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San Antonio Spurs 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the San Antonio Spurs.

Basketball Insiders

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The San Antonio Spurs, and the NBA as a whole, said goodbye to future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan this offseason. Duncan was 39 years old throughout the majority of last season, but he was still one of the more effective defenders in the league for periods. Father Time finally started catching up to Duncan as he struggled to defend effectively against quicker and more athletic teams and it wasn’t apparent that things would improve moving forward.

With Duncan gone, the Spurs acquired Pau Gasol in free agency to pair alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt. Neither Aldridge nor Gasol can defend like Duncan could, but both are talented offensive players who should give other teams trouble on most nights. Other big men such as David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon were added as well. Now, it’s up to Gregg Popovich to do what he does best: take a collection of returning players and incoming players and get them to play like they’ve been teammates for years. If anyone can achieve this, it’s Pop. However, this will be the first time he will be doing so without his franchise big man serving as the focal point on both ends of the court.

Basketball Insiders previews the San Antonio Spurs’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

If any team in the Western Conference can challenge the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, I’d say it’s the Spurs. Gregg Popovich is one of the best coaches in the history of this sport, Kawhi Leonard is a freak of nature (on both ends of the court now) and LaMarcus Aldridge is a defender’s nightmare. As my colleagues mentioned, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have declined, but they aren’t asked to do nearly as much for this team anymore. One of the most impressive things about San Antonio’s roster, in my opinion, is their depth. In addition to the players mentioned above, they also have Danny Green, Pau Gasol, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon (a sneaky-good signing), Kyle Anderson, Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons as well as incoming youngsters Davis Bertans,  Livio Jean-Charles, Dejounte Murray and Patricio Garino. It’s sad to see Tim Duncan retire after his incredible career, especially because he was still capable of producing. But even without the future Hall of Famer, the Spurs are extremely talented, well-coached and deep. It’s also worth noting that Aldridge should be more comfortable and productive this year since he’s no longer getting acclimated to his new situation. His adjustment period wasn’t discussed much last season since he played well and the Spurs won so many games, but it’s very possible that Aldridge will be even better in 2016-17 since he’s more familiar with his teammates, coaches and system.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

Even though Tim Duncan was Kirk-Douglas-old by the end of last season and understandably chose retirement over another 90+ games of the NBA grind, he’s not a guy a team just replaces. Honestly, Pau Gasol was about as good as San Antonio was going to do, and he’ll be a nice fit in the frontcourt alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan’s send-off also means this is Kawhi Leonard’s show now, but we’ve seen this transition coming for a year or two now. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still around, and there are plenty of other typical Spurs roster components in the mix for 2016-17. They’ve got a young kid ready to break out in Kyle Anderson, an underrated-yet-universally-adored rookie in Dejounte Murray, a bargain-basement vet in David Lee and a couple of international lottery tickets who just couldn’t wait to give it a go with San Antonio. That sounds like the same recipe for success this team has been using so well for almost 20 years.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Losing Tim Duncan is significant and I’m not sure Pau Gasol, at this stage in his career, addresses the biggest concerns for the Spurs. Gasol is a good passer and an intelligent all-around player, but a lot of his offensive work comes from midrange – an area where the Spurs are arguably generating too much of their offense. While there are concerns, this roster is proven and plays well together. Also, Gregg Popovich is adaptive and knows how to structure his systems to the personnel available to him. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are another year older, so rest throughout the season will be a priority. I’m expecting young players like Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons take on even bigger roles this season. Despite losing Duncan and some other veterans, I expect the Spurs to be competing at the top of the Western Conference with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Spurs will head to training camp without Tim Duncan on the roster. While Duncan’s physical skills had already begun to erode, the future Hall of Famer marked an era of excellence and stability for the franchise and the transition period could get rough. However, the Spurs have an extremely strong infrastructure in place and forward Kawhi Leonard could be headed for superstardom. The club also signed veteran big man Pau Gasol over the summer and he’ll provide another strong offensive option in the paint alongside forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The talent level in San Antonio is still title contention worthy. Don’t sleep.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all decided to leave us in the same offseason, and that makes me sad. I’m sure fans of the San Antonio Spurs are a bit more sad than I am, but the silver lining is that Pau Gasol will serve as the replacement for Duncan in the lineup. Gasol has always been a team-first guy. Although he’s a bit long in the tooth himself, he still sees the floor well and is a good post defender. I think he will fit right in with the Spurs and along with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, should help Gregg Popovich’s team win their sixth Southwest Division title over the past seven years. The biggest concern I would have for the Spurs would be at the point guard position. If something happens to Tony Parker, they could be sailing down the Riverwalk with no paddle. But since we cannot predict injuries and no other team in the division stacks up better against the Spurs than they did last year, I’d be wiling to bet that Leonard and Aldridge help these guys repeat, especially since they too had a legitimate shot of winning 70 games last year.

