jefferson (Indiana Pacers) did in accepting similar supporting roles, the fact that Deng decided to join this team at this time should absolutely be taken as a positive. Sure, money and the length of his deal (four years, $72 million) are factors, but Deng still has plenty to offer and could play a pivotal role in helping with the development of several others on the roster.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Lakers used cap space to acquire players like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac and Yi Jianlian. Now over the cap, the Lakers still have their $2.9 million Room Exception – although their roster is full with 15 guaranteed players. The Lakers are looking to get out of Nick Young’s salary ($11.1 million over two years), which could open a roster spot for Zach Auguste, Travis Wear or Julian Jacobs.

Yi’s contract is unique in that it’s minimally guaranteed, ramping up by games played (20, 40 and 59), making Yi a potential trade piece starting Dec. 15. Looking ahead to next summer, the Lakers project to have at least $26.6 million in cap space, and more if they can get out of Young’s contract. That assumes the Lakers do not finish with a top-three pick in the 2017 lottery, instead sending their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers also have three easy decisions to make before November – the rookie-scale options for D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are all no-brainers.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The added talent will definitely help, but the refreshing feeling around the team with the new direction already appears to be taking effect. Although down the road there could be some revised appreciation for the time they played for the previous staff, to a man, the players have each expressed great optimism about the current trajectory. Also, as mentioned, while a certain level of pressure will always come with playing under the bright lights of Staples Center and for this organization in general, at least this team won’t have anyone truly expecting them to compete for a playoff spot in the ever-challenging Western Conference for at least another year or so. The transition to a more free-flowing and uptempo style should not only be a far more entertaining product for the fans, but should lead to guys actually having more fun while out there on the court.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Deng, Mozgov and perhaps Lou Williams aside, the majority of the core is still littered with early 20-somethings and guys that have less than three years of NBA experience. Randle was still in high school in 2013 and missed a year of action due to a leg fracture. As talented as he may be, Ingram was still playing high school basketball in Kinston, North Carolina in March of 2015. The NBA isn’t very forgiving on rookies and inexperienced players (see: last season), so there may be some games that look eerily similar to the more disappointing of nights over the past few seasons; but the main difference will be the team should actually be headed in a definitive direction these days. For fans, more disheartening than anything else over this stretch of futility was the fact that it at least appeared the front office may have been a bit lost over the past few years.

The decisiveness with which they locked in on Walton coupled with all the spoils of their recent inefficacy -whether gathered intentionally or with a bit of luck along the way- at least present the appearance of a stable and clear-cut plan. Their lowest point also happened to coincide with the league shifting both from a financial/structural and on-court standpoint. Laker fans may shake their heads in disapproval, but the truth of the matter is to have potentially turned it around in as quickly as four years on the heels of losing the organization’s long-time patriarch in Dr. Buss and having to figure out the eventual hierarchy, influence and control between two very different siblings in Jeanie and Jim Buss, all while watching an aging superstar transition away would be a bit of a miracle when all things are considered.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

The biggest question for this team will be: how long does it take them to individually develop so they can collectively improve? If a couple of the young guys were to actually take the next step on both sides of the ball while the other young prospects at least showed a steady rate of improvement, then a win-total as high as the upper-20s (or perhaps even low 30s if everything were to break somewhat favorably) is attainable. That prognosis may be a bit gloomy for some and is almost certain to outright anger others, but that’s why we’ve preached “perspective” throughout the preview. If the Lakers were to somehow reach a win range of even 28-32 games it would take a remarkable 11-15 game improvement from one season to the next, which would be a great accomplishment for any rebuilding team. Walton set the tone by establishing progress as his determining marker and that has to be the mindset and approach for everyone within the organization moving forward. This steady, even incremental advancement may be new for some of the younger amongst the fan base, but, by and large, these are the steps most franchises have to take when building a winner. The Lakers may not quite be there yet, but it is nice to see them headed in that direction once again.

– Jabari Davis

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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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.

Honorable Mentions:

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.

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NBA

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.

Matt John

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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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