Top Returning NCAA Draft Prospects
Earlier this week, we took a look at the top five draft prospects for the 2015 NBA Draft, all of whom happened to be underclassmen who will be making their collegiate debuts at the start of the 2014-15 season. As much hype as the 2014 freshman class received, the 2015 freshman class could produce just as many first-round picks (nine). However, there’s going to be stiff competition as a few potential first round picks passed on the NBA for a year and the upperclassmen talent-level overall is quite intriguing despite the fact that youth is such a valuable commodity in the draft. Here’s a look at the top returners who you need to keep an eye on:
Willie Cauley-Stein – 7’0, 244 lbs. Jr., Center (Kentucky)
Had he declared for either one of the last two drafts, Cauley-Stein very likely would have been a lottery pick – a mid-first round selection at worst. However, he’s passed both times, with injuries playing a factor. Now, though, he’s returning to one of the most crowded frontcourts in the country with his perceived upside far less than it was after his freshman season.
Cauley-Stein’s production actually dropped off in his sophomore season, despite playing the same 23 minutes a game he did his first year. It’s hard to imagine him getting the same amount of run with all the talent that Kentucky has coming in and returning, so it’s really going to be important for him to make the most of the minutes he does get. Scouts know that Cauley-Stein is a quality finisher and shot blocker. Improvement in his low-post game and free throw shooting, which was sub 40 percent last year, will be key.
Because seven footers with his speed, length and his athleticism are always going to have a home in the NBA, Cauley-Stein’s floor is likely somewhere at the end of the first round this year, with the potential for him to still go in the same range he could have the last two years. But that’s only with marked improvements in areas we saw very little development from his freshman to sophomore years.
Sam Dekker – 6’9, 229 lbs. – Jr., Small Forward (Wisconsin)
A strong NCAA Tournament may have pushed Dekker onto the other side of the fence and into the 2014 NBA Draft. Dekker wasn’t at his best during the Badger’s run to the Final Four, though. In fact, it was arguably his least impressive stretch of the season, after looking every bit like a lottery pick early on in the year.
Dekker has a really nice all-around skill set and more than ideal size for a NBA small forward. He’s just consistently left scouts yearning for more throughout his first two years. As a junior he has to take the next step forward and be one of the best players on the floor like he’s capable of night in and night out, especially late in the year when it matters the most.
The Badgers are going in to the season as one of the favorites to get back to the Final Four, and if Dekker can help lead them there and produce at a higher rate, there’s no reason why he should be on the board past 20 come draft night.
Montrezl Harrell – 6’8, 230 lbs. – Jr., Power Forward (Louisville)
After exploding in place of the departed Gorgui Dieng as a sophomore, everyone thought that Harrell was as good as gone. Louisville was already set to lose a lot with Russ Smith and Luke Hancock to graduation, but Harrell shockingly decided to return for his junior season.
What makes scouts love Harrell is the fact that he doesn’t have an off switch. He plays with as much energy and aggression as any player in the country. At one point when they were in danger of getting upset by Manhattan in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament, he seemed to be foaming at the mouth as he helped lead them to victory. That’s the kind of tenaciousness he plays with.
Although he lacks ideal size for his position, Harrell’s likely going to produce at a rate that cannot be ignored. In fact, given what the Cardinals have lost, there’s the potential for Harrell to actually improve his stock if he can excel as a featured option offensively. Had he entered this year’s draft he would have been looked at primarily as an energizer whose contributions would come on the glass and defensive end. If he consistently hits the mid-range jumper and gets good shots in the low post, look for him to shoot into the top 10.
Chris Walker – 6’9, 205 lbs. – So., Power Forward (Florida)
We only got to see glimpses of Walker last year as he had to deal with eligibility issues that cost him a good portion of his freshman campaign. Now, with the Gators losing a huge part of their core to graduation, the stage is set for Walker to showcase his entire arsenal and improve his stock significantly. As a bit of a mystery with plenty of potential he probably would have been a late first-round pick or early second-round pick at worst, but this upcoming season he could easily play his way into the top 10.
