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New Orleans Pelicans 2019-20 Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans may have had the busiest offseason in the NBA by trading away Anthony Davis, drafting the top overall pick in Zion Williamson and remaking the front office into a world-class operation. Will that be enough to matter this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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No team in the NBA has remade themselves quite like the New Orleans Pelicans. After a drama-filled season last year that saw franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis ask for — and ultimately receive — a trade, the Pelicans pulled off an offseason no one could have expected a year ago.

The Pelicans tapped long-time NBA executive David Griffin to run the team and he wasted no time to put his own stamp on the franchise. The Pelicans landed the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, which became Duke big man Zion Williamson. Then New Orleans earned an absolute windfall from the Lakers in the Davis trade, thus giving Griffin a rebuild-on-the-fly that could set the franchise up for a very bright future.

Let’s take a look the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Talk about a quick rebuild! The Pelicans are now one of the most interesting teams in the league — and not only because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. New Orleans now features incredible depth and versatility in Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes. They will be incredibly fun to watch, and they could even compete for the final seed in the Western Conference.

They’re still really young and that will probably cost them a few too many games. Williamson’s ability to stay on the court will be put to the test immediately. Remember, very few non-centers have played at 285 pounds or above, so the shape in which Williamson enters the season could play a major role in his durability. But the Pelicans really streamlined their rebuild and look better off now than they were prior to trading Anthony Davis, which says a whole lot about their immediate and long-term future.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Pelicans officially hit the reset button when they traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. But they managed to get a really good haul for him, bringing in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and drafting Jaxson Hayes with the Lakers lottery pick. Not to mention the basketball gods smiled upon them with the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson. They also pulled off a draft-day trade for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This team is oozing with young talent, you couldn’t have asked for a better rebuilding situation. Playoffs are probably out of the question this season, but this will be a very entertaining team to watch.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

What hasn’t been said about the Pelicans’ busy offseason? We’ve been treated to the new-look squad in NOLA all over social media. Former Lakers such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are going to be a key part of this re-tooling, but it’s the addition of Zion Williamson that is drawing the hype train. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes put their potential on display in Las Vegas. Smartly, David Griffin went out to get veteran presences in both Derrick Favors and JJ Redick to ensure the team would hit the ground running. Jrue Holiday is going to show the world just how good he really and he’ll bring the rest of the crew along with him. Talking playoffs isn’t too far off with Alvin Gentry’s resilient squad.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

While the upcoming season is still over a month away, I still believe Griffin has already put himself in the running for the 2019-20 NBA Executive of the Year Award. That may sound hyperbolic but when you consider where the Pelicans were last season when Anthony Davis demanded he be traded, the moves Griffin made in response to this situation and where the team currently stands, it seems clear to me that Griffin is already a leading candidate for this award. There is a wide range of opinions on the young players the Pelicans acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, but each player has serious talent and is worth investing in.

Griffin also managed to shed Solomon Hill’s contract and sign JJ Redick to a very reasonable deal. The savvy-front office expert also added Favors, whom the team can re-sign after this season using his full Bird rights. And Griffin drafted some promising young prospects in this year’s draft who will grow alongside Zion Williamson. Landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Williamson was a lucky outcome so we aren’t crediting Griffin with that necessarily. But the roster he has structured around Williamson can credibly compete on a nightly basis this upcoming season and is loaded with young talent. This is a great overall outcome for the Pelicans and Griffin deserves a lot of praise for it.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Pelicans offseason in awe. Few franchises survive the exodus of a mega-star player without needing to hit the bottom to get another one, but not only did the Pelicans get an epic return for Anthony Davis from the Lakers, but they also landed the future face of the franchise in Zion Williamson — all without having to part with Jrue Holiday. On paper, the Pelicans might be a better all-around team than they were with Davis, mainly because of his extensive injury history and the upside of the guys coming in from the Lakers. We’ll see if the Pelicans can come together fast enough to matter, but the roster work was impressive.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pelicans were one of the most active teams over the offseason, rebuilding the team under the leadership of new executive vice president David Griffin. The franchise went under the salary cap to bring in veterans like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, supplementing the bounty they got from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. One big question is the future of Brandon Ingram, who can sign a contract extension before the start of the season.

