With LeBron James departing Cleveland, the Central Division is up for grabs. Many are predicting Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the new face of the Eastern Conference.
Mike Budenholzer has moved from the south to the north to take on a head-coaching job fit for his type of style. He has arguably the most talented roster to guide since taking the Atlanta Hawks to new heights five years ago.
If any franchise can use stability to take the next step, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer can provide that, which is exactly why the Bucks could be primed for a big season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I’ve been a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks’ core of young talent for several seasons but the team has repeatedly fallen short of my expectations. However, I am very excited to see what new head coach Mike Budenholzer can do with this roster. Budenholzer is well-regarded around the league and may be the person who can finally make this roster more than just the sum of its parts. If Budenholzer generates some early chemistry between his key players, the Bucks could be one of the surprise teams of the season. Other notable items of business include Jabari Parker signing with the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee drafting Donte DiVincenzo 17th overall in this year’s draft, signing Ersan Ilyasova to a partially-guaranteed three-year, $21 million contract and signing Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. I’m not a fan of the deal for Ilyasova but I think getting Lopez on this contract is a steal.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
One thing is clear in Milwaukee after the summer of 2018: This is a franchise that’s acutely aware of how much longer star Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract, and is clearly doing everything it can to show him progress. That started with the hiring of Mike Budenholzer for the vacant head coaching position back in May – Budenholzer comes with a fantastic track record, and the Bucks will hope he can get more out of their talent than his predecessors. They also made significant franchise moves on the personnel side, such as parting ways with former second overall pick Jabari Parker and smartly bringing in stretch center Brook Lopez for a cheap contract. If Budenholzer can unlock the bits of potential left in guys like Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the strong talent on this roster, this could be a dark horse team to end up in the conference finals and maybe even threaten to play in June. If not, and if the Bucks can’t show us anything more than last year, the Giannis panic will begin in earnest next summer.
1st Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Giannis Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the league’s premier young superstars. It’s just a shame that his team hasn’t followed suit. The Bucks have been one of the league’s biggest underachievers since the Greek Freak rose to prominence, but that might not be the case moving forward. Now that the Bucks have added Coach Bud and floor-spacing bigs, the Bucks have given Giannis the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Whether he develops a reliable jumper or not, Giannis has arguably become the league’s most unstoppable force not named LeBron. Should the Bucks’ additions work out, they may finally get past the first round.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Mike Budenholzer is going to be the best thing that happens to this Bucks ball club. The superstar talent is there. All it has needed is stability. Giannis Antetokounmpo has barely even scratched the surface. Khris Middleton is entering his prime as one of the top two-way wings in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe just needs to tap into that extra gear to achieve heights we know he is capable of achieving. It’s high time Milwaukee turns into a championship contender. One year with Coach Bud will instill a winning culture they’ve never experienced before, starting with taking the franchise’s first Central Division title since the 2000-01 season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
All the talk in the East is about the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. However, remember the old adage that the team with the biggest star will often win the most games. How aren’t the Milwaukee Bucks the leader in this clubhouse? It’s easy to forget about Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he makes that jump from borderline MVP to full-fledged MVP front-runner, he has the supporting cast and a head coach in Mike Budenholzer that could not only collectively turn the corner, the Bucks could be legit front-runners to win the East. Looking at how well he has developed over the years, believing that as a possibility isn’t a stretch, which makes Milwaukee a sleeper team to win the East.
1st Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you’re going to see Antetokounmpo’s name come up in this preview quite a bit. He’s made the All-NBA 2nd Team in back-to-back years. He’s earned All-Star team honors in the last two seasons. It might not be far off to say he may be the best player in the entire NBA in as soon as a year or two from now.
In 2017-18, the man they call Greek Freak accounted for 31.5 percent of the Bucks’ offense according to Cleaning The Glass. His 26.9 points per game average ranked fifth in the league and he made the fourth-most amount of field goals (742) amongst his peers. Antetokounmpo got to the free throw line over eight times per game and had a 59.8 true shooting percentage.
Chances are if you dole out any statistic on this end for Milwaukee, he is at the top of the list across the board. As Antetokounmpo enters his sixth season as a professional, it’s certain that the 23-year-old will continue to dominate and add to his arsenal, especially with the long-range jump shot. Combined with the fact that he’s added a ton of muscle and weight this summer—it’s not going to be fun for opponents to deal with him.
Top Defensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
All things considered, Antetokounmpo would probably be the selection here because of his dominant season as a disruptive individual defender and a shot blocker, but we’ll give somebody else the nod here.
Bledsoe is a physical player. He’s aggressive on the ball with his matchups. He’s not tall by any means for his position, but 205 pounds of pure muscle and long arms definitely make up for it. “Mini-LeBron” averaged two steals per game and showed off his chase-down block skills in multiple instances.
The Bucks’ opponent turnover percentage was 16.5 percent with Bledsoe on the floor. As specified by Cleaning The Glass, that figure is in the 91st percentile compared to the rest of the league. He’s a bothersome defender as it is, but with one season under his belt with a new squad, he’ll know how to play off his teammates even and hopefully will give a more sustained effort.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Everything previously mentioned about Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee’s best player on offense didn’t even include statistics outside of scoring. What about his improving ability to share the basketball? He did average 4.8 assists per game and was responsible for 23.6 percent of his teammates’ made field goals in 2017-18, per CTG. If you don’t mention that, you almost have to bring up how he corralled 10 rebounds per game last season. That number is second to Anthony Davis among forwards in the NBA.
