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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “6 Situations” series by looking at which scenarios are worth looking into division by division, starting with the Northwest.

Matt John

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Well, that does it, everyone. The NBA is officially coming back.

There are definitely concerns about whether this is going to work and whether the team that wins the title will be considered the legitimate champion of 2020. We’ve had plenty of players pull out albeit, in retrospect, most of them have been on teams that are not likely to make the playoffs or make a serious run in the playoffs. A lot can change leading up to when the season resumes on July 30, but the headline here is, “The NBA has returned!”

Now that the hiatus has an official expiration date, every team, whether they are playing or not, is worth taking a look at from here on out. With that, it’s time to introduce you to Basketball Insiders’ newest series – “Six Situations” in which, as the title suggests, we look at six scenarios from each division in the league that are worth paying attention to.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Do they bring the band back together?

This season worked out about as beautifully as OKC could have imagined. Chris Paul has been awesome when they weren’t even asking him to. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a franchise cornerstone in the making. Danilo Gallinari’s continued comeback is an amazing story that continues to fall under the radar. The supporting cast has done everything that’s been asked of them. Billy Donovan is a dark horse candidate for Coach of the Year. As an added bonus, they are the team that nobody in the Western Conference wants to face in the first round.

We already knew that the future would be bright for the Thunder. We didn’t know that the present would be bright enough that the future has somehow become somewhat of an afterthought. This has been the Thunder’s most entertaining season since 2016. They’ve been so much fun to watch that seeing a team that plays so cohesively well together would be a shame to break up.

But, they have to be realistic about this too. This team could throw some good punches, but the odds of winning a title are very much not in their favor. Paul will only continue to age, and despite an All-NBA-caliber performance, it’s going to be even harder to get rid of that contract. Gallo will be on the open market coming off another classic Gallo performance – minus the injuries. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are transitioning from young guns to veterans.

Their competitors are only going to get stronger too. Golden State and Portland will be at full strength next season. Memphis and New Orleans will only get better as their youth movement progresses. Sacramento, Phoenix and Minnesota will do everything in their power to take another step forward. It may not be worth making a playoff push when pretty much everyone in the conference will be doing the same — especially when the future draft picks coming your way is basically your ace in the hole.

However, because of their ace in the hole, there’s no wrong answer here for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz: Is the tiff over between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert?

This might be the most dysfunctional a fourth seed in the Western Conference has ever looked. Despite the impressive 41-23 record, the body language the Jazz have displayed has not been too pleasant to look at. They just don’t play like a unit like they did in the last two years. Something is very, very off.

The hiatus has only made things worse it seems. This all started with Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, which made for an awful PR storm on his behalf seeing how days earlier, he demonstrated how careless he was in preventing the spread. Then, Mitchell’s positive test came to light. It then became pretty telling that none of his teammates stood up for Gobert when this all blew up. All of this came to a head when it was revealed that Gobert and Mitchell were at odds with each other.

Since then, Jazz management have stressed that the two have kissed and made up, but in case you don’t remember, things weren’t going all too swimmingly before the hiatus. Now, the Jazz are coming back, but without Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a rare positive for them — and that badly damages their floor spacing. This could be a lone hiccup in a long and prosperous partnership, or it might be the beginning of the end for them. We won’t know until the rest of the season unfurls, but these are not easy times for Jazz fans.

Times like these also go to show that just because you have developed a winning culture does not mean that it will stay that way.

Minnesota Timberwolves: How do they correctly build around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell?

So much has gone wrong for the Timberwolves since the Jimmy Butler fallout that they should take every little victory they can get. They acquired Towns’ best friend, and they followed that up by acquiring Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, both of whom were playing the best basketball of their careers. Even then, none of them were altering the Timberwolves’ chances one bit.

Appeasing your franchise player is always a good move because it keeps his head on straight, but if the losing continues, there’s only so much he can take before he decides being loyal just isn’t worth it. We’ve seen as much over and over again over the past decade. Towns has been a good soldier in Minnesota, but before the shake-ups they made, his frustration on the court was as clear as day.

Having Russell around should put his mind at ease for now. But seriously, is anyone thinking that Russell and the other new faces will magically turn everything around in Minnesota? The Timberwolves will have a lot more work to do, and they have a timer on their forehead. Because who knows how long they have before both Towns and Russell realize that they can be teammates on a better team?

As stated earlier, the West is only going to get tougher. Their new additions give them more offensive firepower, but they’ll need defensive personnel to not only match it, but to make progress too. Adding a high lottery pick into the mix could definitely help things out a bit, but the Timberwolves have relied on that strategy before to not so great results…

Portland Trail Blazers: Can they surround Damian Lillard with better players?

