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NBA AM: Why Teams Buy Out NBA Players

Explaining why NBA teams decide to buy out players … What are NBA players really looking for in free agency?

Steve Kyler

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Why Teams Buy Out Players:  As the Philadelphia 76ers continue to talk contract buyout terms with recently acquired forward Danny Granger and the Milwaukee Bucks attempt to do the same with forward Caron Butler, a common question is why doesn’t Team X just buy out Player Y, especially when Team X is going nowhere? There are a couple of reasons some teams consider buying out players and here are a few of them:

Changing The Culture

The Orlando Magic opted to buy out not only the remaining balance of the money they owed forward Glen Davis, they also absorbed the $6.6 million owed to him next year. In total, the Magic agreed to pay Davis some $8.6 million to not be on the team any more for a couple of reasons. They wanted to open up a roster spot and playing time, but more importantly they wanted a combative and sometimes negative influence out of their locker room.

Davis struggled with the role the Magic had for him and would often vent his frustrations to other players and to the media. Davis was never “bad” but he was clearly not a happy camper going along with the program. The Magic wanted the negative influence away from their impressionable younger players, so they got rid of him.

The New York Knicks did much of the same with forward Metta World Peace and guard Beno Udrih. Neither had carved out a role in New York under head coach Mike Woodson and both expressed frustration publicly and privately about how things were being run. The Knicks tried to trade both players at several points in the season and agreed to buy them out to get them out of the locker room and off the team. They have opted to replace them with forward Earl Clark and guard Shannon Brown, both of whom may have a chance to earn minutes or at least be content with being on the team, something neither World Peace nor Udrih were willing to accept.

»In Related: The Complete List Of Salary Cap Exceptions

Money To Be Saved

In the case of Granger and Butler, both are being asked to leave a sizable amount of money on the table in exchange for their release. What’s typically being asked is for the player to leave the amount of money another team is likely to sign them for once they clear waivers. This is a straight business transaction.

Granger has some $4.04 million remaining on his deal. The 76ers will owe him that whether he plays a minute of basketball for them or not. From Philly’s chair, this is a straight expense. They owe $4.04 million. Will Granger save them $1 million to be free? How about $2 million? The Sixers were significantly under the required minimum salary “floor” defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Had they not done the Granger deal with the Indiana Pacers, they would have had to write a check to their existing roster players for the balance. So again, this was an expense the 76ers were paying. How much will Granger reduce that expense to be free? That’s what’s being negotiated. The 76ers are more than happy to let Granger’s contract run out and eat the cost. They had agreed and planned for that when they traded for him.

In Butler’s case, cost is a factor especially for a Bucks team that tends to be on the low side of the revenue pool, but his is more of a combination of respect for the situation Milwaukee finds itself in and the chance to trim a little money off the bill.

So while Granger and Butler are being asked to leave some cash on the table, in Philadelphia this is strictly a business move to reduce outgoing cost.

Open Up Some Roster Spots

The Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings and even the New York Knicks all opted to buy out players to open up roster spots. They wanted to have the ability to either bring in new players that were sitting in the free agent pool or have the ability to add development players for an extended look or players that get released via other buyouts.

Orlando has already filled its two open spots with development players, while the Knicks have filled their two open spots with different veterans. The Kings are expected to replace guard  Jimmer Fredette once they finalize his buyout today and started working out players a few days ago. They seem close to a deal with recently released guard Orlando Johnson.

Not Everyone Wants To Play Ball

There are a few teams holding on to players that are clearly “buyout” candidates. The Utah Jazz have a couple of veterans in forwards Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams who are prime buyout candidates. While both players were surely approached about gaining their release from the 20-37 Jazz, it seems neither the player nor the team were seriously willing to engage in the quid pro quo required to gain their release. The Jazz didn’t necessarily need the roster spots and the players are unwilling to leave cash on the table. That could always change, but as of today those players seem like they are staying where they are. In Williams’ case he told Basketball Insiders recently that he really liked Utah, his family had settled in nicely and he hopes to be part of the future of the team. That’s likely one of the reasons the Jazz turned down a few trade scenarios with Williams that could have netted them a draft pick.

Some teams are reluctant out of principal to pay players to leave a team, so not everyone is willing to play ball on buying out a player.

»In Related: The History of NBA Trades

What Free Agents Look For?:  The New York Knicks’ season continues to slip away from them, having lost three straight games and eight of their last 10. More and more focus is being put on what forward Carmelo Anthony may do in his expected free agency in July. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is not that far behind Anthony with his free agency set for July of 2015, and Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant is the next one after that in July of 2016.

In talking with a number of NBA players that are either looking at free agency soon or have gone through free agency recently, there are a few things players tend to focus on in making their decision:

»In Related: Could Carmelo Choose The Rockets Or The HEAT?

