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Los Angeles Lakers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Los Angeles Lakers have the stars they long coveted, but will that be enough to make a splash big enough to justify the cost they paid to obtain them? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Lakers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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This offseason was something else for Los Angeles, and that’s putting it lightly.

At long last, the Los Angeles Lakers landed the second superstar they wanted to pair with LeBron James – Anthony Davis. To acquire Davis, the Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter (4th overall pick in 2019 draft), two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers also traded Isaac Bonga, Moritz Wagner, Jemerrio Jones and a 2022 second-rounder to the Washington Wizards (with Washington sending cash to the Pelicans) in order to create more cap space to pursue Kawhi Leonard and create a devastating Big Three.

Leonard ended up signing with the in-arena rival Clippers, but the Lakers still have two of the top five players in the NBA and then added several other players to fill out the roster. A team featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis has the foundation to instantly be a contender and arguably makes the Lakers the favorite to make it out of the Western Conference in the postseason. Notably, the Lakers also added Danny Green as a capable 3-and-D wing with championship experience.

Whether the Lakers have placed the right players around Davis, James and Green is the big question. Of the previous young core they’d been building around, Kyle Kuzma is the one the team refused to include in the Davis trade. Los Angeles also signed DeMarcus Cousins to a team-friendly contract to add more punch at the center position. Unfortunately, Cousins tore his ACL recently and will likely miss the upcoming season. In response, the Lakers signed Dwight Howard to a one-year contract, which has Lakers fans feeling conflicted.

But how far can the team go? Is it really championship or bust? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Lakers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are officially happening. It took a lot to get The Brow to Hollywood, but this superstar pairing may very well go down as being one of the best of all-time. This time around, Rob Pelinka did a solid job of making sure the talent surrounding them will be able to contribute as well. New faces such as Danny Green, Troy Daniels and Avery Bradley will bring the 3-and-D thunder in supplementary roles. Quinn Cook is one of the most overlooked, up-and-coming point guards just waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. Everybody wants to talk about Dwight Howard, but let’s not forget how good JaVale McGee was last season either.

Veteran leader Frank Vogel will be the man in charge at head coach — but he’s also got Jason Kidd as his top assistant. That’s really the only thing we should be unsure about, but the talent and experience on paper could make the situation fit seamlessly. James has gotten the most rest he’s had since the summer of 2004. Brace yourselves, Lakers fans: The six-year playoff drought is coming to an end.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The Lakers began their offseason horribly with a public breakup between the team and Magic Johnson. But bad times don’t seem to last long in Los Angeles. Pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James makes them a viable championship contender right away. Signing and then losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL was a blow to their depth chart and overall talent, but they have two of the very best players on the planet and most teams will struggle to match the James-Davis tandem —  that is, assuming they can remain healthy.

As a bonus, we’ve heard a lot this summer out of Team USA camp about Kyle Kuzma’s improved shooting and defensive. It would help the Lakers incredibly if he’s really improved in those areas, as he was already a top-100 player without the elite three-point range and some sub-par defense. The additions of Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Jared Dudley were all excellent for the team. Of course, the Lakers will live and die by James and Davis.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

-Drew Maresca

The Lakers pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason in trading for Anthony Davis. After missing the playoffs last season, the duo of Davis and LeBron James should be enough to catapult Los Angeles back into the postseason. But health is going to be a factor as they’ve likely lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. James has been very durable throughout his career, but he missed a significant amount of time last year due to injury. Davis also missed games — and throughout his entire career, really — last season with an injury. One major hit to either of those two players and that could be it for the Lakers’ season, the Western Conference is that tough.

The biggest question mark, however, is Dwight Howard. If he’s motivated, he could end up being one of the biggest steals of the offseason. If not? Then the Lakers already shaky depth suffers a big blow. Even if they all stay healthy, the Lakers’ ceiling is probably a 4 or 5 seed out west.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

There is a lot to say about the Los Angeles Lakers’ offseason — but the main takeaway is that they’ve acquired Anthony Davis just one year after signing LeBron James in free agency. That’s categorically a win, especially for a franchise that has failed to live up to its prestige in recent seasons. Having said that, the Lakers did give up Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter, two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. While that is a lot to give up in a trade, pairing Davis with LeBron this season is worth it.

Beyond Davis, the Lakers also brought in Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker, while re-signing several of their veterans. Green should be a major contributor and will help spread the floor for LeBron and Davis to operate closer to the basket. Unfortunately, Cousins went down with an ACL tear and will likely miss the upcoming season. Overall, the Lakers put together a talented, though imperfect, roster around James and Davis.