What made Walker a blue chip recruit out of high school was his elite-level athleticism and defensively versatility. He’s very raw, though, and somewhat positionless. Hopefully an offseason under Florida’s training program has helped him improve in those areas. He appears to be best suited for the power forward position. With a stronger frame, refined offensive skill set and a clear cut position, Walker could lock up a spot in the lottery of mock drafts in very short order.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – 6’6, 212 lbs. So., Small Forward (Arizona)
No one would have criticized Hollis-Jefferson if he decided to leave after his solid freshman season at Arizona. He probably would have went somewhere in the 20s, as scouts loved his defensive ability and athleticism. He has all the tools to be a high-level defender at the next level, but by coming back for his sophomore season he can change the way that he is looked at completely.
Rather than just being viewed a “3-and-D” guy, Hollis-Jefferson could work his way up the small forward rankings by displaying an improved offensive game – particularly with his ability to score out on the perimeter. He wasn’t much of a threat from beyond the arc last year; he doesn’t have to become Doug McDermott or anything like that as a shooter, but he simply has to prove that he’s capable of making more than two in 960 minutes like he did as a freshman.
Late in the season it seemed like things were really starting to click for Hollis-Jefferson, who did a good job of playing within himself and simply focusing on what he was asked. With Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon gone, he’s going to have much more responsibility – so look for Hollis-Jefferson to potentially climb into the lottery with a big season.
Caris LeVert – 6’5, 170 lbs. – Jr., Michigan (Shooting Guard)
LeVert really shined in his expanded role as a sophomore, going from a seldom-used freshman to playing all but six minutes a game in year two. With the departure of Nik Stauskas, LeVert is poised to be the number one option for Michigan next season and if his next step forward is anything like his last, he could be one of the first swingmen taken on draft night 2015. He has NBA-caliber athleticism, height and length, but he needs to add a significant amount of strength. The added strength will not only help him in preparation for making the leap to the NBA, but make him a much tougher cover during what is likely his last season at Michigan. His goal should be to get to the free throw line at least six times a game in 2014-15.
Bobby Portis – 6’10, 235 lbs. So, Power Forward (Arkansas)
Nationally, Portis’ standout freshman season may have gone underappreciated, but he’s firmly on the NBA Draft radar going into his sophomore season. In fact, there was very little chance that he wouldn’t have been a first round pick had he decided to declare, but he didn’t give that option very much consideration at all.
Stretch fours have become almost more common than the traditional power forwards who prefer to play with their back to the basket than 15 feet away from it. Portis is comfortable no matter where he is on the floor and has good size and strength for the position. Expectations are going to be much higher for him, though, and he’s going to have to come close to putting up a double-double in order to improve his stock. Without top-tier athleticism, becoming more physical and welcoming of contact is going to be critical for the longevity of Portis’ NBA career.
Frank Kaminsky – 7’0, 234 lbs. Sr., Center (Wisconsin)
Beyond underwhelming his first two years at Wisconsin, “the tank” as he’s referred to really blew up at the end of his junior year. A 28-point outing against Michigan State in the Big 10 postseason tournament and a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds against Arizona in the Elite Eight pushed Kaminsky’s stock into the top eight. However, a disappointing outing against Kentucky’s younger, bigger and more athletic frontline showed that he wasn’t ready to take his game to the next level and he ultimately decided to return.
With his size and offensive versatility, which features a jump shot with deep range, Kaminsky has a long future of playing professional basketball in front of him. What’s going to determine whether that is in the NBA is how he handles the increased level of physicality that he’s going to see as a senior and his rebounding. NBA teams will look past the fact that he’s not a phenomenal athlete as long as he can find a way to utilize his high basketball IQ, improved strength and skill set to help negate that disadvantage.
Wayne Selden – 6’6, 223 lbs. So, Shooting Guard (Kansas)
Often overshadowed by his classmates Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Selden opted for a featured role as a sophomore over being a fringe first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. With his size and strength, which are unique even at the NBA level for his position, he’s making a wise choice and has the potential to climb a great deal.
When Selden initially committed to Kansas there was some hope that he could develop into a point guard, where his physical advantages would be much greater than they are at the shooting guard spot. That may not ever happen, but he’ll undoubtedly have the ball in his hands more with Wiggins and Embiid’s departure. It’s going to be important for him to continue to focus on making the right basketball play as his light to score becomes greener. As a well-rounded shooting guard with improved consistency on his jump shot he could get into the top 15, which is right around where he would go if he looked capable of playing the point guard position at the next level anyway.