Money Matters

There is a great movie line that goes something like this – anyone who says money doesn’t matter usually doesn’t have any. NBA players care about money. Money to players is more than the zeroes in their bank account. It is status, it is security and it is a validation of who they are in the grand scheme of things.

Players receiving a max contract are hard to trade. Players receiving a max contract are almost always starters. Players receiving a max contract are generally considered the team’s franchise player. Whether a player is truly “worth” a max deal is irrelevant compared to what a max contract says about a player.

Players who take the NBA minimum or sign for a low-dollar deal are far easier to trade. They are far easier to bench. There is less status with less money. Why are some guys sitting at home on the sofa instead of playing the role of an eighth man? Because it’s really hard to shake the minimum contract label after you have taken it.

Anthony doesn’t need another dollar in his bank account for his family to be secure for their rest of their lives; he’s already earned more than $135 million in his 11 NBA seasons. His next deal will be worth $100 million or more, not because Anthony needs the cash, but because he covets what the cash says about him as a player in the NBA and where he is at in his career.

Could Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant have taken less than the two years and $48 million he agreed to early in the season? Sure. Bryant has earned more than $279 million in his playing career. He didn’t need the money, but if you go back and look how his deal was characterized when announced, it was said the deal kept Bryant as the highest paid player in the NBA. That’s a status players covet almost more than the cash associated with it.

Money matters. No matter how frequently players talk about taking less to win, it almost never happens that way because the money means more in the grand scheme of a player’s image than the actual cash in the deal.

It’s the Future Not the Past

Nervous Knicks fans wonder how the current struggles and dysfunction are going to impact Anthony’s decision. Wolves fans are in the same place with Love.

The truth of the situation is that players don’t tend to look at the past as much as the future. What will tomorrow look like? When the money becomes equal, how the team will be structured, the role the player will play and the prospects of a brighter future tend to trump things that may have happened in the past.

It’s naive to think the past doesn’t matter at all, because it does, especially if the team is preaching a “stay the course” message.

The Lakers lost Dwight Howard because he could not see a brighter future in L.A. for a number of reasons. And seeing how this season has played out for him in Houston versus how things have crumbled apart in Los Angeles with all the injuries, Howard was clearly right for his own personal goals. Now next year and the year after are a different story for the Lakers, but asking a guy to wait two years until you can right the ship is a scary proposition, especially for players with a limited shelf life.

The Knicks will face this same dilemma with Anthony. They won’t have the ability to reshape the team this summer in a significant way, their message is going to be “wait until 2015” and that’s going to be a hard sell for Anthony, who will turn 30 this summer.

»In Related: The New York Knicks Team Salary Page

A franchise’s history of rebuilding and making good decisions weighs heavily into the process. There are some teams that just never seem to make bad decisions and there are other teams that can’t seem to get the decisions right. When charting who offers the best future, which is really what a new contract is about, understanding who has proven they can do it matters, especially once the money becomes equal or near equal.

In Howard’s case, he was making $20.513 million this year regardless of where he signed. He believed that Houston could make it happen faster than Los Angeles, and with the Lakers sitting at 19-38 and the worst record in the West compared to Houston’s 39-18 record, Howard got what he wanted: the chance to win this year.

The fear for New York is that another team gets to the table with a more proven track record than the Knicks and is willing to meet the $22.5 million asking price. That’s when a brighter future faster may trump what the Knicks can offer.

Can I Be Happy Here?

Having talked to a number of free agents about their decision to leave a team that seemed ideal, a recurring theme surfaces a lot: wanting to be happy.

When the money becomes equal, being in a situation where you can truly enjoy the fruits of your career matters. Being around players you know and are comfortable with matters and being around an organization that you feel a connection with matters. This is where the Knicks win the Anthony debate. He loves playing in New York and the Knicks have very wisely coddled him and involved him in all their major decisions.

Like most people who look at new jobs, where the job is located and the lifestyle that you can have in a particular market matter. Who your co-workers are and the relationships you have with management matter.

Jarrett Jack left a great situation in Golden State not just because of the money, but because of the connection he had to head coach Mike Brown. Now that situation hasn’t panned out like either expected, but Jack had options elsewhere and chose Cleveland because he thought he’d be comfortable there.

Jason Maxiell chose Orlando, mainly because of his long history with Magic assistant general manager Scott Perry and felt he could trust the situation in Orlando.

At the end of the day when the money becomes equal, believing you can be happy somewhere matters. Having a bunch of money and being miserable every day tends to be counterproductive; that’s one of the reasons Howard left the Lakers.

So as the days on the calendar tick away, and free agency becomes more and more of the focus, especially for the Knicks, understanding that when players sit down to talk about the future, there is more than zeroes being considered in the equation and for each player what’s most important to them is uniquely different.

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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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