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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are picking up the pieces from what’s left of the Kawhi Leonard era. Matt John explains how San Antonio’s done since.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, where we go over how each team did this past season as well as evaluate how they did this summer. So far, we’ve covered the lottery teams, the borderline playoff teams and the treadmill teams. Now that we’re approaching the playoff teams, we’re coming up on the upper echelon of the NBA

Today, we’re looking at the team that for over the past two decades has been the golden example of how to run a basketball team – the San Antonio Spurs.

For the first time in ages, San Antonio did not possess an all-time player on its roster. It’s difficult to lose a player as colossal as Kawhi Leonard. That much was made clear in this year’s playoffs. Having a legendary coach can make up for even absence, but even someone as phenomenal as Gregg Popovich can only do so much.

Right now, San Antonio is in a time of transition. This league is still run by the stars who have the most talent. With Kawhi gone, the Spurs don’t have the talent to measure up with that – all apologies to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. They do have something they haven’t had the privilege to boast about in ages – a youth movement.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Overview

As if losing your future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer wasn’t bad enough, the Spurs lost their most promising young player before the season even began. After establishing himself as one of the premier young defenders in the league the previous season, Dejounte Murray went down with an ACL tear in San Antonio’s very first preseason game.

The Spurs did not start out the way they usually do. They played like a team that had virtually lost everything, as they started out 11-14, and that included blowout losses suffered at the hands of Houston, Utah, and Phoenix. After the Lakers handed them their 14th loss, the Spurs turned it around, going 37-20 the rest of the way.

This came from the team slowly building a new identity. Murray was slated to be the Spurs’ starting point guard at the start of the season. With him down and Tony Parker bolting for Charlotte, there was a void to be filled. With not many options to turn to, San Antonio designated DeMar DeRozan as its primary playmaker.

Scoring-wise, DeMar did not replicate the same numbers that he had in Toronto, but he had the best all-around season of his career. He shot his best percentage since his rookie year – 48.1 percent – and put up his best rebounding averages (six) and assist averages (6.2).

He even kept it up when the postseason rolled around. His scoring numbers remained the same, but his efficiency rose considerably – 48.7 percent while putting up his best rebounding numbers in his playoff career – 6.7. For a guy who has a rep for disappearing in the playoffs, DeMar definitely showed up when the Spurs needed him to.

While we’re on the subject, DeRozan deserves a shout-out for the progress he’s made. He definitely has some warts in his game, but in his rise to stardom, the guy’s all-around abilities as a player have developed quite nicely over the years. He didn’t get much All-Star buzz in San Antonio, but they could have done much worse when they traded Kawhi. DeMar may not be in Leonard’s league, but he proved that he could fit with the Spurs.

The season wasn’t all about him, though. The Spurs got an unlikely boost by the upstart sophomore Derrick White. White’s season can be detailed more here, but if you’d like to keep moving along, let’s summarize it like this. The 25-year-old has suddenly emerged as one of the better young two-way guards in the league as he demonstrated that he was capable of running the offense as well as proving himself defensively.

You, of course, can’t talk about the Spurs without talking about the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The guy proved his breakout season – in a Spurs uniform – was no fluke. He averaged 21/9 on almost 52 percent shooting while having almost two less shot attempts a game.

But enough about who their individual standouts were. You know why this is a time of transition for San Antonio? Well, the Spurs’ calling card in the glory days was their defense. This season, they had the 19th-highest-rated defense in the league by allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions. That was to be expected when you lose Leonard, Murray, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green all before the season starts. That stat is a little deceptive though.

The defense was bad early on, but when San Antonio got its act together, or when they went on that 37-20 run to end the season, they had the 11th-highest-rated defense allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. In that same time, they had the fourth-highest rated offense, scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions.

They’ve done this despite their refusal to conform to the NBA’s obsession with threes. The Spurs took the lowest volume of threes this season – shooting 25.3 a game while also topping the league in three-point percentage – 39.2 percent. They did this despite the fact that their two top offensive options – DeRozan and Aldridge – shot between 15 to 24 percent from there. When Gregg Popovich is running the show, you don’t ask questions.

