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New York Knicks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Knicks didn’t land a max-level free agent this offseason, but they did add a number of serviceable players who will help their younger players develop. Basketball Insiders previews the upcoming year in New York.

Basketball Insiders

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The New York Knicks enter 2019-20 hoping for development and cohesion. As recently as this time last year, the Knicks expected to enter the season with at least one cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis, a free agent superstar and a lottery pick added to the roster. Instead, the team experienced tremendous turnover, returning only six players from the 2018-19 team.

But the Knicks can boast one thing they haven’t had in some time – a unified vision from its leadership. David Fizdale is still viewed as a player-friendly coach, and general manager Scott Perry is slowing improving the Knicks’ reputation around the league and with free agents.

The Knicks’ 2019-20 season is more of a stepping stone than it is about the end result. They must demonstrate a good culture – because they’re structured to potentially be players in free agency again in 2020.

Five Guys Think…

Coming into season two under David Fizdale, there are actually some positive vibes in the Big Apple. The Knicks have a blue-chip prospect in RJ Barrett taking over as the face of the franchise, meaning they’ll have quite the young talent to work with and develop over the season. Contrary to belief, the offseason wasn’t quite a bad one. There were plenty of forwards signed -and there will be a logjam in the frontcourt – but this team didn’t have the veterans in the locker room to show the inexperienced players the ropes. Plus, the deals are flexible enough that there are some contracts that could be moved for more assets. New York will be in the basement of the Atlantic Division due to the ridiculous amount of tough competition, but this campaign should prove to at least be a step in the right direction.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Knicks struck out on their top free-agent targets such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they did sign a quite a few players, including a couple in Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson who all play the same position. Not bad signings at all, just a question mark as to how they’ll all fit together. They actually have some intriguing young talent on the team including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. It’s still going to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, but if a few of those young guys pan out, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, sooner rather than later.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Knicks had an underwhelming offseason. They expected two max-level free agents, but had to settle for next-tier players and journeymen. While they enter 2019-20 with more talent than a year ago, it’s still nowhere near enough to compete with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics or Nets. However, if you’re looking for progress, the Knicks should demonstrate a decent amount of it. Coach David Fizdale is back for his second season in the Big Apple and president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry enter their third season together. So while there is practically no continuity on the court – only six players return from last season – at least there is some in philosophy and culture. Further, rookie RJ Barrett and free agent addition Julius Randle inspire a bit of guarded optimism.

5th place – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca

Despite the hype of free agency misses, the Knicks actually came out of the summer set up smartly. They have promising young guys that should continue to see development opportunities while being surrounded by solid win-now veterans that are pretty attractive trade chips as the season plays out. Sure, many likely wanted the superstar this past July, but when you consider the modern NBA roadmap to sustained winning, the Knicks are well-positioned for the future. That may stink this season, as the Knicks may not have enough star-level talent to really compete on a night to night basis, but there is a glimmer of hope in this regards – no-name teams have done pretty well over the last decade, especially if all of those discounted veterans seize their moment in the New York spotlight. It’s likely the Knicks are lottery team, not a playoff team, but in the end, they may come out better positioned for a promising future than where they were two seasons ago.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

The New York Knicks and their fans had very high hopes entering this offseason. I won’t go deep into those details since it has already been covered in great detail and there isn’t much value in constantly reminding Knicks fans that they flooded social media with photo-shopped pictures of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson in Knicks jerseys. The more interesting discussion revolves around what the Knicks did after they missed out on their star targets this offseason. Through the draft, trades and free agency, the Knicks added RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris to the roster. Oddly enough, the Knicks put major resources into acquiring four power forwards in Randle, Gibson, Portis and Morris (though some of these players can play center as well). Individually, each move makes some sense. However, it’s unclear why the Knicks felt compelled to sign Portis to a two-year, $30.75 million contract. It should not be noted that New York has a team option on the second and final season of the contract, so there’s no long-term risk. But the market wasn’t particularly hot for Portis this offseason and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term advantage to signing him to this deal. However, the Knicks also signed most of their new players to short-term deals, so there’s no significant loss in future flexibility. This wasn’t a bad pivot from the Knicks’ front office after missing out on their key targets, but it’s just a bit confusing when you look at the structure of the roster at this point.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

From The Cap Guy

Unable to land a single superstar this summer, despite the cap room for two, the Knicks invested heavily in players on extremely friendly contracts. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock each signed two-year deals with just $1 million guaranteed apiece for 2020-21. That’s only $4 million of a combined $29.7 million of guaranteed money. Additionally, Bobby Portis has a team option for $15.8 million.

In addition to their multiple movable contracts (along with the one-year, $15 million deal for Marcus Morris), look for the Knicks to be active in discussions leading to the NBA Trade Deadline. New York also has a couple of future first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks to include, along with young players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If a star becomes available, look for the Knicks to pursue aggressively.

