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Memphis Grizzlies 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

Last season was a mess for Memphis; however, with a slew of injuries and a coaching change behind the team, the Grizzlies look to have an interesting future ahead of them. Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the upcoming Memphis Grizzlies season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Memphis Grizzlies enter the 2018 NBA season with something they were sorely lacking last year: health. The Grit-n-Grind squad returns Mike Conley, among others, to a team that won just 21 games last season.

But that’s not all.

Memphis has been busy this offseason, preparing for a Western Conference that has improved from top-to-bottom. After letting go of David Fizdale midseason the Grizzlies brought in J.B. Bickerstaff as the interim head coach and have since retained his services. Then, in June, Memphis made Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the more intriguing prospects in this year’s rookie class, the No. 4 overall pick. Since then, they have brought in veterans such as Kyle Anderson and Garret Temple to fill out the roster and hopefully add some depth should the injury bug strike them again next season.

So, how will the team look next season? Let’s take a look.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

After finally missing the playoffs for the first time all decade, the Grizzlies will be looking to turn things around quickly. That starts with the return of Mike Conley, who missed all but 12 games last season – health from Conley and Marc Gasol will obviously be vital for Memphis. They quietly did very well around the margins over the summer as well, drafting potential franchise defender Jaren Jackson Jr. and nabbing underrated Garrett Temple in a deal with the Kings. They also pried Kyle Anderson away from the Spurs with a restricted free agent offer, and suddenly you’re looking at a roster with a little depth. If they can get even small bits of strong performance from Chandler Parsons and some decent health for some of their main pieces, the Grizzlies could be a dark horse threat in the West. That’s a lot of if’s, though, and this conference didn’t get any easier.

4th Place – Southwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

The good news for Memphis: They had one of the all-around savvier off-seasons this summer. Memphis made smart additions as their new players should fit in perfectly. The bad news for Memphis: They’re in the tough-as-nails Western Conference. Even tougher, they have to play in the NBA’s tightest division — the Southwest. The Grizzlies, however, are not to be taken lightly. Mike Conley will presumably be back at 100 percent health this season, and Marc Gasol hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. Now that the team has depth to surround those two, the Grizzlies should firmly be back in the playoff conversation.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

Last season’s version of the Grizzlies was a discombobulated mess. There was a controversial coach firing, a slew of injuries and a roster reminiscent of a revolving door. Luckily this time around, their leader will be present and playing. Mike Conley Jr. was sorely missed for nearly the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign with injury, leaving Marc Gasol with the burden of carrying an inconsistent team alongside Tyreke Evans. Now that Conley and Gasol can get back to playing again, it will be intriguing to see how highly touted rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. fits into the mix. While Memphis likely won’t finish last for the second straight year, it’s going to be difficult to break into the postseason—especially being in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Grizzlies are easy to dismiss, mainly because injuries have ravaged the roster for the better part of the last two years. However, what gets lost in the injury report is the Grizzlies have two elite level players when healthy in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and if both can return to their all-star’ish form, the Grizz have enough talent to compete for the eighth seed in the West. The Grizzlies are facing a tough question as to when to blow things up and start over, but it doesn’t seem like this will be that season, unless the injury bug sets in for a third year, then all bets are off.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

The Memphis Grizzlies had a solid offseason, adding Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi to the roster. However, this team’s ability to keep pace in the Western Conference this season will come down to the health and play of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. When healthy, Conley and Gasol are two of the better two-way players in the league and set the tone for the rest of the team. If everything breaks right for the Grizzlies, I believe they can make it back to the playoffs this season. But, should the Grizzlies lose pace in the playoff race, the front office should keep an open mind toward moving on from its top veterans if the right deals come along. Jackson Jr. appears to be the future of the franchise and I would start molding the roster around him if it becomes clear that Conley and Gasol are no longer able to guide this team comfortably into the postseason.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley

There were obvious problems with the Grizzlies last season, Mike Conley’s absence paramount among them.

Conley played in just 12 games last season and, after he went down with a serious heel injury, the offense went into a permanent funk. Without a high-level guard or ballhandler behind him on the depth chart, Memphis struggled to create offense and ultimately, it played a major role in their 22-60 record.

Conley’s return should work wonders for the Grizzlies; not only will he force defenses to focus on more than just Marc Gasol, but Conley’s ability to generate his own offense should open things up for others both inside and outside the three-point line.

Conley averaged 20.5 points and shot 40.8 percent from three in 2016, his last healthy season. Health permitting, Conley is capable of producing similar numbers.

Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol

The former Defensive Player of the Year was the Grizzlies’ best defender last season, and, going into his age 33 season, Gasol figures to hold that title once again in 2018.

The Spanish big man was tops in defensive rating among Grizzlies who played in more than 30 contests. Gasol led the team in blocks (101) and was fourth on the team in steals (54). Gasol ranked 12th in the NBA in blocks per game (1.4), 14th in total blocks (101) and 15th in block percentage (3.9 percent) as well.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

For his career, Mike Conley has averaged 5.7 assists per game and 6.3 per 36 minutes. In his last healthy season, he averaged 6.3 per game.

While that number may seem low, Conley had actually led the Grizzlies in assists per game every season dating back to 2007, his rookie season. He managed to average 4.1 per game last season, which would’ve ranked fourth on the team, despite playing in just 12 games.

Conley, with his career 28.5 assist percentage, is still the best passer on the roster. Assuming his injury hasn’t zapped his passing skills, Conley is a good bet to lead the team in assists per game once again.

Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley

As much as I’d like to talk about a non-Conley player, no one else on the Grizzlies roster fits the bill like Conley does. Still, Conley’s repeated appearances on this list should make it easy to see why the Grizzlies did so poorly last season without him.

Especially in the clutch.

In 2016, Conley led the team in the clutch, shooting 41.9 percent during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the game within five points. Vacating those possessions obviously hurt the Grizzlies in close game situations and, ultimately, led to many more loses than there may have been with Conley on the floor.

Also, while Conley may not have the flash and handles of certain players like Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry, he has one of the NBA’s signature moves; his right-handed floater. Conley’s floater is almost a guaranteed bucket, and its return to the Memphis repertoire could have a major impact on the team next season.

The Unheralded Player: Dillon Brooks

Brooks was one of the more impressive second-tier rookies last season – as a second-round pick (45th overall), that success is even more impressive.

In 82 games (74 starts), Brooks averaged 11 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three. The 6-foot-6 forward can guard multiple positions and can be a serious asset on both sides of the floor.

If the Grizzlies are able to rebound next season, Brooks’ progression as a player could be a major reason as to why.

Best New Addition: Jaren Jackson Jr.

The Grizzlies made Jaren Jackson Jr. the fourth overall pick back in June, and for good reason.

The former Michigan State Spartan was one of the most versatile players in the draft class. His sheer size (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) coupled with his ability to somewhat handle the ball made him one of the more intriguing prospects as well.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 39.6 percent on 2.7 three-pointers per game. The Grizzlies are hoping he can bring that play and some major energy to their squad next season.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike Conley

Conley’s return to the lineup will be big for Memphis on both sides of the ball. With the Western Conference expected to be even tougher this season, the Grizzlies will need all the help they can get if they want to return to the postseason.

2. Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jackson is an athletic freak and he could potentially flourish under the tutelage of Gasol, one of the better, more consistent big men over the last decade. And, as the heir apparent to the 33-year-old Gasol, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the coaching staff give Jackson a sizeable number of minutes from the get-go to get him accustomed to the NBA.

3. J.B. Bickerstaff

The David Fizdale train had run its course in Memphis; after a spat with Gasol, the face of the franchise, and a poor start to last season, the Grizzlies let Fizdale go in November.

Enter J.B. Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff led the injury-riddled Grizz to a 15-48 record for the remainder of the season, but Memphis saw enough to warrant a three-year deal. Bickerstaff has NBA experience – he had worked as an assistant coach from 2004 to 2015 and was the head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2015 before latching on in Memphis in 2016.

It was time for a change in Memphis, and Bickerstaff may just be the man the Grizzlies need at the helm in order to bounce back.

4. Kyle Anderson

The Grizzlies brought in Kyle Anderson this offseason to the tune of a 4-year, $37.2 million contract.

Anderson not only adds more size to the team, but can handle the ball in a pinch should Conley need a break or be dealing with an injury. Last season with the San Antonio Spurs, Anderson averaged 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor.

5. Dillon Brooks

Brooks impressed as a rookie and can be a major player on the wing for Memphis. With his unique blend of size and athleticism, Brooks can keep up with smaller wings while still keeping heavier forwards in front of him down low.

Another plus for Brooks is his efficiency; he shot well both inside and beyond the three-point line last season and has done so dating back to his time at Oregon. Any extra offense he can provide behind Conley and Gasol will be welcome after the team struggled to produce on that end of the floor last season.

– Shane Rhodes

Strengths

Between Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, JaMychal Green and others, the Grizzlies have the size to smother the paint on both offense and defense. The team has more than nine players 6-foot-9 or taller.

With the addition of Jackson and the return of Conley, the Grizzlies have a good number of shooters. Gasol and Anderson are capable from beyond the arc – that, along with expected improvements from the likes of Green and Brooks as well as the additions of Garrett Temple and others should boost the Grizzlies three-point percentage that ranked just 25th in the NBA last season.

– Shane Rhodes

Weaknesses

Despite the additions of Brooks and Jackson in back-to-back seasons, the majority of the Grizzlies’ core is up there in age. Gasol, 33, Conley, 30, have both been in the league for more than a decade. A large portion of Memphis’ cap space is tied up in those players as well as Temple, 30, Chandler Parsons, 29, and JaMychal Green, 28.

The Grizzlies dealt with plenty of health-related issues last season. While Conley was the team’s biggest loss, role players and backups lost to injury only complicated things. The Grizzlies will go into next season hoping the likes of Ben McLemore, Kobi Simmons and others aren’t forced to start games.

– Shane Rhodes

The Burning Question

Can Memphis Make a Playoff Push?

The Western Conference has improved tremendously with the addition of LeBron James as well as others over the course of the offseason. With at least ten teams, not including Memphis, vying for just eight playoff spots, are the Grizzlies capable of making a playoff push?

It will be difficult, but, if Mike Conley and the Grizzlies’ major role players can stay healthy, the Grizzlies are still capable of being a top eight team out West. While they don’t have some of the high-end talent other rosters possess, they are consistent – the Grizzlies had made the postseason for seven straight years before 2017 – and, while the likes of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are no longer on the roster, Memphis’ patented grit-and-grind playstyle can still carry the day when it matters most. They may not have a shot at a top seed, but sneaking into the playoffs could be in the cards for Memphis.

– Shane Rhodes

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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