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NBA AM: The DNA Of An NBA Winner

Building a winning NBA team is not easy. Steve Kyler explores what it takes to succeed in the NBA

Steve Kyler

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Rowing Together

In the age of fantasy rosters and NBA2K lineups, there is often a sense that pairing talent together is all that’s required to have success. While talent and elite talent is a fundamental part of winning at the NBA level, it is usually only the smallest of components.

The DNA of a winning organization isn’t always the same, but it usually is comprised of a lot of the same pieces, those piece in various amounts are the formula teams are chasing in their quest to build a winner, and usually why teams are reluctant to tinker with something close.

So, let’s dig into what makes a winning organization:

It Starts With A Star

While the trend in the NBA is super rosters filled with All-Stars, having the right star at the right time in his career is a vital part to success. Take Kyle Lowry in Toronto as an example, Kyle was always a very promising player, but it wasn’t until Lowry landed in Toronto that he checked his own ego and accepted that he was part of the problem. That turned him into the solution. Lowry didn’t miraculously turn into another player, he matured, found a situation that was right for his game and the Raptors and Kyle have reaped success as a result.

The common narrative around the Oklahoma City Thunder and their decision to trade James Harden is that it was about money, and while money did play a factor, the biggest reason the Thunder traded Harden was they did not see him as the player he became in Houston. They saw him as a sixth man on a title contending team. Harden wanted more than that for his career and pushed for guarantees of being a starter. The Thunder didn’t see it that way and ultimately traded him. Would Harden have become the player he is today in OKC? Maybe. But often it is change and situation that turn players into stars. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas showed promise in his stops in Sacramento and Phoenix, but it wasn’t until he found the Celtics that he blossomed into the star he is today.

Not every star in the NBA is a “can’t miss player” like Cleveland’s LeBron James—sometimes it takes more than a high draft pick to find the right star at the right point in his career to have sustained success.

The Glue Guys

As much as stars matter in NBA basketball, the Glue Guys matter almost as much. Who is the guy that’s going to sacrifice his own game to help the team? Who is the guy that will thrive when things go badly? Who is the guy that will keep the team together in good times and bad? Every sustainable winner has at least one. When you ask yourself why teams continue to sign Thabo Selfosha, it’s because everywhere he’s played his teams have had success. Toronto saw the same in DeMarre Carroll, even though he was older and had some injury concerns.

The Glue Guys matter. The Glue Guys do exactly what their nickname implies—they hold the team together. It’s easy to suggest a player is a “glue guy,” but he has to want that role and understand that role. Sixer fans wanted Nerlens Noel to embrace that role, however that was never something he wanted and it is a big reason the Sixers had to trade him. Richard Jefferson has no delusions of why he is on the Cavaliers’ roster, nor does Channing Frye. They both understand their role and embrace it. It is hard to find players that will sacrifice their own earning potential or chance at stardom or the financial rewards that come with being a featured player, which is why it’s hard to find the right glue guys.

The Role Player

Every sustainable winner needs role players, guys that are on the roster for a singular purpose. Like Glue Guys, it’s hard to find productive players that will sacrifice minutes and future money for minor minutes off the bench. Rim defense is an ever-increasing need in the NBA, but having a full-time center is usually expensive for one of quality, which means finding a guy willing to play a role. San Antonio fans may have snickered when the Spurs invested in Dwayne Dedmon, but considering his impact on the team, who is laughing now? The same can be said for the HEAT when they spent on Willie Reed. Both players can contribute starter level minutes if needed, but both were brought in to play a very specific role that each has embraced. Unfortunately, the hard part of team building is finding guys okay with playing eight to 10 minutes per game, these usually end up being players on the decline of their career that are trying to stay in the league or guys that struggle to stay in the roatation. It’s rare to find a role guy in his prime that’s willing to remain in a role long-term. The Orlando Magic have found tremendous individual success with point guard Elfrid Payton playing from the bench—it jump started his season—however, in the long-term he is unlikely going to accept that role, even though it may suit him best. That’s the challenge in team building, finding players willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The salary system in the NBA is not set up to reward that kind of behavior, which makes finding quality long-term role talent harder, unless a team will overpay for it.