New Orleans also needs to pick up the team option on Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball before November. With Darius Miller out with a torn Achilles, the Pelicans will probably ask the league for a disabled player exception that would give the team another $3.6 million to acquire a player (with one year left on their deal), either via free agency, trader or off waivers. The Pelicans have two players on partially guaranteed deals in Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams. If both stick, they round out the roster at 15 (not including two-way players).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jrue Holiday

It’s amazing what one year can change. Last year at this time, Anthony Davis could have been considered the top player in almost all of the following categories. He was the best player on the team, so, obviously, the franchise was gutted when he demanded a trade prior to the All-Star break.

This made things even worse for the second-best player, Jrue Holiday. He had recently signed a big extension with the franchise and received his money, but once Davis wanted out, he was hung out to dry. Certain reports even said the Pelicans were calling teams to gauge interest in Holiday, just in case they wanted to trade him.

Things changed dramatically for the franchise come lottery time. Not only did they receive a nice haul of young talent from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davis, but they were also blessed with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.

With Zion coming to the team, all hope was not lost. And moving forward – at least in the immediate future – this is Jrue Holiday’s team.

Last season, Holiday averaged career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds. As the best offensive player, let’s highlight the specific stats that point to that designation.

His 21.2 points per game were best for third on the team last season behind Julius Randle and Davis. Both of those players have moved to different teams, and none of the players brought in as replacements averaged more than 18.3 points per game. Williamson could eventually become a bigger scoring threat than Holiday, but we need to see him play some serious NBA minutes first.

Holiday had career-highs in both free throws made and free throw attempted — still, even after all these years, he is getting better at drawing fouls and getting to the line.

He averaged 7.7 assists to only 3.1 turnovers — cementing that he is both a capable ballhandler as well as a legitimate scoring threat.

His one glaring weakness on offense is his three-point shot. It’s not horrible, but it has dramatically gotten worse throughout his career. There is almost a direct correlation in his shot attempts increasing with the percentage decreasing. In fact, last season he put up a career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game but made a career-low 32.5 percent of them.

Top Defensive Player: Derrick Favors

Many fans don’t quite understand the caliber of player that Favors has become. He’s more-or-less been in the shadow of Rudy Gobert the last few seasons but — as one of the most humble guys in the NBA — you haven’t heard any complaints. Utah – reluctantly – had to trade Favors in order to make room for their new free-agent acquisitions, so New Orleans was the team lucky enough to pick up the last year of his team-option contract.

Favors is one of just 11 players in the last five seasons to average at least 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Take away guys that played more than 30 minutes per game and guess how many that leaves on the list? Just one: Favors.

What’s more, he has only averaged 27.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons. Imagine what he can do with a full load of starting five-caliber minutes.

He’s a monster in the paint, easily a top-5 rim protector in the NBA, and strong enough to guard the most powerful post players. He isn’t elite at switching onto forwards but has the ability to make a decent impact when it’s necessary.

Jrue Holiday has a case for the best defensive player, but he won’t have near the impact as Favors does in stopping opponents from scoring. New Orleans will be more than pleased with their new starting center.

Top Playmaker: Lonzo Ball

The inevitable finally occurred for the Ball family. Ever since Davis requested his trade, Lonzo was considered to be a centerpiece in the trade talks. Much to the dismay of LaVar, the baby Ball found himself out of Hollywood and down in the Big Easy.

Ball was third in assist percentage last season in Los Angeles behind LeBron James and Rajon Rondo – two elite passers. He was second in assist-to-turnover ratio behind, again, only Rondo.

While he has continued to struggle with his shooting, his court vision has only gotten better since college. He is one of the true young talents when it comes to playmaking in the NBA and, considering his age, could likely become the best in the league within a couple of years. He has to be considered the best passer in the league aged 21 or younger — and the only person currently on New Orleans’ roster who could give him a run for his money is Holiday. But Holiday has transitioned into more of a scoring role, so his ability to dish the ball has taken a backseat.

