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NBA Sunday: Paul George is the X-Factor

The Pacers are 11-2 since February 1, without Paul George. How much better can they be with him?

Moke Hamilton

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In the National Basketball Association, the charge toward the playoffs is often dominated by conversations about “What if?”

What if the Golden State Warriors are for real?

What if Kevin Durant is 100 percent healthy?

What if Derrick Rose is finished?

Yet still, almost eight months after the Indiana Pacers’ 2014-15 season was thought to have ended, it is Paul George who has emerged as the biggest “What if?” of them all.

But the question as it relates to George is not what could have happened for the Pacers this season had he not suffered the gruesome compound leg fraction that has kept him out of action, but what could be in store for the Pacers once he is able to return?

* * *

The sage. The emotional leader. The old man of the gang; he is the 34-year-old David West.

In tight moments, the Pacers have traditionally depended on West to make big plays. This time was no exception.

West received the basketball on the left box, isolated against Chris Bosh. Over the past few years, while the Pacers were competing with the Miami HEAT for the right to represent the Eastern Confernece in the NBA Finals, this has become a familiar scenario.

Except, this time, there were no national television cameras around.

There was no Lance Stephenson, no LeBron James and, of course, no Paul George.

It was January 23 and the Pacers brought their baggage to South Beach. For the Pacers, the 44 games that preceded this one was a real-life game of musical chairs, with key members of the team’s core being scuttled into and out of the lineup.

Yes, they brought their baggage with them. They were a team that had doubts and one that had gotten away from its identity. They were a team that entered play on this night with its third six-game losing streak of the season after having lost as many as four straight just once over the previous two seasons combined.

So when West saw Bosh in front of him, he wasn’t thinking about the NBA Finals or the elusive championship that he has been fighting for—he was just thinking about stopping the bleeding.

West pump-faked and dribbled left, eluding Bosh and making his way into the restricted area. As Chris Andersen closed in to contest what seemed to be a rim attempt, West found the cutting Ian Mahinmi.

In a game where the Pacers trailed by as many as 20 points in the second half, they fought valiantly and found themselves now within three points with about 100 seconds remaining in the competition.

Mahinmi dropped in the two-footer and the Pacers found themselves separated by a single point, but alas, they could get no closer.

C.J. Watson would miss the game-tying 20-footer at the buzzer, and the Pacers, despite the spirited rally, tasted defeat for the seventh consecutive time.

They lost the game, but in the moments immediately following, they found something else.

As George Hill put his two hands on top of his head and walked away from his bench, Rodney Stuckey stood outside of the three-point arc with both arms raised in the air. West slapped his hands together and he began the long walk back to the visitor’s locker room at Miami’s American Airlines Arena.

It was a tough loss, but simultaneously, it was something else.

For the Pacers, it was the turning point of their season.

* * *

Since late January, everything has changed.

The Pacers will enter play on March 8 having gone 13-4 since that loss and have not lost back-to-back games since.

Even more impressively, the Pacers, at 11-2, have been the best team in the league since February 1. Over that stretch, they have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls.

And yes, they have done all of this without Paul George, their best player.

On August 1, when George suffered a horrific compound leg fracture, for him, playing this season seemed a long shot. Losing George after losing Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets made qualifying for the playoffs a pipe dream.

And yes, when you are head coach Frank Vogel and looking at the standings in late January and seeing that your team is 15 games below .500, you evaluate. When you are almost as far outside of the playoff race as the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves, it is easy to lose hope.

But somehow, for Vogel, it has been even easier to fight.

“Yes, I thought there was a chance,” he said when asked if he ever stopped believing his team could make a run.

“When you’re 15 games under .500, we’re all scratching our heads, not really believing that we were that far back, but we always had the mindset that we wanted to weather the storm and stay close enough, stay within reach and try to get better each month so that if we got healthy and if the new guys came in and jelled the way we thought they could, that we could go on a run late in the season.”

That is exactly what the Pacers have done.

With West leading the charge on the floor and in the locker room, the Pacers never once stopped believing that they were one of the elite teams in the league, much less the lowly Eastern Conference. As the years have passed, West and Vogel have grown together, both as leaders, both needing each other, so it comes as no surprise to hear West and his coach essentially speak with the same tongue and think with the same brain.

West remembered the final seconds of the loss at the HEAT—the night it all turned around.