– Eric Pincus

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Julius Randle

Julius Randle posted career bests last season in points and three-point percentage, and he will have far more opportunity on the Knicks as their primary scorer. Randle entered the league at essentially the perfect time – just as positionless basketball was really catching on. His ability to push the ball up the floor following a rebound is rare for his size. He is a tricky cover because he is too strong for most players his height or smaller, but quicker than most centers. Randle will be used in smaller lineups as a five and could even play some alongside two bigs. The Knicks are going to need every bit of production from Randle, though. The bar is higher this season as he enters the year as the Knicks best player And the pressure will be on immediately as New York is traditionally not an overly patient city.

Top Defensive Player: Mitchell Robinson

Robinson was one of the few positives on the Knicks last season. He oozes potential thanks to a unique combination of length, athletic ability and shot-blocking instincts.

Robinson averaged stellar per-36 numbers last season as a rookie: 12.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and an astounding 4.3 blocks. And despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less than most guys ahead of him on the blocks list, he still finished fourth overall for the entire league.

But it isn’t just blocks. It’s how and where he blocks shots. Robinson closes out on shooters, disrupting and blocking shots at an incredible rate. His instincts must improve while guarding ball handlers; and despite showing improvement regarding fouls, he must continue to improve his defensive footwork and avoid bailing opposing players out by using his hands. But the sky is the limit for Robinson, and he’ll be a huge part of the Knicks’ future.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. has been criticized for not progressing enough between his rookie and sophomore seasons; however, his play after being traded to the Knicks in February should inspire hope.

Smith Jr. is the Knicks’ best established off-the-dribble player. He seems to have improved his shooting stroke this offseason based on offseason workout videos, which will only further his playmaking abilities given that opponents will have to defend him even more closely. While he is regarded as more of a scorer than a creator, he can create for others simply by breaking down the defense and making the easy pass.

This season is a make-or-break year for Smith Jr. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he reacted to the Mavericks drafting Luka Doncic. He must demonstrate more maturity in New York. The Knicks just drafted a high-profile rookie (RJ Barrett). Smith Jr. must understand that he might not be the most important piece on the Knicks, but that he is still instrumental to their success. If he can accept his role and contribute whenever possible, it will begin repairing his image and – probably – benefit him on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Reggie Bullock

Bullock’s signing with the Knicks had a bit of drama. He originally signed this offseason for 2-years/$21 million; but once a health issue was identified in his physical, the deal was reworked (2-year/$8.2 million), which also allowed the Knicks to sign Marcus Morris.

While Bullock’s recovery from neck surgery will disallow him from starting the season with the Knicks, he will be a welcome addition once he’s available to them. Bullock shoots 39.2 percent from long-range for his career. He was brought on due to the fact that he’s seen as a sniper – unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career. If Bullock can get (and remain) healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the Knicks line-up in 2019-20. That is a big if, though. Currently, the timeline for Bullock’s return is undefined. He could miss the first month, or he could miss the entire season.

The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris

Morris is the blue-collar bruiser New Yorkers have been clamoring for – only a modern version. Morris is a tough, versatile defender. He can also get the Knicks a bucket when they’re in need in a multitude of ways. He averaged 13.9 points last season and happily accepted a role with the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and others. So there should be no fear in New York of Morris demanding a particular role.

He is a tough-nosed veteran who will be a leader in the locker room and on the floor. And more importantly, he will set a great example for the Knicks’ youngsters. He has been credited by opposing coaches for inspiring his team’s defense. Pacers head coach Nate McMillian said of Morris following a playoff win last April, “He’s a guy that really establishes their defense. He gets after the best player and they feed off that.” The Knicks definitely hope that he’ll have a similar effect in New York.

Best New Addition: RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett was selected third overall – shockingly, the Knicks highest draft pick since 1984 (Patrick Ewing). Knicks fans are obviously clamoring for a quick win with Barrett. Will he be able to pace himself and overcome efficiency issues with Knicks’ fans and the New York media breathing down his neck? Most rookies would struggle mightily with this – but not Barrett.

Barrett’s approach has been solid so far. Remember – it was Barrett who coyly said workout videos aren’t for him, and it was Barrett who was squarely focused on playing in New York throughout the draft process. He’s aware of the expectations and he understands the pressure. New York is an entirely different beast. But Barrett has the right mental makeup to get through all of the stressors that New York will throw at him.

– Drew Maresca

Who We Like

1. Kevin Knox

Knox struggled with efficiency last season – his effective field goal percentage was only 34.3 percent. He settled for threes when given space and he relied too heavily on runners rather than taking the ball up stronger and looking to draw fouls.

But Knox also has an incredible amount of potential. He is a well-built 6-foot-9 swingman who can score in a number of different ways. His shooting stroke was inconsistent last season, but he has good form and should show improvement now that he has a better understanding of the NBA game.

Further, the Knicks didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. So Knox came on board and was immediately among the primary focuses of opposing defenses. The addition of Randle, Morris and company will mitigate the attention on Knox, at least in the early going.

2. Elfrid Payton

Payton’s career has been a bit disappointing so far. While seen as a defensive specialist, he has underwhelmed – mostly gambling too much by jumping in passing lanes. Payton actually posted the worst defensive rating on the Pelicans in 2018-19.

But he can still contribute – especially considering the lack of experience amongst Knicks point guards. He is a solid rebounder and he creates opportunities for his teammates. He has shown flashes throughout his career – erupting for five straight triple-doubles last season.