Buy In With The Coach

The role of a head coach in the NBA isn’t what it used to be. It’s unlike college, where the tone of the team is set and policed by the coaching staff. The best teams in basketball have a coach-player partnership. That’s a tough thing to make work. Even in San Antonio, where things seem to start and stop with Gregg Popovich, he has gotten the buy-in from his players. It helps that the Spurs have had so much team success, but even with new faces coming into the situation, Popovich has earned the trust of his players, even the ones that don’t play as big a role as maybe they would like.

When you look at the Cavaliers’ decision to part ways with David Blatt, as much as people want to make it about LeBron James, the truth is the roster never bought into what Blatt was about as a coach and even though they won games, it wasn’t the partnership that’s needed to succeed. Why has it worked so well with Brad Stevens in Boston? His players buy in to the concepts and he has the trust of his team. Why are things so up and down in Detroit and Minnesota? They are both rosters full of young guys that still have not sold out to the process yet.

Having a great X’s and O’s coach is nice, but the truly successful coaches are usually not very elaborate in the game planning, it’s about gaining the trust of the roster, putting in a system players can believe in and letting the players lead the way.

A Vision For The Future

As much as Stars, Glue Guys, Role Players and Coaches matter, understanding the path forward is another key to sustained success. The reason there is unwavering unity in Golden State isn’t just because they are winning together, they understand completely what’s going on around them. The Warriors front office involves the core players in decisions, they are advised and consulted on the big things and they trust the leadership to help them achieve the goal and that’s unwavering from ownership down. There are no separate agendas between ownership leadership, coaching and players.

It’s no surprise the teams that are repeatedly drafting in the lottery have rosters full of guys who have no idea what’s going on or where they fit in the future. How can you expect anyone to sacrifice their own personal goals if they don’t understand the team goals and where they fit in the future?

The LA Clippers players know exactly how the summer is going to play out because they are part of the process. That does not mean there won’t be any harsh business decisions to be made, but what it means is when the trade deadline loomed neither Chris Paul or Blake Griffin felt any need to check the rumor mill, because they knew where they stand and what the immediate future is about and their role in it.

Often in sports, the front office neglects the human component of team building. While players do earn ungodly amounts of money, they are people with families and comfort zones and failing to manage that is usually where teams start to come apart.

The truly successful teams have a plan and everyone in the equation understands their role in the plan, that’s usually when success happens the easiest.

Commitment To The Plan

Having a plan is vitally important, however getting everyone to believe in the plan is hard. There are so many agendas in professional sports. Each player is trying to maximize their earnings while becoming the biggest star they can become. Landing a shoe deal, being named an All-Star, getting commercials and endorsements; these are the gems of the sports world and none of them have anything to do directly with team success.

Then factor in the coaching staff. The head coach is trying to keep his job, win games and put in a process to have sustained success, but his own career is short. Coaching contracts are designed to be torn up at some point in the future. Assistant coaches are often looking for their own path up the food chain, they have their own careers to look out for while also not alienating players. Having a bad relationship with a player is a quick way to the exit.

The same is true in the front office. Few General Managers have an unlimited leash, they too answer to someone who likely does not understand the processes of the team. They have budgets to manage, agents to keep happy, a coach to keep focused and a roster of over-priced crybabies, that often can’t see the forest for all the trees. The guys below them are trying to stay in the NBA and advance their own careers and no sooner does a team get its roster right, then they have to go through another draft and free agency. If a team is lucky enough to find a gem late in the draft or in free agency, they have to decide to play him, trade him or pay him and unless you are the Golden State Warriors, the grind of the NBA can be brutal.

With all of these conflicting agendas, no wonder some teams struggle to find their way, let alone buy into and commit to a plan, especially if things start out rocky.

The New York Knicks players have been talking about their situation this week saying they never developed the trust and chemistry they expected, maybe that was because of the injuries in training camp, maybe that was the personalities in the locker room or simply the culture the Knicks organization seems to foster. Maybe it was a mix of all of it.

Building a roster, finding the coach and buying in into the plan all sounds easy, but it’s truly the hardest part of professional sports. Sometimes, from afar, you can see things those in the trenches of a situation can’t see. Sometimes, teams get lost in their own egos or hype. Sometimes, finding the path gets harder as the lines get blurrier without success.

Whatever the reason, some teams just can’t find success because they are not built for it. However, when you really dig into the teams that win frequently they all have the same characteristics. Building a winner is not easy, but spotting one usually is.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies,@BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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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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