With the New Year upon us, we thought it might be fun to look into the crystal ball and make some predictions on the more commonly asked questions about the NBA’s New Year.
With that in mind, I dragged in Alex Kennedy to play along and offer an alternate opinion on free agency, trades, coaching moves, award winners and much more. Here is what we came up with:
Which Big-Name Player is Traded?
While there is no doubting Joakim Noah’s value to the Chicago Bulls as a locker room leader and heart and soul guy, history has shown the Bulls have been quick to pull the trade trigger on guys they feel they may get priced out of in free agency. With Noah posting some of the worst numbers of his career and the Bulls struggling to adapt to a new system under head coach Fred Hoiberg, Noah may not only be one of the biggest names traded at the February 18 trade deadline, he may return the most value. With Noah’s free agent price tag expected to go up in July and with his free agency being unrestricted, there is a real risk of losing Noah for nothing in return and that risk – along with his potential to return real value – means Noah could be the odd man out.
– Steve Kyler
Dwight Howard has a $23,282,457 player option for next season, meaning he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. For that reason alone, the Houston Rockets should be doing their due diligence and seeing what Howard can return in a trade. If the organization doesn’t feel that Howard will stay long-term, they should move him before the February trade deadline. I could see a one-piece-away team like the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors swinging for the fences by acquiring Howard and trying to make a deep run this season.
– Alex Kennedy
Where Will Tom Thibodeau Coach Next?
The Houston Rockets. Thibodeau passed on re-building situations after he was fired from Chicago, telling people close to him that he couldn’t stomach 30-loss seasons, so he opted to sit out and wait for a winning situation. Knowing that Thibodeau seeks a “win-now” team, Houston might be the best job open this summer. The Rockets know Thibodeau from his time on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff and his defensive-minded approach lines up with the way the Rockets see the world. The only question is will Daryl Morey and team owner Les Alexander open the check book and meet what could be a $6-7 million a year salary? If they will, Thibodeau could land in Houston.
– Steve Kyler
I just can’t see Thibodeau going to the Rockets due to their dysfunction and defensive issues, especially with Dwight Howard potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. I think the Washington Wizards make a lot of sense for Thibs. This year, Washington has failed to live up to expectations, so it’s possible that Randy Wittman is shown the door. If that happens, the roster seems perfect for Thibodeau. He would have a number of young guys who can play a ton of minutes, and Washington is a good defensive team (they were the fifth-best defense in the NBA last season). Not to mention, the East is more wide open than the West. Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the East, but I’m not scared of the other teams in the conference, whereas the West has the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. I’d love to watch a Thibodeau-coached Wizards team.
– Alex Kennedy
Which Team Lands the Top Overall Pick?
I’m going with the Brooklyn Nets. The NBA lottery has been a cruel bedfellow. Over the last 20 years, the team with the worst record has won the lottery just three times and just once in the last decade (last year to Minnesota). In that same 20-year span, the top pick has fallen all over the place, so why not Brooklyn? Here is why Brooklyn becomes interesting: they don’t own the pick. It was traded to the Boston Celtics as part of the deal that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. It would be poetic that they no longer have either player and then lose the top pick as well. That’s simply too good of theater not to entertain. Wouldn’t it also be poetic that the Celtics’ future Hall Famers that were traded so unceremoniously ultimately ended up producing a future franchise cornerstone? The lottery has been a cruel bedfellow, so why change now?
– Steve Kyler
The Philadelphia 76ers have to win it at some point, right? Throughout their tanking rebuild, they have yet to win a top-two pick. The highest they have gotten is No. 3, which is where they picked Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. I think this is the year that changes and Philly wins the Ben Simmons sweepstakes. The interesting thing to watch is where the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls. If it’s outside of the top three, it belongs to Philadelphia, meaning the 76ers could have two of the first four picks (in addition to later first-round picks from the Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder). This is an extremely important year for Philadelphia’s rebuild.
– Alex Kennedy
Where Will Kevin Durant Land in Free Agency?