The Spurs did as reasonably well as they could have expected to do in their first-year post-Kawhi. They still made the playoffs and came within one win of going on an extended run. Yet Murray’s injury will always be brought up when people ask what this team could have been in 2019.

Offseason

San Antonio wasn’t expected to do much this summer. They didn’t have the cap room to bring in anyone on a max contract. Yet, as we all know, when it’s San Antonio – the team that took empty-calorie scorers like David Lee and Rudy Gay and turned them into valuable rotation players – you don’t underestimate the moves that franchise makes.

First, they got their latest European import, Luka Samanic. Samanic didn’t come into the draft with high expectations. At 19 years old, Samanic is an athletic big from Croatia that doesn’t have the best three-pointer – which won’t be a problem in San Antonio – but he’s fluid and switchable. Being as young as he is, don’t expect him to be played much this coming season.

Knowing the track record of San Antonio’s scouting team, don’t count the kid out. If he is yet another in a long line of foreign player success stories, he may just earn the nickname, “The Other Luka.”

With the pick they received from the Raptors in the Kawhi deal, the Spurs took Keldon Johnson, who fits the three-and-D mold. Judging by the moves they made this summer and Johnson’s age, don’t expect him to get much time either.

San Antonio was in the mood for wings this offseason. First, they signed and traded for DeMarre Carroll. Carroll’s had himself a little bit of a career resurgence in his short time in Brooklyn. That was because, during that time, the Nets didn’t have a whole ton of options – at least his first year there – but Carroll clearly played well enough for the Spurs to invest $20+ million in him.

Next was re-signing Rudy Gay. Gay’s transition to second unit scorer has been heartwarming to watch given his reputation in this league as an ineffective scorer. If there was one coach who could get him to play this way, it was Pop. Clearly, the Spurs felt that he was worth keeping around at good cost, as they gave him a two-year, $28 million deal. Not bad for a guy two years removed from an Achilles injury.

The real story of the offseason came from the Marcus Morris fiasco. The Spurs traded Davis Bertans to put everything in to give Morris the full mid-level exception, which he was set to take…until the Knicks swooped in with a better offer and snatched him up.

As if the Spurs needed more heartbreak.

Teams have gotten left at the altar before. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. This time, it’s different. The Spurs traded a good rotation player to make room for Morris, who’s an all-around upgrade over Bertans.

(Slightly off topic: What does Washington need Davis Bertans for?)

The real dagger is that they lost two players from this debacle when they could have had at least one of them.

At least Gay and Carroll will be there to make up the difference. Lastly, the Spurs went for the young reclamation project with Trey Lyles. Lyles was productive for Denver until he fell out of their rotation. As long he listens to Coach, his future is in good hands.

PLAYERS IN: DeMarre Carroll, Trey Lyles, Dedric Lawson, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas, Quincy Pondexter, Ben Moore

What’s Next

The Spurs are not in a bad position. The Kawhi fallout knocked them down, but did not knock them out. They still have a winning formula. The question they have to ask themselves is, where do they go from here?

Right now, the team is at a crossroads. Aldridge and DeRozan are both excellent basketball players, but how much does Aldridge have left in the tank and is DeRozan a long-term factor in San Antonio?

The Spurs have reason to keep Aldridge around. They’ve gotten their money’s worth out of him since they extended his contract. With DeRozan, it’s a little fuzzier. DeRozan deserves all the praise in the world for how he handled being traded to San Antonio, but the Spurs’ promising youth movement could get in the way any of their long-term plans to keep DeMar.

Dejounte Murray will be back and should be eager to capitalize after a lost season. Derrick White should only get better as he gets more time. And don’t sleep on Lonnie Walker IV. The man looked bored at times during the Summer League because he was a man among boys.

If all three of those guys take another step next season, there may not be much reason to keep DeRozan around because they all can play his position.

For now, San Antonio isn’t really regarded as a contender. They should be in the playoff hunt just as they always are. If they are to get back to the elite status they once had both year in and year out, they have to ponder which avenue they should take to get there.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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