Ball is still waiting for his breakout season and, with a bigger role in New Orleans, it might be his time. Watch for his playmaking to improve even more now that he has more room to function.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

This will most likely be a tough box to check during the season. Most players on the roster either didn’t play much in the clutch last season or performed poorly when they did. As a remember, clutch situations occur when there is a five or less point differential with five minutes remaining in the game.

Holiday played plenty of clutch minutes but shot horrendously from the field when he did. Favors’ scoring was incredibly efficient, but he only played 11 games in clutch situations and put up less than one field goal per game.

Ingram performed best in the clutch last season, although he still wasn’t a killer by any means. He averaged 1.4 points per game in the clutch, shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His unique ability to get to the basket certainly helps in late-game situations when most players are gassed.

Ingram, although young and not mistake-prone, is athletic, knows his handle well and can beat defenders either to the rim or to certain spots where he likes to shoot. He has an elite length for his position and this really comes in handy when his team needs a bucket. He wasn’t the Lakers’ go-to guy last year for late-game shots – for obvious reasons – but he’ll have the ability to be that guy on an inferior starting-five for the Pelicans.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Seriously, by the end of the season, you will have a much better idea of who Favors is. It’s really hard to point out exactly what it is that Favors does so well, likely because he does many things on the court at a high-level.

As previously mentioned, he is an elite rim protector. Favors is also an incredible rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is superb at finishing at the rim but has quite a solid midrange game, too. The veteran’s offensive efficiency is up there with the best players in the league, to boot.

But his best attribute of all has to be his effort. Favors is a workhorse on both ends of the court and will give you his all regardless of how many minutes he plays. Not once during his almost nine-year tenure with Utah was his effort ever called in to question and not a single time did you hear him complain about losing minutes to Gobert or declining touches on offense.

Even better, Favors rarely has an off night. He’s outrageously consistent, supremely humble and, overall, just a dude you want in your locker room and on the court every night. Pelicans fans may not have known how to react when they got him via trade, but they’ll be very pleased with the results he brings at the end of the season.

Best New Addition: Zion Williamson

Okay, I know you were waiting for this one. Probably the most hyped player to come out of the draft since LeBron James, Zion brings a certain buzz of excitement to the league that hasn’t been felt since the aforementioned Davis entered. His mix of size, athleticism and basketball IQ at such a young age are perhaps better than even James’ at the time of his draft.

It almost looks extraterrestrial to see his massive frame jump off the ground as high as he does. He has the weight and strength of an NBA center, the height of a small forward and the handles and touch of a guard. At the collegiate level, he was unbelievable in the open court when running fast breaks.

Williamson’s defensive skills are ahead of his time. He can guard just about every position with ease and can elevate to levels above the rim that almost seem impossible for his height.

He finished his college campaign with a 20 box plus-minus which is the best on record for a college player, finishing in front of players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Victor Oladipo.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what position and situation will allow him to have the biggest impact in the NBA, but his success is almost a sure-fire thing. It is unfathomable to assume his floor is any lower than a solid starter for many years. His ceiling could go as high as the greatest player of all time. We won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but the intangibles are all there. Now, it just comes down to whether or not he can put them all together.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jrue Holiday

Until Zion proves otherwise, this is his team. He remained as second-fiddle to Anthony Davis for quite some time, so this could truly be his breakout year. We got a taste of it last season post-All-Star break when Davis played severely shallow minutes, but Holiday’s game has really grown to an All-Star-caliber level. He defends at an elite level and can score quite well, too.

He still needs to improve his finishing, as often his scoring comes as a result of poor efficiency, but downplaying the ability to get points in the NBA, regardless of percentages, is a poor move. Holiday is continually improving his offensive arsenal — and his defense is already at one of the top positions in the league — so he will be a major face to the franchise for at least this season, likely for many to come.