Oklahoma City. As much as no one wants to hear this, I think Durant is staying right where he is. What is often dismissed is how much Durant genuinely likes living and playing in Oklahoma City. Wisely, the Thunder opted to part ways with long-time head coach Scott Brooks last summer and brought in a new coach in Billy Donovan, who has not only reached Durant on a personal level but also figured out a way for both Durant and Russell Westbrook to play at a MVP-level at the same time. The Thunder’s message this summer will be that OKC offers the best chance at winning a title and, barring some kind of epic collapse down the stretch, the Thunder should in a position to put results behind their pledge. Durant has signed some mega endorsement deals over the last two years so he will genuinely enter the process with money not being a factor in his decision. Durant likely shops, as every free agent should, but ultimately I think he stays in OKC for the rest of his career.
– Steve Kyler
It’s very possible that Durant will stay with Oklahoma City since he’s comfortable there and has a strong supporting cast. Also, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who desperately wants to play in a big market – the fact that he already leads the NBA in endorsement dollars shows he doesn’t need be in New York or Los Angeles to build his brand. I think the only way he leaves Oklahoma City is to go home to the Washington Wizards. John Wall is good friends with Durant; in October, Wall told me: “When the opportunity is right to go ahead and throw a [free agency] pitch at him, I’m going to get the opportunity to do it.” I think Washington’s young core is appealing, the idea of going home is tempting and playing in the East is attractive as well. I’m starting to realize that this article is becoming a dream scenario for the Wizards, with Durant and Thibodeau coming to town. We’ll see what happens.
– Alex Kennedy
Can The 76ers Land a Significant Free Agent?
Yes. As much grief as the 76ers franchise has gotten for their blatant “tank and rebuild” program, they are well positioned for this summer. They will have a roster loaded with interesting rookie-scale players like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel and what could be more than $65 million in cap space with new Chairman of Basketball Jerry Colangelo speed dialing Team USA players. The 76ers won’t be landing a Kevin Durant or a Mike Conley, but when you talk about the team that will set the price on more veteran type guys, look for the 76ers to be that team even if it costs them a few million more than someone is worth. They are ready for that kind of move.
– Steve Kyler
I’m going to say yes. I don’t think they’ll land a “major” free agent – as in one of the top players on the market – but I do think it’s safe to say that they’ll have a shot at a “significant” free agent. For quite some time, I’ve said that next year is the season I expect to see the 76ers winning more games. Their young guys will have some experience, they’ll add a couple more first-round talents to the team, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid may make their debuts and the front office should bring in some free agents. This team could look very different next season and I think Philly is definitely a team to watch in free agency, especially with Jerry Colangelo there.
– Alex Kennedy
Who Will Win the 2015-16 MVP?
Can you bet against Steph Curry as a back-to-back MVP? If you are willing to do that, which I am not sure I am, I would offer up another candidate: Kawhi Leonard. Now before we go nuts on this, Curry is the prohibited favorite and considering the media votes for this award, he may win his second MVP by a pretty tidy margin. But while Curry runs toward another award, Leonard has emerged as not only one of the NBA’s best lockdown defenders, he has evolved into a borderline elite level offensive player. Leonard rarely gets the credit or exposure he deserves, which may prevent him from getting serious MVP consideration. But if it’s not going to be Curry for a second time, why not Leonard?
– Steve Kyler
Look, I love Kawhi Leonard. He’s a great dude and an amazing defender, but you and I both know he’s not winning the MVP award. If Steph Curry doesn’t win it, the award would go to someone like Paul George, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant before it goes to Leonard. But that argument doesn’t matter because Curry is the MVP. Last year, Curry had four times as many votes as anyone else in the MVP race, and now he’s playing even better and simply not losing games. It also helps his case that the Warriors looked terrible last night when he wasn’t on the floor. Nobody is taking the award from Curry this year.
– Alex Kennedy
Who Is the Dark Horse Playoff Team?
The Miami HEAT. On paper Miami should be a lot better than their current record. On paper, the HEAT have a tremendous amount of fire power and depth. The problem with the HEAT is Goran Dragic has been a shell of himself, they have had some quirky injuries and while Dwyane Wade has been more than expected, the HEAT have yet to put together a long stretch of games where it all fits as it should. If Miami can figure that out come playoff time, they could be very scary. The problem with banking on Miami is all the “ifs” have to line up and there are a lot of “ifs” to consider.
