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NBA AM: Picking All-Star Reserves

The NBA has named the All-Star starters, but which players might be named All-Star reserves?

Joel Brigham

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Fans, players and media combined to name this year’s NBA All-Star starters for the first time, and it’s hard to argue with the results. Both the Eastern Conference squad (LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan) and Western Conference team (Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis) are constructed of players who absolutely deserved to be featured in this winter’s exhibition, but that leaves open the next part of this process, which is naming the All-Star reserves, which will be announced on Thursday January 26th.

Those are selected by the coaches, who have proven in the past that they live by a different set of rules when choosing the players included in the All-Star Game. There tend to be more legacy votes from coaches, with older, more established players occasionally topping out the more deserving youngsters in the midst of breakout campaigns.

The following is a look at what players are most likely to be considered for those remaining spots. Coaches will vote in two more guards, three more frontcourt players and two wild cards. More likely than not, the remaining All-Stars will be chosen from this pool of talent:

Eastern Conference

Guards

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – Easily one of this season’s biggest stars, Thomas is among the league leaders with over 28 points per game, while adding over six assists per game and several clutch shots late in games this season (including a couple of game-winners). He’s only 5-foot-9, but he’s been a monster this year and arguably deserved to be named a starter. There’s little reason to believe he won’t be named a reserve.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors – After a slow start, Lowry has regained his typical form and, in a lot of ways, is having his best season as a pro. It seems like we say that every year, but Lowry has been especially good this season, and the advanced stats are there to support his success. He’s every bit as deserving of a spot as DeRozan is, and considering the team’s record as one of the East’s top teams, coaches will have no problems putting a second Raptor on the squad. He, too, feels like a shoe-in.

John Wall, Washington Wizards – With Thomas, DeRozan, Lowry and Irving all likely to make the roster as the Eastern Conference’s four guards, the best opportunity for both Wall and Kemba Walker is to latch on as wild card additions. Wall, averaging right around 23 points and 10 assists per night, is having a career year in a season where Eastern Conference guard play has been insane. He’s hard to bet against as at least a wild card, but this is where the conversation starts to get interesting.

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets – Walker, too, is having a career year but faces the same problems as Wall. There just aren’t enough rooms in the inn unless coaches use both wild card spots to add guards to the group. His numbers are pretty darn close to what Irving has put up this season, and Walker is doing it as the leader of his team rather than the second fiddle, but the resume absolutely is there for a nod.

Frontcourt Players

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks – While he’s made more headlines for being in trade rumors than for actually playing basketball, Millsap is having the same quietly great season he always does. The stats (around 19 points and eight rebounds per game) don’t jump off the page, but he’s one of the league’s best two-way players and hardest workers.

Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers – It’s never easy to put three players from a single team onto an All-Star roster, but two were voted starters and this particular team just so happens to be the runaway best squad in the East. Love hasn’t been to the All-Star Game since the trade to Cleveland, but now that he’s a 20/10 guy again and playing his best ball since going to the Cavs, he’s firmly in the discussion for a spot on this year’s team.

Paul George, Indiana Pacers – His team is struggling, but George still is having a great individual season, even if it’s not the best we’ve ever seen from him. He’s a huge name, though, and is doing what he can to steer through the muck this season—at least enough to keep the team in the playoff picture. Millsap and Love seem much more likely to make the team than George, but he may be too good a player to leave off this year.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – Always one of the league’s best rebounders, Drummond (13.6 rebounds per game) would be an electric presence on the All-Star team working on the receiving ends of alley-oops, but coaches don’t concern themselves with what would be entertaining in the game itself. The Pistons haven’t had a great season, and there are stronger arguments for other players on this list than Drummond.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers – He’s the unquestioned Rookie of the Year and easily the game’s most entertaining presence on social media, but he’s not quite on par with some of the other guys up for a nod on this list. He’d be a riot in this game, but doesn’t seem likely to be named as a reserve. He almost certainly will be invited to participate in the Rookie/Sophomore game on All-Star Friday, however.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks – He’s close, and it’s only a matter of time, but this might not be the year for Porzingis to make his first All-Star team. He’s averaging just shy of 20 points per game this year to go along with 7.4 rebounds, but the Knicks are five games under .500 and that seems to matter with coaches. Like Embiid, he’ll be a top option for the Rookie/Sophomore game, which could be as entertaining as it’s been in years with those two guys both playing.

