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NBA Daily: Fixing The New Orleans Pelicans

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Ben Nadeau

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As franchises have been eliminated from postseason contention, Basketball Insiders started to diagnose their ailments and offer future plans of attack.

Unfortunately, it may take a whole lot more than that to fix the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans, who now find themselves in a unique circle of basketball misfortune, had a frustratingly inconsistent campaign further nosedived by a mid-season trade request from their superstar. After two weeks of will-they, won’t-they rumors with the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis was not moved at the deadline, ensuring that he’d awkwardly stay put until the summertime at the very least.

On top of Davis jumping in and out of the lineup post-All-Star break, Jrue Holiday recently underwent season-ending surgery, while Elfrid Payton and E’Twaun Moore have struggled to stay healthy all year as well.

Oh, and the Pelicans’ third-best asset is expected to hit unrestricted free agency to boot. So, without sounding too hyperbolic, this may just be the most important offseason in franchise history.

What Is Working?

All things considered, employing Anthony Davis was working out pretty well.

In 2017-18, the Pelicans won 48 games, Davis and Holiday were praised as defensive forces — and awarded as such — and then they went and swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Since then, anything that could go wrong has.

Davis, despite the media circus surrounding him since January, has tallied 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Before his abdominal strain, Holiday was averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.2 percent from the floor. Even in the tough Western Conference, that’s a stellar way to kick off any competitive rotation. Plus their shrewd addition of Julius Randle — a career-best 21.2 points and 8.6 rebounds this season — gave the Pelicans plenty of worthy offensive pieces.

In fact, even today, New Orleans’ scoring acumen is not in question.

The Pelicans rank first in points in the paint (58.4), third in points per game (115.5), pace (103.9) and 11th in offensive rating (110.8). Simply put, those numbers are far too good for a team currently 13 games under .500.

And although the Pelicans aren’t often hailed for their development, they’ve succeeded with a small number of young assets. Christian Wood, picked up off the scrap heap this month, has averaged 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first three games with New Orleans — a keeper, in all likelihood. Jahlil Okafor — yes, that Okafor — has played well when given the opportunity and Frank Jackson remains promising at the age of 20. Still, Kenrich Williams, an undrafted free agent, has been the pièce de résistance.

Williams, 24, has been a much-welcomed boost to the rotation, even grabbing some extremely positive praise from Holiday in the process:

“A star, really. [Williams is] someone who can come out and fill up the stat sheet. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds . . . he can lock up your best player.”

Even if the Pelicans have to go full rebuild this offseason, they’ll be starting with at least Holiday and Williams — there are far worse fates to hold.

What Needs To Change?

Before hopping into the Davis-related debacle ahead, there are four other quick-hitter topics that the Pelicans must tackle this offseason:

1. Defense

Since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall, the Pelicans, surprisingly, have been a pretty poor overall team defensively — but, as of late, they had begun to turn the corner.

In chronological order from 2012, Davis’ rookie year, here’s New Orleans’ defensive rating by season: 28th, 27th, 23rd, 26th, 9th and 14th. Unfortunately, this season, that rating is back in the dumpster at 111.7 — good for 23rd-worst. Whether or not Davis sticks around, the Pelicans must focus on adding defensive-minded players in both the draft and free agency. In the Western Conference, they’ll continue to toil in mediocrity without an average unit to combat that great previously-mentioned offense of theirs.

2. Health

Of course, at the end of the day, this is hardly New Orleans’ fault.

But, to date, ahem, here’s how things shook out for the Pelicans on the missed games front:

Davis has been withheld from 21 games, followed on the superstar front by Holiday at 10. Trailing that dynamic duo, Elfrid Payton, freshly signed, has lost 40 games to injury, while E’Twaun Moore lost 24. Even the blossoming Randle sat for seven games himself. Before he was traded to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, the chronically-injured Nikola Mirotic — and the team’s most reliable stretch four option — had missed 23 games.

Perhaps next year, the basketball gods won’t frown upon the Pelicans so harshly — fingers crossed.

3. Three-Point Shooting

Speaking of long-range efforts, New Orleans finds themselves cemented firmly in the basement here as well.

This campaign, the Pelicans have connected on just 10.2 three-pointers per game at a 34.4 percent clip, numbers that rank them 22nd and 25th in the NBA. New Orleans’ lone player to average over two three-pointers per game, Mirotic at 2.7, was traded last month. Darius Miller has posted back-to-back strong seasons from deep, but that’s practically all he offers on the offensive end.

Holiday has hit a career-best 1.8 three-pointers per game on a career-low 32.5 percent, which basically sums this all up. Moore is an above average shooter — 43.2 percent in 2018-19 — but his injuries have kept him from contributing to that nightly total. Of the eight teams that have made fewer three-pointers per game than New Orleans, only three of them will reach the postseason — the Spurs, Clippers and Pacers.

On the flip side, that trio of teams also convert at the first-, second- and fifth-highest percentages from deep this season, respectively — so, basically, a monumental trade-off that the Pelicans just cannot match in either direction. The modern landscape dictates a need for multiple high-volume or high-percentage three-point shooters and New Orleans barely claims one at this point in time.

4. Depth

Then there’s the lingering depth issue that has plagued New Orleans time and time again. Remember the Pelicans’ second-best points per game number? The starters have accounted for 82.3 of their 115.5 points, or, in other words, a whopping 71.2 percent of their per game total. Presently, New Orleans’ bench notches the seventh-lowest average in 2018-19 so far, which isn’t inherently a problem as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Golden State, Oklahoma City, etc, all thrive without one.