Portland has done an excellent job building around Lillard. It only took two seasons for them to build a pseudo-contender around him. Even after they were gutted in 2015, they retooled the team well enough that they’ve won a few playoff series since then and even made a surprise run to the conference finals just last year.

This season’s obviously been a different story, but no one’s really to blame on their end. Better yet, when the season resumes and next season, they should be much better with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in action. Losing Trevor Ariza will sting a bit, but even if Portland misses the playoffs, they should conceivably play well enough to turn some heads.

With a full squad, the Portland Trail Blazers are good…not great. Damian Lillard is a top-10 player in the league, and he’s put up the finest regular-season performance he’s ever had in his career. It’s evident that as he approaches 30, he’s entering the very top of his game. A talent like that can only do so much though. Guys like Nurkic and CJ McCollum are great surrounding pieces, but as guys who are next in command, comparing them to the likes of others in the same role such as Anthony Davis and Paul George is downright laughable.

Now that he’s in his prime, Lillard doesn’t have years to waste. Portland needs better talent surrounding him if they both want to go on deep playoff runs as well as keep Lillard happy. How they do that is anyone’s guess. They don’t exactly have a ton of assets at their disposal, but they have a good executive running the show in Neil Olshey, so don’t count them out.

Lillard has never complained once since being drafted by the Blazers in part due to them putting a solid team around him for most of his tenure. That could change if, well, nothing changes.

Utah Jazz: What do they do about Mike Conley Jr?

This really isn’t anyone’s fault. Conley just has not been a good fit with the Jazz for a combination of factors. At 32 years old, it’s possible his best days are behind him. It’s also possible that the Jazz have realized that Mitchell is best used as a point guard, as he’s played 49 percent of his minutes there — a career-high — which is Conley’s position. Whatever the case is, the Conley experiment has been a failure.

With Bogdanovic down for the count, Conley’s role on the team has become more crucial than ever before. This is his chance to prove that the Jazz didn’t waste assets when they acquired him from Memphis, but his season output should not make anyone optimistic. There’s still hope for him, as he’s had his moments, but expecting him to get his old groove back might be wishful thinking.

If the Conley we saw throughout the season is what we get when the season resumes, that puts Utah in somewhat of a bind. Conley has a player option at the end of the season for upwards of $34+ million, which he is definitely going to take given how uncertain the market is going to be. Should Utah make Mitchell the team’s starting point guard full-time, there’s not much use in having another point guard that’s being paid a near-max contract to come off the bench.

If they were to trade him, teams wouldn’t be interested in Conley for his services at point guard but more for his expiring contract. The real conundrum would be what to trade Conley for. Would it be for defensive help — Utah’s defense suffered when Gobert sat on the bench — or maybe for more scoring/playmaking that Conley was originally supposed to provide.

Then again, with the salary cap presumably going down with all that’s happened over the past year, it might be best for Utah to just ride this wave until it passes over.

Denver: Does Michael Porter Jr. make Paul Millsap expendable?

You gotta love when the low-risk/high-reward scenario actually comes to fruition, and thus far, it looks like that’s exactly what happened when Denver took Porter 14th overall in the 2018 draft. The young stud definitely has some kinks to work out in his game, but there’s a lot to like when it comes to Porter’s upside as a scorer. Denver already made some accommodations like trading Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to open up some room for Porter. It looks like they’ll have no regrets for doing so.

It’s clear they view Porter as part of the future, and even though he hasn’t been able to escape the injury bug entirely just yet, they clearly believe he’s worth the risk. Enter Paul Millsap.

Despite being paid $30+ million annually for the past three years, you don’t hear a lot of complaints coming from Denver regarding Millsap’s production. He’s not putting up the same numbers he did during his days in Utah and Atlanta, but his reputation as a sturdy reliable veteran on both ends of the floor has been a welcome addition to the young Nuggets. With him entering the last days of his prime combined with Porter prepping as his heir, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before the youngin’ usurps good ol’ Millsap.

Whether that will be after this season or later is up to Denver. Millsap’s contract is up after this summer, so who’s to say that he couldn’t be an important fixture while the team simultaneously develops MPJ? It’s also possible the team may view the younger, more defensively versatile Jerami Grant over Millsap, but again, that’s up to them.

No matter what direction they go, Denver selecting Porter will more than likely go down as yet another brilliant move since they started the Jokic era. Should he live up to his potential, there may not be much else Denver needs before they go on their most extended run ever as a franchise.

A fair amount of these questions are for teams that don’t have to worry about that in quite some time. Even so, they are something they will have to keep in mind when they see how their players do once the season resumes.

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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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