– Steve Kyler
I think it has to be the Miami HEAT. This team can be extremely good when they’re at full strength, and they’re an experienced group that knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. They may not be near the top of the Eastern Conference standings right now, but they’re going to be the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
– Alex Kennedy
Who Will be the 2015-16 Rookie of The Year?
Karl Anthony-Towns is the easy answer. He has been stellar in almost every phase of the game and his fit next to Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota is nearly perfect. That said, Rookie of the Year is a media voted award and while KAT is playing really well, Kristaps Porzingis might have captured the attention on a much bigger stage. If Porzingis has a strong finish to the season, he might make the race a lot tighter than maybe it should be. That’s what happens when a budding star shows up in a major market.
– Steve Kyler
The fact that Kristaps Porzingis plays in New York will help him, because his accomplishments have received a ton of attention and he’s been a feel-good story with the way he has exceeded expectations. Jahlil Okafor will receive consideration as well, especially if his numbers improve now that Philadelphia is playing some competent point guards like Ish Smith and Kendall Marshall. With that said, I think Karl-Anthony Towns is the frontrunner right now. I really didn’t expect him to be this good, this fast. However, he has been fantastic on both ends of the floor and I think it’s his award to lose at this point.
– Alex Kennedy
Will The Knicks Trade Carmelo Anthony?
As much as the Knicks may want to dream about life without Carmelo Anthony, the truth is they are stuck with him until he decides he wants a change and that may never happen during the course of his current contract. At the time Anthony opted for his current deal, there was talk around his situation that turning away the extra millions from the Knicks was too much guaranteed money to pass on and that he could always demand a trade later if it did not work. If that’s genuinely the case, then maybe there is room for that this summer if the Knicks again fail to make the postseason. There are some around the situation who point to legacy as the next important part of Anthony’s career and if it’s not going to happen in New York, would he genuinely consider a trade scenario this summer? The likely answer is no, but there are some who believe he might be open to it if things don’t look to be trending upward at season’s end.
– Steve Kyler
No. They’ll hold onto him and continue to pursue free agents this summer. The only way I can see a Carmelo trade happening is if he becomes disgruntled and demands it, or if the team is clearly going young and he just doesn’t fit their long-term plan anymore. However, I don’t think that would happen for quite some time so I don’t expect an Anthony trade in 2016 or the near future.
– Alex Kennedy
Will The Lakers Land a Major Free Agent?
The short answer is no. As much as Lakers fans would love to hear Kevin Durant is coming, the truth is that’s not very likely. What is likely is the Lakers have their pick of the next tier of guys that fit their rebuild better and give them the flexibility to be active in the trade market. There are a few small exceptions – the Lakers may be the team that sets the price on Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and they could also be the team that gets after proven veterans looking for bigger deals than their home teams would consider. That puts the Lakers in the mix for a guy like Joakim Noah. The Lakers are well positioned for a strong summer, they may just have to choose from the next tier of guys rather than the bigger names.
– Steve Kyler
The player I think is most interesting for Los Angeles is Hassan Whiteside, who will be an unrestricted free agent. I think the Lakers should only pursue young free agents, that way they will fit with their core of Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., etc. Whiteside is only 26 years old and he would greatly improve the Lakers’ defense while also complementing Randle well. I think he’s the guy L.A. should pursue the hardest. Another interesting name for the Lakers to consider is Harrison Barnes. He’s only 23 years old and could be interested in taking on a bigger role in a huge market rather than being a role player behind Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The only problem is that he’s a restricted free agent, so the Lakers would likely have to throw a front-loaded max contract his way if they want to have any shot at landing him (and Golden State may still match). But imagine if the Lakers were to land Whiteside and Barnes this summer? It’s a long shot, but life after Kobe Bryant suddenly wouldn’t be so bad.
– Alex Kennedy
We hope this piece was as fun for you as it was for us. We hope you have a safe and happy New Year and we’ll see you in 2016!
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.