It would be naïve to expect Payton to develop too much more at this point in his career. But his positive attributes can steady the ship when Smith Jr. has an off game and/or Ntilikina’s confidence wavers.

3. Bobby Portis

Portis is a player the Knicks might consider keeping on the roster beyond next season. He is an above-average rebounder– and most importantly, he has displayed the ability to shoot from distance. Portis shot 35.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 with Chicago, and he upped the ante last season connecting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.

But Portis isn’t a one-dimensional offensive player. His size and athleticism enable him to score in a number of different ways. He rolls to the hoop well and can catch and shoot from the mid-range, as well.

Portis struggles on the defensive end of the court, though. And unfortunately, he is a sub-par defender in practically every way possible including pick-and-roll defense, shot-blocking. While he probably won’t improve much at this point of his career, the Knicks can mask his deficiencies by pairing him with guys like Robinson and Morris.

4. Allonzo Trier

Trier was a welcome surprise last season. But if you knew his game in college, you couldn’t have expected any less. Trier is a scorer who exudes confidence. He slowed down a bit as the season progressed last year, but that is to be expected from rookies.

Trier isolates incredibly well and gets buckets in bunches. He has a pure shooting stroke and a series of primary and secondary moves. While slightly undersized for a shooting guard, he was seen as a strong defender in college – which could help his case to carve out minutes on a crowded roster.

Trier must improve off the ball. Last season he attempted just 2.1 three-pointers per game, but converted on 39.4 percent of them. And his opportunities to play as the primary ball-handler will be limited given the number of lead guards on the roster, so it’s in his best interest to embrace his opportunity as a shooting guard.

5. David Fizdale

Coach Fizdale had a challenging first year in New York. But that had very little to do with him. Last season was about initiating a culture in the locker room. And Fizdale did just that. His “chopping the tree” mantra caught on in the locker room with players citing it time and again as the season wore on. He must continue building camaraderie in the locker room, and he must continue representing the Knicks outwardly – as the entire league will continue judging the Knicks moving forward based partially on Coach Fizdale.

– Drew Maresca

Strengths

Young talent. The Knicks have a tremendous number of recent draftees with loads of potential including Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and Ignas Brazdeikis – all of whom have less than three years of experience in the NBA.

But youth and wins don’t go together too well.

The Knicks are going to struggle to close out games. They must focus on developing their youth, especially Robinson and Barrett – the most important duo to take the court for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. They must push through the discomfort of losing games as a franchise and maintain the course. They cannot default to their veterans in an attempt to get a few more wins, robbing their young core of valuable experience in the process.

However, there is a balance they’ll have to strike. They do not want to find themselves playing meaningless basketball too early in the season. That tanking-like strategy breeds bad habits.

– Drew Maresca

Weaknesses

Point guard play has been an issue for the Knicks since approximately 2005, when Stephon Marbury famously declared himself the best point guard in the NBA – the season didn’t go as planned for the Knicks, nor have most since then.

It was widely assumed that the Knicks would acquire a lead guard in each of the last three seasons, beginning with the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has looked good in the FIBA World Cup so far, even stealing starting point guard duties and drawing praise from the teammates including Rudy Gobert. But FIBA and the NBA are entirely different games, and Ntilikina’s confidence seems to wane when he’s back on this side of the pond.

The other point guard they had an eye on in the 2017 draft – Dennis Smith Jr. – is also now on their roster, and he is viewed as a more likely solution at this point than Ntilikina. Smith Jr.’s summer workout videos have been well-received by fans and the New York media, but most experts understand that those videos are engineered to build hype and are showing only highlight-worthy clips.

The Knicks also added Elfrid Payton, who is a Scott Perry draft pick from Orlando in 2014.

To summarize, the Knicks have three talented and unproven point guards on their roster – each of whom has his share of flaws. They can use 2019-20 to gauge who plays well with one another and which ones they hope to keep moving forward – if any. But don’t expect All-Star level play from any of them this season. And if that somehow happens, Knicks’ fans won’t be the least bit upset.

– Drew Maresca

The Burning Question

How will Fizdale manage the rotation?

The Knicks onboarded a number of fairly established players – Gibson, Morris, Payton, Portis, etc. He can’t play all of the new vets and continue ahead with the youth movement. And while Knicks fans and the New York media are behind the idea of a youth movement now, they will probably change their tune after falling a number of games below .500. Coach FIzdale has to strike a very delicate balance between playing his young core and keeping veterans on the court – after all, rookies and second-year players don’t usually win games.

But Fizdale also wants to get his youngsters experience playing in clutch situations. He must define lineups that complement each other deliberately while making sure to play as many of his young players as possible.

In addition to allowing the Knicks to remain competitive, playing veterans alongside younger players removes pressure from Knicks’ rookies and second-year players. Putting too much pressure on younger players can lead to poor habits and/or hurt their development.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ management and coaching staff must remember that this season is mostly a precursor to the future. While they are probably beyond tanking, they should be more concerned with developing their young talent than with wins; however if they can accomplish both at the same time, that would be best.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

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

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

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

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

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

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

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

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

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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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