The Lakers have the talent to make it to the NBA Finals this year, but that will be determined in large part on how well Frank Vogel can sort out and optimize this team in his first season as its head coach.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There are times in life where you have to go all-in and when you have LeBron James on the roster, you don’t waste those opportunities. Yes, the Lakers paid a hefty price to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans but, let’s be honest, none of the guys they gave up are future All-Stars, let alone All-Stars while James can still influence a game. The Lakers are better today than they were at the end of the season and, while they will lack assets to add to the team, they have two of the top five or so players in the NBA — that is usually enough to be respectable.

The other part is this: Every time James has been counted out, he’s won the MVP that following season. He may not have another MVP in him, but when you look at how much he changed his body for Space Jam 2 and how motivated all the involved parties are, then the Lakers should be among the top four in the conference and that’s worth the price paid for Anthony Davis by itself. Coaching and three-point shooting is a question, but in the NBA, stars win you games and the Lakers have two of the game’s brightest.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

In addition to their blockbuster acquisition of Anthony Davis, the Lakers managed enough cap room to sign Kawhi Leonard, but the NBA Finals MVP chose to go the Los Angeles Clippers instead. The Lakers pivoted to fleshing out the team with role players like Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Avery Bradley.

Unfortunately, Cousins suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team will likely end up with a $1.8 million Disabled Player Exception for Cousins, but that may not be enough to use for a significant replacement. Instead, the Lakers added Dwight Howard on a non-guaranteed minimum contract as the team’s 15th standard NBA contract (the team has 14 fully guaranteed).

Looking ahead, the Lakers need to pick up the team option on Kyle Kuzma before November. Outside of LeBron James, the rest of the team’s players are on one- or two-year contracts (many with player options). The most notably is Davis, who can leave as a free agent next summer. Obviously, his happiness is the team’s top priority as to make sure he chooses to stay long term.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis is top-10 — arguably even higher — player in the NBA and, when healthy, he is an MVP-caliber level player. But Davis has been out of the spotlight for some time and has never played with a player of James’ stature either. James and Davis both spend significant time playing at power forward while being the focal point of the team’s offense. With the potential for significant overlap, it will be interesting to see how this dynamic will be managed. Last week, Davis shared his thoughts on the matter:

“I’ve kind of been a focal-point player my whole career, especially in New Orleans. But, first off, to have a guy like LeBron, someone of his caliber, go tell management and ownership and the coaches that he wants me to be the focal point is an honor,” Davis told Yahoo Sports.

Davis and James appear to be on the same page with an emphasis on building up Davis as the team’s workhouse. Going into his 17th season, James has had a super-human ability to stay healthy thus far. That luck seemed to run out a bit last season with a groin injury. While James did recover and return, the Lakers’ season was lost while he was away and James appeared somewhat slowed before being shut down toward the end of the season. Considering the age and mileage James has put on his body over his career, it makes sense for Davis to be the main focal point for this team.

“I know what comes with that and that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I want to be able to do that. I think I have the capabilities of doing that. And obviously, with the team’s support, it’s going to be a lot easier on me. We have a great team,” Davis said.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

Earlier in his career, James was a defensive menace and could guard every position consistently and effectively. James has scaled back his effort on defense in the last few seasons, which makes sense considering that aforementioned millage. That means Davis is the most consistent and dynamic defensive player on the Lakers’ roster, bar none.

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable in order for us to take on the challenge of being the best we can defensively.”

It’s interesting that Davis would not only speak about keeping himself and his teammates accountable but that he included James by name.

“[W]e’ll have a good chance of winning every night. I want to make sure me and LeBron are on the All-Defensive Team. And for me personally, I just want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. If we’re able to hold teams under 100, which is probably unrealistic but it should be our goal, I think we’ll have a shot at winning the title.”

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

James has been the lead ball-handler on every team he has played on and that doesn’t figure to change this season. With his size, athleticism, court vision and unselfish approach to the game, James is one of the most devastating playmakers in the game. With Davis running on the fast break, dropping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls and carving out space near the basket, James will have even more opportunities to tally up assists. With all due respect to Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, Davis is on another level as a big man and should draw significant defensive attention each time the Lakers are on offense. With extra space to operate, James may be in for one of his most efficient seasons as a playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: LeBron James

Davis could end up wrestling this title from James at some point — but, for now, James’ multifaceted arsenal and unlimited experience in tight games give him the edge. Davis has had big moments but he doesn’t have the proven track record that James has. Very few in NBA history do, to be fair. There was a time early in his career where many argued James was not clutch and didn’t have the mentality to be a go-to player in clutch situations. James has proven that theory wrong and is still one of the toughest covers in the most important situations.

So, until proven differently, the responsibility for top clutch player falls to James.

The Unheralded Player: JaVale McGee

Despite his reputation for being clumsy, JaVale McGee offered reliable contributions on the offensive and defensive side of the ball last season. Bringing McGee back gives the Lakers another solid option at center, which will allow Davis to play at his preferred position of power forward. So long as Davis is allowed to play many of his minutes at the four, the Lakers will have to competently man the center position — of course, Cousins’ injury complicated this plan.

