NBA fans, rejoice — summer basketball is officially underway! After two stops in Utah and Sacramento, the granddaddy event of them all kicked off in Las Vegas on Friday. While the NBA Draft’s top prospects like DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. have all made their formal debuts already, there’s little reason to be concerned or worried about anything they do over the next week or so.
However, there are plenty of players worth keeping an eye on as this tournament progresses between now and July 17. Whether you’re examing potential franchise cornerstones taking the next step or watching previously drafted newcomers just trying to get their feet wet, there are some incredible storylines running throughout Vegas. It was difficult to narrow the list down to just six names, but look for these standouts in the box scores and on your televisions — they’ll be ones with the most to gain from a strong summer session.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have always loved Caris LeVert, the multi-positional slasher that’s now headed into his third NBA season. As the Nets suffered through another injury-riddled campaign — including long-term maladies to both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell — it was LeVert who helped steady the ship at the point guard position. Last year, LeVert averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 34.7 percent from three-point range — which was an improvement, sure, but perhaps not as large a leap as many expected. Brooklyn brought a young roster with little NBA experience outside of former rookie Jarrett Allen to Las Vegas, so the onus will be on LeVert to be aggressive, control the tempo and, more or less, dominate.
Although he’s still looking to be more consistent, LeVert can absolutely (and efficiently) torch teams on any given night. In one breakout performance in 2017-18, LeVert dropped 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in a narrow victory against the Miami HEAT. The Nets have plenty of intriguing pieces — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie come to mind as well — but LeVert is the type of do-it-all glue guy that the franchise desperately needs to pan out.
If LeVert is ready to take that third-year leap, we’ll likely see him take Las Vegas by storm… well, once he plays. LeVert did not log time during Friday’s loss to the Orlando Magic — but he’ll lead the way soon enough.
Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets
There’s no time like the present and it would behoove Malik Beasley to make some big-time waves out west. Beasley, the No. 19 overall pick in 2016, has played minimally over his first two seasons, typically stuck behind veteran stalwart Wilson Chandler. With Chandler moving to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, Beasley should get his long-awaited chance to bloom in Denver — unfortunately, it may be the best and only shot he’ll ever get. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged just 3.2 points over 9.4 minutes per game in 2017-18, but he flat-out knows how to score.
During his one season at Florida State, Beasley pulled down 15.6 points and 5.3 rebounds on 47.1 percent from the floor — so there’s some scoring precedence on his resume already. He’ll turn 22 years-old shortly after Thanksgiving and there are minutes to be had with Will Barton joining the starting five as well. Flanked by Monte Morris and Tyler Lydon in Vegas, it’ll be up to Beasley to assert himself and prove that he deserves a place in head coach Mike Malone’s young, athletic rotation. During Friday’s win over the Timberwolves, Beasley registered 10 points, five rebounds, threes assists and one block on 30 percent shooting.
Willy Hernangomez, Charlotte Hornets
Last season, Willy Hernangomez was freed from the metaphorical jail cell of the Knicks’ bench… and went right into another tough situation behind future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard.
But with the center’s recent trade to the Nets, Hernangomez will only have to deal with Cody Zeller, theoretically, on his long, winding quest for consistent playing time once again. His second-half numbers with the Hornets were both promising and underwhelming at times — but if you rewind to his rookie year with New York, it reveals a far more talented prospect. Over 22 starts to end the 2016-17 campaign, Hernangomez averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, capable numbers that would propel the Spaniard into the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Now, Hernangomez has the fortune to start his first full season in Charlotte off on the right foot by bossing these summer games. At 24 years-old, there’s plenty of basketball left for the former second-rounder, but the Hornets would love to get a taste of the new Hernangomez in Vegas over the next week. There’s no reason why the 6-foot-11 center can’t use his energetic, reliable skill set to truly breakout in 2018-19 and beyond — particularly so if he keeps trying to expand his range as well.
He got the fresh start that he so badly wanted last season, but this is his biggest opportunity to make good on the Hornets’ front office faith. In Charlotte’s one-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, Hernangomez starred with 16 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 28 minutes — an ideal takeoff for the promising center.
Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers
With the Cavaliers potentially poised to hit the reset button, there’s a golden ticket chance for Cedi Osman to own this upcoming revamp. Understandably, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement — but the gifted athlete could be a true building block in a post-LeBron era. Naturally, most casual onlookers will find themselves enamored with Collin Sexton this week, but Osman’s physicality will turn heads undoubtedly. With an innate scoring prowess and high basketball IQ, Osman could be head coach Tyronn Lue’s starting small forward moving ahead — with or without a total blowup of the roster.
While his per game statistics aren’t noteworthy just yet, the 23-year-old turned in a handful of incredible one-off performances. The most impressive single-game output came when Osman tallied 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals on 2-for-5 from three-point range in a 16-point victory. After expecting to ride the bench for much of the season in 2017-18, Osman competed in a remarkable 61 games for the Cavaliers and even earned some postseason minutes as well.
During their Vegas opener, Osman finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four steals to lead the current Eastern Conference champions to a win over the Washington Wizards. Needless to say, if Osman can bring that bucket-getting tenacity all summer, he’ll be a fan favorite just about everywhere before long.
Jonah Bolden, Philadelphia 76ers
Although he was asked to spend a season overseas, Jonah Bolden — one of the most anticipated sleepers from the 2017 NBA Draft — is finally here and ready to play. Not only will he exhibit his skills in Vegas, but Bolden himself plans to stay with the 76ers through the season, no matter what happens during these summer exhibitions.
On Friday, Bolden tallied six points and six rebounds on 2-for-6 from the field, stating afterward that he felt the excitement, nerves and butterflies — “everything, all in one.” Over 29 EuroLeague contests in 2017-18, the playmaking Bolden notched 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 21.1 minutes per game. If he can provide those hustle-worthy numbers for a well-built Philadelphia squad, he’ll be the perfect fit.
At 6-foot-10, the Australian big man joins a crowded rotation under head coach Brett Brown, but his high-ceiling skill set remains evident. He’s got some distance to go on his three-point shooting (31.9 percent), still, Bolden appears to be molded for the modern NBA landscape. Although he won’t be usurping Joel Embiid or Dario Saric’s minutes anytime soon, Bolden could feasibly surpass Amir Johnson or Nemanja Bjelica by year’s end.
For this rookie, the road to that long-term reality starts in Las Vegas.
Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings
Last but not least, there’s Harry Giles — an uber-athletic competitor just itching to begin his NBA career. Giles, a once top-rated high school prospect, underwent surgery on his left knee in 2013 and on his right is 2015, even adding another procedure to the former in the fall of 2016 — a necessary move that would cut his single collegiate season in half. After a cautious freshman season at Duke, the mysterious and risky Giles slipped to No. 20 overall, where the Sacramento Kings were more than happy to trade for his rights on draft night.
With the Kings in the Western Conference basement — and as more franchises decide to be more forward-thinking in regards to long-term rehab — Giles would eventually sit out the entire 2017-18 season. Despite playing in 26 games for Duke, there’s not much of a statistical backlog to go off for Giles — 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game — but the 6-foot-11 challenger has the chance to a play an important role in Sacramento this season. In three California Classic matchups, Giles averaged 9.3 points, six rebounds and a block over 33 minutes per game — not earth-shattering by any means, but a certainly respectable start nonetheless.
Expectations should be tempered following more than a full calendar year without serious in-game action, but Giles has all the tools to be a difference-maker right away. Alongside Marvin Bagley III, the Kings will hope they’ve finally found their frontcourt centerpieces of the future — now it’s just up to Giles to run with the opportunity.
Of course, it’s difficult to make any quantifiable conclusions off of summer basketball without any real stakes, but context is everything. From third-year grinders to rookie-season debuts, each player on this list is at a defining point in their career. At the end of the day, these six competitors likely won’t be the headline-grabbers in Las Vegas, but they’ve definitely earned the right to some extra eyeballs as well — but now that they have our attention, what will these blossoming contributors do with it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old