2. David Griffin

Give it to the big man upstairs for constructing this talented roster when all seemed lost. It was expected that they’d get quite the haul for Davis, which they did, but getting Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick, in addition, was huge. Also, drafting both Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker using draft picks from the trade, look to be enormous pickups as well. Both of those young guys played incredibly well during the NBA Summer League.

Seriously, things appeared pretty dismal for the Pelicans after the Davis news originally broke. The fact that they are even minutely mentioned in the playoff race six months later in the deep Western Conference is pretty miraculous.

3. JJ Redick

Redick – at age 34 – is coming off his highest-scoring season ever. On a roster that included Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that is surely saying something. He finished the season with 18.1 points per game and did so shooting an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent.

It is still quite puzzling that the 76ers just let him go, especially for a team that sorely needs three-point shooting. Redick will be an instant boost on offense for the Pelicans and will absolutely help spread the floor.

He has the ability to consistently knock down shots at multiple levels, which will allow his teammates to move around more freely, as defenses will always need to keep an eye on the veteran’s location. He may not do what he did last season points-wise, but Redick isn’t anywhere near a decline at this point in his career.

4. Zion Williamson

What’s not to like? He’s big, strong and fast. For PR junkies, he has a nice smile and always seems to know what to say for a player at his age. He dunks with authority, has a motor that most have never seen and clearly loves the game of basketball. The list goes on and on and on.

What else can be said about this guy? His weight could be a factor down the road as far as the health of his knees is concerned, but something like that is such a small concern for the amount of upside at this time. Plus, it’s not that difficult to lose weight. And Williamson’s weight isn’t all that unhealthy. NBA trainers will get him looking like less of a football player and more of a basketball player in no time.

He will likely be in the starting lineup day one, so look for him to make a hyper-quick impact in the NBA. Fans everywhere will be holding their breath for his first earth-shattering dunk. Especially due to the fact that his play was so limited in the Las Vegas Summer League. Ladies and gentlemen, the Zion Era is almost upon us.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

This team’s biggest strengths are that there are no glaring weaknesses. They have pretty solid talent at multiple levels and don’t really lack anything on either side of the ball.

Their starting unit will consist of five players that would start for just about any team — and the fact that one of Ball, Ingram or Redick will likely start the season coming off the bench is telling about the level of top-end talent they possess.

The roster was pretty heavily rebuilt during the offseason, so we’ve yet to see what it will look like on the court, but there is plenty of talent there. Holiday, Favors and Ball can hold things down on defense, while players like Redick, Ingram and Williamson will be able to generate good looks on offense.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

On the flip side, however, their biggest weakness is that they have no outlying strengths. While everything on the court looks solid on paper, nothing really sticks out as an outright strength. The team is still incredibly young — there’s a lot to like about their roster, but what is one supposed to like the most?

Obviously Williamson will be fun, there’s no denying that. But calling him a strength without seeing any minutes against actual NBA talent would be a stretch. There’s no doubt he’ll get there, and maybe relatively quickly, but it’s still a question mark for now.

Until we see the finished product on the court working as a cohesive unit, you can’t really point to any major strengths. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe. But what will it be that gets them there? Only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?

It would be so fun to say yes here. The team is young, hungry, rebuilt and, in some cases, ready for revenge. What was the Lakers’ young core likely feels like used goods and is ready to show the NBA why they shouldn’t have been traded for Davis. Williamson is ready to make his stamp on the NBA, Favors is ready to blossom post-Jazz-life and Redick is out to prove why the 76ers should have paid him instead of others.

Unfortunately, the conference is just too deep. There are at least eight teams better than New Orleans and at least three teams that are arguably just as talented — to wit, to this writer: the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s certainly not impossible. There is for sure a path that ends with New Orleans in the playoffs at the end of this season. But they are at least a year out before it becomes a determined, expected reality. They are too young, don’t have enough time together and still need to find out what their identity is. The Pelicans weren’t exactly a powerhouse with Anthony Davis, so they still have a long ways to go.

But they just might have the talent to eventually get them there.

– Jordan Hicks

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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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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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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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