McGee represents as good a player as the Lakers can reasonably expect and has already proved he can stay focused through the long NBA season without causing the team headaches. Dwight Howard might prove capable — but, between the two, Howard is the long shot and McGee is the safer bet. Go figure.

Best New Addition: Anthony Davis

There isn’t as much to say here except that Davis is a spectacular get for the Lakers. Multiple young players and numerous draft picks were required to wrestle Davis away from the Pelicans. But when you have a player like James and available assets, you make moves to solidify a championship-worthy team. If the Lakers win a championship as the result of this trade while keeping Davis as a long-term asset, this trade is easily worth the risk.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kyle Kuzma

So much rests on the shoulders of Kuzma. He is talented, can score and is young, so we can reasonably expect him to improve this season. As the third option on a team that features two generational talents, the Lakers are optimistic that Kuzma is up to the challenge of being the team’s third option. However, Kuzma’s three-point shooting dropped significantly from his rookie season. While that is not the most positive sign, Kuzma should expect to have less attention paid to him now that the Lakers have James and Davis powering the offense. Kuzma isn’t known as any sort of defensive stalwart but has the tools to be an effective team asset.

2. Frank Vogel

The Lakers moved on from Luke Walton this offseason. A favorite of Jeanie Buss, Walton helped oversee the development of many of the team’s younger players and guide the franchise through their recent multi-season drought. Walton is now in Sacramento and, thusly, now begins the Frank Vogel era.

James has played against Vogel-coached teams for years and had some high-profile playoff matchups against the Indiana Pacers earlier in his career. Should Vogel be able to build a strong enough defensive unit centered around Davis while hiding players like Kuzma, the Lakers will likely be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Unfortunately, there was some drama surrounding Vogel’s hiring. Vogel was famously the second choice of the Lakers after negotiations with Tyronn Lue broke down. Further complicating Vogel’s hiring is the supposed mandate that any head coach would be required to have previous head coach Jason Kidd as a high-profile assistant coach. If Vogel struggles to meet expectations early in the season, we may hear calls for Kidd to take over the top job.

3. JaVale McGee

Last season, the Lakers took numerous swings on capable veterans with checkered pasts. Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley are long gone. Rajon Rondo has had moments but is inconsistent and last season was often one of the sources of drama that hurt the team. Of this group, count JaVale McGee as the exception.

As a major silver lining, McGee put his head down and did whatever the team needed. McGee offered a lob threat on offense, as well as someone who could defend the rim, rebound and score on put backs. While the Lakers made bigger acquisitions, bringing back McGee at a low cost will be a key roster-building move, especially considering Cousins’ injury and the questions that always surround Howard.

4. Quinn Cook

Quinn Cook doesn’t put up monster numbers and probably shouldn’t be the starting point guard for a contending team. But Cook has developed into a steady hand at point guard, reliable converts and has a championship-level experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers signed Cook to a reasonable contract and should definitely benefit with him on the roster, especially considering Rondo’s injury history and the relative inexperience of Alex Caruso. Additionally, Cook can play effectively off the ball and has logged time playing alongside point forwards like James.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The frontcourt. Davis, James and Kuzma could make for a dangerous frontcourt, especially on offense. Danny Green can play in the backcourt but can easily slot into the frontcourt to defend an opposing elite small forward. Even Jared Dudley can offer some additional versatility on both ends of the court at either forward position. McGee and Howard will battle it out for the starting center position but both are poised to contribute regardless. At all times, there should be a capable combination of players manning the frontcourt and carrying this team.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Guard play and, obviously, relative heath. On the first note, the Lakers will be relying on some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Adding Green to that list doesn’t do enough to address all of the issues this group will likely face. Lakers fans need to brace for the likelihood that Rondo will again be the starting point guard for the team.

When he is focused and playing well, Rondo helps to set up teammates well as a distributor. Unfortunately, Rondo’s mercurial personality can lead to drama for the Lakers. Rondo’s antics could splinter a team that features so much talent and many strong personalities. Additionally, Rondo’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. He’s also on the back end of his career, so there isn’t much reason to believe that will change this upcoming season.

Whether anyone can surpass Rondo at the position is up in the air. Caruso played well at the end of last season, and is a bit of a folk hero for Lakers fans, but will have to show he can play well when it matters most. Regardless, the Lakers could use an infusion of talent in the backcourt.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can this team win it all this upcoming season?

This team has the top-end talent necessary to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. While many have the Lakers as a top-five favorite to win the championship next season, it’s not clear they have what it takes to overcome other top teams like the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks. The answer to this question will be heavily based on how quickly this team can build chemistry and identity under their new head coach, Frank Vogel. If they can do this, the Lakers have a respectable chance of competing for the championship this upcoming season.

– James Blancarte

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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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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 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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