1st Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard was already the Spurs’ best all-around player and he’s now clearly the franchise’s most important player with Duncan out of the picture. Leonard has turned himself into a top-notch offensive player since he’s become a knock-down shooter from three-point range, a creator who can take opponents off the dribble and a strong finisher at the basket. Perhaps the next step for Leonard is turning himself into more of a playmaker from the forward position, but that is being nitpicky considering how good he already is. There are few players in the league who are as effective or efficient on offense as Leonard, who will likely be in the MVP discussion this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has won Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row for a reason. With long arms, great footwork, unwavering discipline and solid instincts, Leonard is a menace on defense and makes life difficult for top-level players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant each time he faces them. Defense in the NBA continues to evolve, as players like Leonard and Draymond Green are able to guard players as fast as John Wall and as big as Blake Griffin. Leonard also ranks at the top of the league in most advanced metrics, finishing last season second in Defensive Win Shares and third in Defensive Rating. There was an argument that Duncan was the Spurs’ most important defensive player, but now it’s clear that Leonard is the Spurs’ most effective and important defender.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While Parker may not register double-digit assists each night, he is still an effective playmaker for the Spurs. The Spurs’ movement-based, pass-happy offense is what generates open looks for the Spurs rather than a single ball-dominant playmaker. Parker could possibly average more assists per game if he played for another team, but Parker understands his role on offense and doesn’t try to do more than is required of him. Parker isn’t as quick as he used to be, but he’s still a tough cover when he attacks the rim, which is when he usually finds an open teammate on the perimeter.

Top Clutch Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

It’s not easy to peg any single player as the Spurs’ top clutch player. The Spurs scored 30.5 percent of their points from midrange in clutch situations last season (by far the highest mark in the league), which should come as a surprise considering how much of their offense was geared towards opening up shots from that distance. Whether it was Duncan, Leonard, Aldridge or Parker, the Spurs’ offense generally created opportunities for players to get a nice look at the end of games. While there are several choices here, we are going to go with Aldridge considering his offensive skill set, ability to operate in isolation and pick-and-pop situations, and his ability to get his shot off against just about any defender.

The Unheralded Player: Danny Green

Green had a down season in 2015-16 in just about every way imaginable. Whether it was due to injuries, adapting to playing with new teammates like Aldridge or the pressure of playing on a new contract, Green simply wasn’t himself last year. However, Green is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA and he will need to be at his best, along with Leonard, for the Spurs to have a shot at slowing down the Warriors and other teams with talented scorers and shooters on the wings. Green also needs to get his three-point shooting back to his usual 40 percent range to spread the court for Aldridge and Gasol, who occupy the same areas on the court.

Top New Addition: Pau Gasol

With Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West and Boban Marjanović no longer on the team, the Spurs signed Gasol, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon to shore up the frontcourt. Gasol is the most important player of the three considering the fact that he is effectively replacing Duncan. Gasol still has a good amount of skill left in his game even if the athleticism isn’t quite there anymore. His impact on the defensive end leaves a lot to be desired, so he is going to need to focus in on making the right rotations at the right time to ensure that he is getting proper help when necessary. Gasol and Aldridge are going to be key components for the Spurs this season, so the sooner they can develop chemistry and learn to play off one another, the better off the Spurs will be.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA, and his resume backs that up. He has won five championships, three Coach of the Year awards (and he should have more) and 1,089 regular season games throughout his career. In the postseason, he has a 158-98 record. Perhaps most impressive is that Pop can win with various types of personnel and systems. Because of that versatility, he has thrived with grind-it-out, defensive-minded teams as well as fast-paced, offensive juggernauts. As long as Popovich is on the sideline, the Spurs will be a legitimate contender.

2. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is one of the best overall players in the league, despite what Jason Terry may think about his game. Some have tried to peg him as a system player or the beneficiary of having so much talent around him, but it’s all nonsense. Leonard has kept his head down and worked hard to become one of the best overall players in the game. At age 25, Leonard is barely entering his prime and figures to keep improving.

3. LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge did a pretty solid job of integrating himself into the Spurs’ system last season. With Duncan gone, it will be up to him and Leonard to put this team on their collective shoulders and lead them to a deep playoff run. Aldridge may be 31 years old now, but his methodical game is still as sharp as ever. The real test for Aldridge will be trying to step into Duncan’s role on defense, which is something he may not be equipped to do (not many players are).

4. Manu Ginobili

Ginobili, 39, is entering his 14th NBA season. He has a ton of miles on his body and is not able to make some of the acrobatic and wild plays he used to when he was younger. But Ginobili goes all out and doesn’t care about age; he still plays with the same intensity and fearlessness as he did when he first entered the league.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs opened up space under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap – trading Boris Diaw to the Utah Jazz – to ink Pau Gasol.  The team also used its $2.9 million Room Exception on Dewayne Dedmon, and re-signed Manu Ginobili via his Bird Rights.  Now over the cap, San Antonio has 14 guaranteed players, with four players vying for one open roster spot (Patricio Garino, Ryan Arcidiacono, Bryn Forbes and Ryan Richards.  Tim Duncan retired with $5.6 million in guaranteed salary, which the Spurs will pay out over the next three years at $1.9 million a season.

Next summer, San Antonio could near $26 million in space under a $102 million projected salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale option on Kyle Anderson.  David Lee, who signed a two-year minimum contract, Gasol and Dedmon can all opt out of the second years on their respective deals.  If Gasol does not opt out, he’ll take up $16.2 million of that potential cap space.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defensive and offensive efficiency, coaching and chemistry are this team’s strengths. I know, that’s a lot of strengths. Last year, the Spurs held opponents to just 96.6 points per 100 possessions (best in the NBA) and scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions (third-best in the NBA). They were seventh in assist percentage, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, fourth in rebound percentage, second in effective field goal percentage and third in true shooting percentage. Simply put, this team was destructive last season and that doesn’t figure to change even with the loss of Duncan. There will be some drop off in a few areas, but Duncan’s role had already significantly diminished last year, so it shouldn’t be too big of a dip. It doesn’t seem to matter who happens to be playing for the Spurs in any given season, as Coach Popovich always manages to maximize his roster.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

There aren’t many major weaknesses for this team; if anything, the team could struggle with injuries considering the age of their core players. Parker is 34, Ginobili is 39, Gasol is 36 and even Aldridge is now 31. The Spurs take an aggressive approach with resting players to avoid wearing them down before the postseason, but that doesn’t guarantee it won’t be an issue for this team. In addition to age and the risk of injuries, I think the loss of Boris Diaw will be felt more than some people expect. Diaw was a perfect fit for the Spurs, providing both underrated playmaking and defense. Gasol is the better player, but that doesn’t mean Diaw won’t be missed. Lastly, the loss of Duncan could be felt in the locker room as much as on the court. Duncan was the heart and soul of the franchise for two decades. Losing that shouldn’t be taken lightly. This team has an excellent foundation and other experienced veterans to help stabilize the team after the loss of Duncan, but it’s impossible to completely replace a legend.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Spurs overcome the juggernauts in the Bay Area?

If you haven’t heard, the Golden State Warriors won 73 regular season games last season and then added Kevin Durant this summer. Any team in the West that has hopes of making it to the NBA Finals has to get through the Warriors first and that includes the almighty Spurs. The Warriors were favored over the Spurs by many last season when Durant was still in Oklahoma City and Duncan was still in town.

The Spurs could conceivably take a step forward thanks to internal development from Leonard and improved chemistry from Aldridge, who enters his second season with the team. And if there’s any team that can push the Warriors in the West, it’s likely the Spurs considering their talent, the fact that Leonard is the perfect defender to guard Durant and since Popovich is one of the few coaches in the league savvy enough to find some schemes that could stunt the Warriors. It may look like a long shot at the moment, but the Spurs will have as good a shot as any team to put some pressure on the Warriors next season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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The Strictly Speaking Podcast

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