Whenever the Bucks need a guy to step up and make something happen on either end, Antetokounmpo is up to the task. If his year-to-year progression is any indication for what’s to come next, things should continue to trend upwards from here.
Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Who do you go to when the game is on the line? Your best player, of course. We saw this in action quite a bit last year. Perhaps his most impressive fourth-quarter performance came in the third game of the entire season.
Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 44 points in the final period. With 19 seconds remaining and Milwaukee down by one, he poked the ball loose from C.J. McCollum, received a bounce pass in transition and slammed the go-ahead bucket. On the Blazers’ ensuing possession, Antetokounmpo was hanging just outside the paint before he saw Jusuf Nurkic receive a pass cutting to the lane. He went straight up and blocked Portland’s big man on a dunk attempt to seal the ball game. The Bradley Center was loud and Giannis showed emotion. It was a star-defining moment.
That is only one example of the kind of impact Greek Freak can have on a contest going down to the wire. In the 41 games he was involved in clutch situations, Antetokounmpo had a plus-11.2 net rating according to NBA.com. Only Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis and Bojan Bogdanovic have a better net rating among those who have played in 40 or more games in the clutch.
The Unheralded Player: Malcolm Brogdon
Coming into last season as the reigning 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year, Brogdon had high expectations for season two of his career. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned for him. For starters, he was pulled in and out of the starting lineup. This went for both the regular season and the playoffs. It was partially because of the trade for Bledsoe, but the two played alongside each other often.
Secondly, the injury bug hit him hard. Brogdon missed over two months of action between February and mid-April due to a partially torn tendon in his left quadriceps. He was able to return in time for the postseason, but didn’t quite look like his usual self with the exception of two 16-point games.
Year three should be a perfect opportunity for him to get back on track. Brogdon offers the sort of size and length at guard that often creates mismatches. He can drive it, he can dish it and he can shoot it. That’s the hat trick for somebody who doesn’t need to force his role into an offense to produce. He lets the game come to him.
Best New Addition: Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova joining the Bucks organization is a reuniting on two levels. On one hand, Milwaukee drafted the 31-year-old forward back in 2005 and he played seven seasons for the team. In addition, Budenholzer coached the veteran forward during his short stint in Atlanta. It’s a sense of familiarity that will help him adapt with ease along with his new teammates.
Known for stretching the floor and rebounding the basketball, Ilyasova will likely play a key role with multiple sets of lineups. He can knock down the elbow three with the best of them and will provide second chances on the offensive glass. He is a great fit for a team that can use somebody who plays consistently on both ends.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Khris Middleton
Picking up where he left off before he tore his left hamstring in September 2016, it was a great season for Middleton last year. He’s the clear-cut second option to Antetokounmpo and provides a notable scoring punch, as he averaged a career-high 20.1 points per game on over 46 percent from the field. In addition to that, he was always available and played in every single game in the regular season and playoffs.
2. Brook Lopez
Similar to Ilyasova, the veteran Lopez will have an opportunity to space the floor as a versatile center. In the last two years, the 30-year-old has taken more than 300 threes. Before that, he hadn’t attempted more than 14. If need be, he’ll be utilized in the post, but chances are he’ll be sent to the corner in order to make room for the playmakers to drive.
3. Tony Snell
His career numbers aren’t going to wow you, but Snell is somebody who just plays team ball. There’s nothing fancy about what he brings to the table. If you need a stop, he’s capable of getting it. If you need a key three to swing the momentum or keep it in your favor, he’ll knock it down. You have to think that playing within a system Budenholzer-crafted system is going to only benefit him.
4. Thon Maker
Entering his third year in the pros, Maker may be poised for a jump. People forget that he’s only 21 years old and is still a raw prospect. This new coaching staff coming in should help continue his development and mold him into one of the better young big men in the entire league. There was somewhat of a regression for him in season two, but a brand new environment and a consistent culture should help turn things around.
– Spencer Davies
The Bucks boast a ton of length and the ability to exploit mismatches on both ends of the floor. They have a roster full of wide wingspans and size. As evidenced by how many turnovers they forced and the amount of shots they blocked last season, it’s hard to imagine them taking a step back. Milwaukee also loved staying in attack mode as a top-eight team in free throw categories across the board.
– Spencer Davies
Rebounding the basketball. Averaging fewer than 40 rebounds as a team is not a key to success. You have to believe that will be a point of emphasis. Everything that had to do with the perimeter did not work out in the Bucks’ favor last season, either. They took less than 25 threes per game and made only 35.5 percent of those attempts. On the other end, Milwaukee allowed opponents to hit over a 37 percent clip of their triple tries.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is Mike Budenholzer the man to finally get the best out of Milwaukee?
There is so much potential for greatness. We’ve seen what the Bucks are capable of. What we haven’t seen is the sustainment of it. Having a proven head coach like Budenholzer come into a situation with the mixture of veteran and young talent—the possibilities are endless. Regardless of who was going to be in charge, we knew Antetokounmpo’s goal this season was to cement himself as the top forward in the Eastern Conference. Middleton and Bledsoe are entering their prime years. With coach Bud handling the in-game decisions and guiding these guys, it’s high time these talented players are pointed in the right direction.
– Spencer Davies
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.