Best Guess?

Reserve Guards: Lowry and Thomas
Reserve Frontcourt: Millsap, Love and George
Wild Cards: Walker and Wall

Western Conference

Guards

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder – The man’s averaging a triple-double. He wasn’t voted as a starter for some reason, but he’ll be the first guy on coaches’ ballots when it comes to voting in the reserves.

Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers – Just because he’s hurt doesn’t mean he won’t be voted in. That will mean an immediate injury replacement, but so it goes. Paul has done enough in the first half of the season to justify yet another All-Star team nod, even if he can’t play in the game. The Clippers are what they are because of him, as we’re sure to see over the course of the next six-to-eight weeks.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors – It’s rare that a team gets four All-Stars but this year’s Warriors squad seems as likely as any team in league history to do it. Thompson is averaging over 21 points per game and is essentially doing the exact same thing he’s done over the last three unforgettable seasons in Oakland. He’s shooting under 40 percent from three for the first time in his career, but that’s nit-picking. He’s still a great scorer and someone fans absolutely would be thrilled to see play in the All-Star Game.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers – This hasn’t been an awesome year for Lillard as a leader, despite the fact that he’s averaging a career-high 26.2 points per game and shooting a career-high 44.4 percent from the field. His team has struggled despite high expectations coming into the season, and teammate C.J. McCollum actually has caught up to him in a lot of ways. Still, Lillard is in the top eight in the league in points and the top 20 in the league in assists, and he’s a name that carries some weight around the league. He’s got a shot, though more as a wild card or injury replacement than as a guard.

Frontcourt Players

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors – Once again a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Green is still a major part of the Warriors’ success even if the arrival of Kevin Durant has pushed his offensive efficiency back a bit. There was an argument for him as a starter, so there’s a good argument for him a reserve, as well.

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings – The only thing that has changed from last year—when Cousins also found his way to the All-Star Game—is that he’s added a three-point shot and grown even more deadly as arguably the game’s best all-around big man. The Kings still are awful, but that won’t stop Cousins from finding his way onto the team, at the very least as a wild card selection.

Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies – While his stats (19.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game) aren’t necessarily elite in the traditional sense, they do look pretty good coming from a center, particularly one that has done so much in helping his team overachieve. Memphis’ defense is really good, and Gasol is a major reason for that. The Grizzlies deserve an All-Star, and Gasol is a pretty easy choice as a guy who deserves that spot.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz – This guy just keeps getting better, as do the Jazz as a team, and that gives him a reasonable shot at making this year’s All-Star team. There aren’t a lot of open spots for first-time All-Stars out West, but Gobert is the best bet, with his 12.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz – Of course, if the Jazz get only one All-Star, Hayward might be the more likely guy. His advanced stats are elite, as he’s 15th in Win Shares and 20th in PER, plus he’s the best player and top scorer on a Western Conference playoff team. If the vote comes down to him or Gobert, it could prove incredibly difficult for coaches to decide.

Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers – Griffin’s stats aren’t any different than usual, but he has missed a third of his team’s games this year. That on its own is enough to probably eliminate him from the vote, though he’s been good enough when healthy and has enough of a reputation to at least remain in consideration.

DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers – Jordan’s numbers are, more or less, what they always are. He’s averaging 12.3 points, 13.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. That last number is his lowest in four years, though, and he’s still just a tertiary talent for a team that simply is not going to get three All-Stars.

Best Guess?

Reserve Guards: Westbrook and Paul
Reserve Frontcourt: Cousins, Green and Gasol
Wild Card: Thompson and Hayward
Injury Replacement: Lillard

***

There’s still some time before the reserves are announced, but that final roster very likely will be comprised of players from the above list. It’s been an especially good year for individual talents, so making these decisions seem as if they’ll be harder than ever.

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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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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

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

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