But those bottom-ranking bench squads typically boast multiple future Hall of Famers or elite defensive units to help counterbalance that effect — something, again, that New Orleans certainly lacks. When Davis is dealt, the Pelicans must round out the rotation and find the depth they’ve been missing.

The Anthony Davis Part

At long last, here’s the most simple, crucial and difficult portion of New Orleans’ entire offseason: Moving on from Davis.

It’s hard to believe that the Pelicans’ franchise leader in points, rebounds and blocks is the major piece that needs to change this summer — but the last few months have been anything but normal in the Big Easy.

Davis’ late January request to be traded — to his credit, he’s been willing to continue playing — fractured a unique, unhealable bond. Rehashing the numerous public negotiations made with Los Angeles now seems fruitless — now his departure is not a matter of if, but when.

Disastrously, since the trade deadline, the situation has somehow become even trickier. Brandon Ingram, the Lakers’ best and leading asset in their offers, was diagnosed with deep venous thrombosis and underwent season-ending surgery. Lonzo Ball, talented as he may be, has been shut down due to lingering injuries in both of his professional campaigns so far.

If the Pelicans held out in hopes of Jayson Tatum’s eventual availability, that itself is far from guaranteed with so much hanging on Kyrie Irving’s upcoming trip to free agency. Should the Lakers’ offer look less intriguing than it once did, that leaves immense pressure to broker a deal with Boston. But given general manager Danny Ainge’s usual stinginess, the Celtics will definitely flinch at moving a trove of assets for a potential one-year rental  — especially one that has all but confirmed he wants to team up with LeBron James.

The threat of Davis leaving in 2020 for Los Angeles will dampen every single trade offer that New Orleans receives this summer — a real Sophie’s Choice of bland blockbuster returns. As always, the Pelicans could force Davis to sit out the remainder of his contract but losing their once-in-a-generation star for nothing would be a massive blow to one of the already lowest-attended franchises in the league.

When Davis is inevitably traded this summer, they’ll hope to recoup even half of his value — a goal that seems lofty as of now — but even snagging a few quality pieces like Kyle Kuzma or Jaylen Brown and a future draft pick remain an absolute must.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Outside of the Davis hubbub, the currently general manager-less Pelicans will have loads of decisions to make in July.

Of note, Holiday is locked into a deal valued at about $26 million until at least 2020-21 and Solomon Hill has one more season left at a hefty $13.2 million. But other than that, the Pelicans will have some money to spend if they’d like to.

The ever-blossoming Randle can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent — so when Davis goes, throwing near-max money at the power forward would be a suitable option. If losing the franchise cornerstone seems unavoidable, New Orleans might already have their everyday usage replacement on the roster.

Elsewhere, the perpetually confounding Stanley Johnson, has labored since his arrival in February — but can the Pelicans really afford to let a cheap lottery selection leave in RFA? Okafor has an intriguing team option at just $1.7 million but he hasn’t played 25-plus minutes in a game since early last month.

Presumably, Christian Wood, Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson will all return for another season on reasonable, cost-effective deals.

Nevertheless, the case of Elfrid Payton is sure to give the new general manager some restless nights as an added bonus. On a one-year deal at $3 million, he’s spent most of the season dealing with various ailments… but when Payton takes the floor, he’s been mostly excellent. The point guard’s 5.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game are career-highs and he recently posted five-straight triple-doubles — yup, that’s not a typo. In doing so, Payton joined Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to log such a feat.

That’s not bad company to keep heading into free agency.

Frankly, Davis’ exodus will likely cause a full rebuild around Holiday so the Pelicans should avoid any messy, quick-fix deals this offseason. But here’s the rub, a foundation of Holiday, Williams, Wood, Jackson (plus potentially Randle and/or Payton), their rising 2019 first-rounder and whatever they pry away in a presumed Davis deal would be far from a nightmare start to this multi-year operation.

Focus Area: The Draft

Considering that aforementioned leaping off point, New Orleans should just select the best player available in June. At 32-45, the Pelicans hold basketball’s ninth-worst record and a 20.3 percent chance of jumping into the top four during the NBA Draft Lottery. With five games remaining, they also have decent odds of skipping past Washington and Memphis for slightly more ping pong balls — but, all that said, the Pelicans will add a quality asset no matter where they pick.

Bruno Fernando, who averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for Maryland this year, could be a solid rim-protecting asset to pair in the frontcourt with a re-signed Randle. Inversely, versatile prospects like Rui Hachimura or De’Andre Hunter would shore up New Orleans’ perimeter defense if that’s the path they choose to head down.

Or, if they wanted to pair Holiday with Jarrett Culver — the outstanding sophomore that currently has No. 3-seeded Texas Tech in the Elite Eight — that’d be a selection worth celebrating. Assuming that New Orleans is above to dive headlong into their next era, their decision remains looming. Sure, any incoming Davis package would influence these proceedings — e.g., drafting a power forward if the Celtics finally pony up Tatum would be silly — but it’s far too early to tell on that front.

However, the Pelicans could kill two birds with one stone by adding a defensive-oriented three-point shooter. Today, the aforementioned Hunter fits that bill to a tee.

Given their current state of affairs, predicting anything Pelicans-related may amount to a fool’s errand — as of now, we’re all just waiting for the first domino to fall. The future direction of this franchise — from their role in free agency to their draft day targets — will depend on how the Davis situation unfolds. But since any Celtics-centered deal theoretically hinges on Irving’s return to Boston, this saga could very well bleed into July.

Big money moves aside, New Orleans’ front office has been tasked with some weighty decisions this summertime — ultimately, choosing the right ones will shape this organization for years to come.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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