“Coach just kept us confident, he kept us positive,” West said of his coach’s demeanor in the aftermath of the loss.

“I do remember that,” West recalled. “He came to us and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re 15 games under .500,’ and that was sort of, I think, a low point for him.”

As low as it may have been, the Pacers have once again risen.

Now, as the team gets its collective health, a familiar face is mulling about the locker room. Of course, none of his teammates want to publicly put any pressure on George by intimating that he will be the savior of their season or help them pull off a shocking first round upset over the likes of the Atlanta Hawks or the Chicago Bulls, but anyone that has been around these Pacers over the past few weeks can attest, there is an aura of confidence about this team.

“We gotta focus on everybody who’s here right now and try to push him along the way and not try to put too much of a load on him,” George Hill said when asked about the potential return of George.

But even still, Hill couldn’t hold back when asked what George would add to the team if he were able to return, even if at a fraction of himself.

“He’s an All-Star, he’s the focal point of this team, he’s what we build everything around,” Hill said. “He’s gonna add the experience, the toughness, the leadership, [be] the go to guy and bring the passion on the defensive end.

“What he brings and just him being the All-Star caliber player he is, it speaks for itself.”

Those are sentiments that center Roy Hibbert agrees with, as well.

“With Paul, whatever he can bring to the table, we will accept it,” Hibbert said.

“We know it will be tough for him to get back to where he was right away, so we’ll be patient and guys see him working hard, so whatever he can bring, we would definitely appreciate it.”

Moving forward, the immediate question should be to what extent George will improve the Pacers and add to the team that they have become in his stead.

“Obviously, we want to get him back, but we want him to be healthy and work at his own speed,” West said. “Now, we gotta take care of business while he’s out. When he’s ready to go, he’ll get back out there and we’ll welcome him with open arms.”

Without question, George will be just as excited to make his return.

He was recently quoted as saying that he believes he can be the “missing piece” for the Pacers and that if he can return to the court and to form for the playoffs, that, for the Pacers, “the story will write itself.”

To a man, the Pacers believe that they are far better than an eighth seed and so long as the club is healthy, it would be difficult to argue with a core of players that won 56 games just last season.

That has been West’s message to his teammates.

“George missed 30-something games, I missed the first month of the year, Roy’s been out, Ian’s been out, Stuck’s been out, C.J. Miles has been out, we’ve been hit with a lot of injuries,” West said. “But finally, I think we’re past that and hopefully, we just keep improving.”

And with or without George, that has been what Vogel has been preaching to his club over the course of the past six weeks.

It is difficult to argue with the results.

* * *

As the final quarter of the season gets underway, there seem to be five teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the conference. The Pacers are joined by the HEAT, Hornets, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets as teams that will enter play on March 9 within two games of the seventh seed.

At this point, it is difficult to not keep a close eye on the standings if you’re Coach Vogel.

“I watch ’em,” Vogel admitted. “The guys don’t watch them that much and that’s probably good. I like the chase, I like that every win or loss can move you two or three spots in the standings. I think it brings a good, healthy sense of urgency to every game.”

“Coach keeps us abreast of what’s going on there, games behind and all that other stuff,” West said. “We just try to focus on the game that’s in front of us and the game that’s on the schedule for that night… We let coach worry about the standings and stuff like that.”

And as far as what the Pacers need to continue rising?

Just consistency.

“The message is always the same,” West said, whether the Pacers lose six games in a row or win six games in a row.

“Just stay steady, just believe in one another, remain confident and we’ll see what happens.”

In the interim, the Pacers will continue along about their business, preparing meticulously for every matchup that, as coach Vogel puts it, has a healthy sense of urgency about it.

With their improving health and the imminent return of Paul George, these Pacers, these tough, gritty Pacers, they can look at the hole they once found themselves in and actually contemplate having fully dug themselves out.

And with George back among them, the Pacers can continue to dream of what it would be like to play the underdog and have an opportunity to compete for the championship that has eluded them.

What if the Pacers qualify for the playoffs?

What if Paul George is able to contribute?

What if, for the 2014-15 Pacers, the best is yet to come?

What if, indeed. The NBA season is full of them.

But for a team that was left for dead twice over—the first time before the season had begun—the “What if?” of Paul George is certainly one of the more intriguing.

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NBA

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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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

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

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

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

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

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

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

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

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

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

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

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

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

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

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

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