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Pascal Siakam And ‘Battle-Tested’ Raptors Bench Full of Promise

Spencer Davies chats with Pascal Siakam and C.J. Miles on Siakam’s improvements and Toronto’s developing talent.

Spencer Davies

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There’s something about the looseness of the Toronto Raptors this season that makes you wonder—is this the year they break through?

Take a hilarious pre-game exchange, for example. Getting set for their rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, veterans C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry are sitting down at their lockers just hanging out.

The morning beforehand, Basketball Insiders conducted an interview with Pascal Siakam, so Miles was asked about the second-year forward and his progression. He began to rave over him and the plethora of young talent on the team’s roster. That is, until an interruption happened in the midst of his words.

*Siakam walks by and messes with Miles*

Miles: I’m talkin’ about you.

Siakam: Stop lyin’ dawg. What you talkin’ about?

Miles: Pascal is [expletive]!

Lowry: DAMN!

Siakam: That’s crazy man.

Miles: See what you did? You did this. I was on your side until 10 seconds ago.

After the shenanigans, Miles got back to his thoughts on Siakam and three other sophomores he plays with as a part of a talented bench that has been “battle-tested.”

“Pascal—he’s just Mr. Do A Little Bit Of Everything, basically,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He just plays with a ton of energy and he does whatever it takes. You love having guys like that on your side.

“Just getting that confidence. That’s the biggest thing. Our league is about confidence, opportunity. A lot of guys come in with talent and ability. I think it’s just about having the chance to play themselves into a rotation, and if they’re working on the sideline, it always shows when they get the chance. And that’s what happened. It showed that those guys have been working the last two years ‘cause they got a chance to be thrown out there and they were ready.”

That still may be an understatement. The five-man group of Miles, Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is one of 26 units that have played on the floor for 315 minutes or more this season. Only the Philadelphia starters have a higher net rating than their plus-18.9 among the aforementioned combinations in the NBA.

When it comes to Toronto’s best defensive units, Siakam is a common denominator. The two rotations that allow the least amount of points per 100 possessions feature the 24-year-old (95.6 and 98.8, which are good for the only figures under 100).

“Everyone has a chip on their shoulders,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Just a couple of GOATs on the team (smiles)—Delon, Fred, Jak. We got guys that work hard and I think it’s just good to see that we’ve been playing pretty good.

“We just play ball. We just hoop and we got that little chemistry going. Hopefully, we keep it going.”

So why is it that this collection of 20-somethings has been able to get the job done? You can boil it down to the faith that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has in them, especially in crucial and late game situations.

“It means a lot,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think a lot of young players don’t get that privilege unless you’re like…Who’s getting that right now? I don’t know. But yeah, you see my point.

“We don’t really get that a lot (in this league), so it means a lot. We’ve proven that we’re capable of handling that and he’s trusting us to handle it when we have to.”

For Miles, he was surprised that “an old-school guy like Case” would afford this prominent of a role to guys so early in their respective careers, but he’s also been the one who has worked with them since day one.

“They’ve stepped up to the challenge,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He got a chance to see those guys work every single day. And then, it’s hard to shorten that rope when those guys continue to play well and continue to overcome obstacles and continue to show that they can take a punch and get back up. So you earn trust, and they’ve done it.”

Casey’s method in handling the situation has been simple—don’t be afraid to hand them to the keys to the car. Sometimes it’ll go well, sometimes it won’t—but they’ll gain the proper knowledge from it regardless.

“They’re learning, and it’s been that way all year,” Casey said. “I know their numbers have been really good, but they’ve been up and down all year. They’ve learned from their mistakes and some of their failures, which all young guys are gonna go through. That’s the positive of that—that you do get that experience and learn from it.”

In a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics six days ago, one of those lessons manifested itself when things went awry. Leading by two points after three quarters, Toronto was outscored 28-15 in the final period. It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, but rather one of those times where the inexperience came into play.

“I don’t think it was lack of effort,” Casey said. “I think it was execution, doing the little things that’s gonna help that group play well offensively and defensively. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort. I think right now we’re playing hard, but not playing smart. That’d be the way I would describe it.”

“We had a slippage [in Boston],” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “At least we felt like we did, ‘cause I don’t think we played bad, but we’re just so used to us playing better. Had a little slippage. I think we’re pretty good at usually bouncing back, so we’ll be alright.”