Aaron Harrison – 6’5, 210 lbs. So, Shooting Guard (Kentucky)
As the shooting guard version of the Harrison twins made clutch shot after clutch shot during the Wildcats’ run to the national championship game, there were very few who expected him to be back in Lexington for his sophomore season. Whereas his brother’s stock took a hit during the season, he maintained his status as a first-round pick and could have justified leaving.
Now, like his aforementioned teammate Cauley-Stein, he’s returning to a Wildcats backcourt that is much more crowded than it was last season. However, it’s hard to imagine Calipari having more confidence in anyone than Aaron late in ball games – so his minutes may not decrease like Cauley-Stein’s have the potential to.
Without great quickness or athleticism, Aaron is always going to rely on his IQ, strength and jump shot. By playing with more maturity and taking pride in his defense, two things he struggled with as a freshman, Harrison’s floor should remain late first round with the potential to climb into the 20s with a strong sophomore season.
Honorable Mentions: Andrew Harrison (Kentucky), Delon Wright (Utah) Dakari Johnson (Kentucky), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Alex Poythress (Kentucky), Perry Ellis (Kansas), Shawn Long (Louisiana Lafayette), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Brandon Ashley (Arizona), Branden Dawson (Michigan State), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Jabari Bird (California), Jarell Martin (LSU) and Jordan Mickey (LSU).
Grizzlies Announce More Additions
The Memphis Grizzlies announced today that they have bolstered their coaching staff and player development team with several key additions to the organization.
Jeff Bzdelik (BIZ-del-ik), who has over 30 years of coaching experience, including 17 in the NBA, has joined Dave Joerger’s staff as an assistant coach. John Townsend, who previously served as shooting coach for the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers, has joined the staff as director of player development. The Grizzlies also added Trevor Moawad, a recognized expert in the field of mental conditioning who has led mental endurance programs for the University of Alabama and Florida State football teams, as mental endurance coach.
“True to his word in a relatively short period of time, Robert Pera has meaningfully increased the resources available to our coaching staff and players,” Joerger said. “The addition of Jeff, who brings a wealth of knowledge to our sidelines and fits seamlessly within our culture, is just one of the many moves we made over the last few weeks to accomplish our singular goal of making the Grizzlies a world class organization. We are greatly appreciative of Robert’s efforts and I am confident that the addition of Jeff and others will benefit us in preparing for the upcoming season.”
Furthermore, Jason March, who previously served as advance scout, has been promoted to assistant coach/advance scout while Drew Graham, who previously was the head athletic trainer, has been promoted to head athletic trainer and vice president of player care. Additionally, the Grizzlies have also added several player development staff, strength and conditioning coaches and a physical therapist to the basketball operations staff.
Bzdelik, after six seasons as an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets (1988-94), worked seven seasons under Pat Riley, starting as a scout for the New York Knicks (1994-95) before becoming an assistant coach and advance scout for the Miami Heat (1995-2001). Hired by the Denver Nuggets in 2001, Bzdelik spent two-plus seasons as Denver’s head coach (2002-04) and in his second season guided Denver to a 26-win turnaround and a berth in the 2004 NBA Playoffs.
The Mount Prospect, Ill. native has coached on the collegiate level as an assistant with Davidson (1978-80) and Northwestern (1980-86) and served as head coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1986-88), Air Force (2005-07), Colorado (2007-10) and, most recently, Wake Forest (2010-14).
Townsend has been named director of player development after joining the Grizzlies last season as a shooting coach. Townsend also worked as a shooting coach for the Toronto Raptors (2011-14) and Portland Trail Blazers (2007-10) and the NBA Development League (2002-07) and served one season as a consultant for the Continental Basketball Association’s (CBA) Yakima Sun Kings (2002-03).
Moawad joins the Grizzlies organization to serve as mental endurance coach. Moawad has recently coached under Nick Saban at the University of Alabama and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State University, helping to guide and lead the development of the players off the field to ensure they are thinking at an elite level on the field. Through the integration of advanced mindset solutions, he has played a vital role in both schools winning NCAA Championships for their football programs in his tenure.
March will enter his eighth season in Memphis. March previously served the team as assistant video coordinator (2007-12), director of basketball information and technologies (2012-13) and advance scout (2013-14). Graham will begin his ninth season with the Grizzlies. Graham served the previous eight seasons as head athletic trainer in Memphis. He spent six seasons with the New Jersey Nets (2000-06) as assistant athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach.
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
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.