Luckily for the Raptors, if things go downhill, there’s always the duo of Lowry and a guy named DeMar DeRozan to carry the load. At times, Casey likes to mix them in with players in the second unit. Siakam told Basketball Insiders that’s how he sees things shaking out in the postseason.

“It’s not gonna be all five of us at the end of a game,” he joked. “It’s gonna be starters in there. And if he can throw some youth in there to run with the vets, it’s good.”

Speaking of DeRozan, the outlook on him as a spectator and playing as his teammate has been two different experiences for Siakam.

“He’s just getting better every day, every year, man,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Like I didn’t know him before the two years that I’ve been here—well I knew him before, but I’m saying I didn’t actually know him.

“I think it’s one thing to just watch basketball when you’re in college and stuff and knowing that DeMar DeRozan is one of the great players in the league. The other thing is just being on the team with him—seeing what does and how he works and the things he’s been able to do on the floor is incredible. So I think All-Star, my favorite player for sure.”

As for his own view on how he’s come along for Toronto this year, Siakam believes the most significant improvement has come as a ball-handler and a distributor. Casey has referred to him as a point forward multiple times, but he doesn’t go that far just yet.

“I don’t even wanna say all of that,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders when asked if that’s what he considers himself. “I’m just a ballplayer man. I’m trying to play and get my teammates involved and play the game the right way.”

The skill has been in his arsenal since he started playing. Now it’s just showing at the highest level in basketball.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors are scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor on an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent, ranking him in the 90th and 88th percentiles individually among others. In addition, his assist percentage (2.9 to 12.3 percent) and assist to usage ratio (0.25 to 0.8) has skyrocketed in just one year.

“It’s been something that I don’t think people saw coming,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that I’ve always had and I’ve been working on and now seeing that development just gives me even more room to just even work harder and get even better at it.

“I think now that you have that freedom, I think it opens up a lot more things. Usually, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’mma work on this and address this for my development. I don’t know if I’mma do it in a game.’ But hey, now that I know that I can do it in a game, it helps even more to just work on it more.”

Siakam will keep attacking every day and get better with each game, as will the other young guns on Toronto’s roster.

In the meantime, Miles will continue to encourage them as the oldest member of the quintet. Nearing the end of his 13th season in the league, he put into perspective what it’s like to be the veteran, mentioning a time where he played for the Cavaliers in his eighth NBA season as the turning point for him grasping life as a professional.

“I was 25 but I was five, six years more than a lot of guys that were on the team,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “Me and Luke Walton were the oldest guys the first year.

“But now at this point, I think I really understand it. I didn’t understand it then. It took me some time because I was still trying to figure myself out, but now I think I’ve embraced it as much as I can. And a lot of knowledge I was handed over the years, I just try to share it.”

Neither Miles nor Siakam have experienced life in the playoffs with this team. Outside of Wright and Norman Powell, the same can really be said for the other young guys on the roster.

In four straight years, it’s been a punch to the gut. Their last couple of postseason appearances have resulted in eliminations in the Eastern Conference semi-Finals and Finals, and the previous two years before that resulted in first-round exits. Seeing the late-season struggles serves as a reminder of those shortcomings, just sooner than what we’re used to seeing.

Prior to the dominant rebound victory over Boston, the Raptors had dropped four out of six games. There was a glaring lack of coverage on the perimeter where opponents shot 45.9 percent from deep and made over 11 threes per contest. It’s something they desperately want to get fixed before the regular season concludes.

“I mean, we just gotta do a better job,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Be engaged more. It’s mostly communication. We get a little lazy sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal. We gonna figure it out.

“Usually we execute pretty good in the last five minutes or something of the game, but recently a little bit we’ve gotten away from it a little bit. We lost some tough games.”

Despite the down stretch, Toronto remains the top seed in the East and can clinch it with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. Because of their last victory, it’s highly likely they’ll earn that number one spot and home-court advantage in the conference.

It’s an accomplishment that the team should be proud of, but they are hungry for more than that. They want to go far.

Forget the outside noise. Forget the past. Siakam is focused on now.

“I know this year, we got a pretty good team,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think our combination of youth and vets gives us a really good chance. I just like our chemistry. I like our chances. I don’t know about other teams, but I like our chances.

“I’m putting my money on the Raptors.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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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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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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