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San Antonio Spurs 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

For the first time in a decade, the San Antonio Spurs will field a team without one of their former NBA champions. Can the Spurs re-make themselves into legit title contenders again? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the San Antonio Spurs in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Legacy-wise, the Spurs lost so much this summer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom were among the best Spurs of all time, are now off the team. With the three of them out of the picture,  a historic era of basketball is now behind us. But does that mean this is the end of the Spurs’ relevancy? Not necessarily.

When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?

No matter what his roster may look like, Coach Gregg Popovich should never be doubted. He’s earned the status of being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all time. Anyone that tunes into the NBA knows that he can make a playoff team out of just about anything. That is precisely why people should really keep their eye on San Antonio this season. They still have most of the same roster they had last season, but with all they lost this summer, they don’t have nearly the same continuity they once prided themselves on for years. Pop will have to do more shuffling than he’s done in years and possibly more so than he’s ever done as Head Coach.

What does he have to work with this season? Let’s take a gander.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I have predicted the regression of the San Antonio Spurs once or twice over the last couple of years and the team always makes me look foolish for it. However, this might be the year to again predict regression for this proud franchise. Manu Ginobili retired this offseason and Tony Parker has joined up with the Charlotte Hornets. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. I am a fan of DeRozan and am excited to see what he can do under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. However, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to be tasked with leading this team without the cornerstone players that Popovich has relied on for nearly two decades. I’m cautiously optimistic this team will beat expectations but I still think they are going to experience some serious issues this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If there was ever a year to finally bet on the Spurs underachieving after what seems like a decade straight of doing more with less, it might be this year. The Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto wrapped up an unfortunate saga for the franchise, and Manu Ginobili’s retirement more recently left the Spurs without any of the mainstays we’re used to seeing in the black and grey. DeMar DeRozan is no slouch as a trade return for the Spurs, but they’re woefully short on perimeter shooting and lack the wing defense they’ve had in the past. Gregg Popovich is never short on tricks to pull out of his hat, but if he somehow drags this perimeter-deficient bunch to another 50-win season, it’ll be his most deserved Coach of the Year performance yet.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

No matter what they lose in the off-season, the Spurs should never be counted out. As long as they have Gregg Popovich calling the shots, the Spurs will always be in the conversation. This season, however, has a unique premise. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all off the team, the old days are officially gone and in comes a new era. Still, there is plenty of reason to think this team will be fine. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should keep things afloat. But, the question is, do they have enough talent and continuity to compete with the league’s elite?

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

Everything left of the 2014 NBA Championship version of the Spurs is gone, so it’s off and into a new era for Gregg Popovich. He’ll have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli as his most seasoned veterans to help guide the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan is going to play with possibly the biggest chip on any player’s shoulder this upcoming year in a San Antonio uniform. Dejounte Murray will be heavily depended on as the orchestrator of the offense as he’s thrust into his most important role to date. It’s hard to picture the postseason without these guys. While many seem to believe their run is over, it will be a cold day in hell when this organization doesn’t play past mid-April.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers went through a similar situation as San Antonio last year when they needed to trade their best player, and like the Pacers this time last year, the Spurs may come out of the situation with not only a star, but a star that might fit better in the big picture. Let’s be real for a minute, in every scenario you’d want Kawhi Leonard because of his tremendous two-way game, but if you have to part ways, DeMar DeRozan isn’t too shabby as a replacement player, mainly because he’s shown year after year that he can add to and improve his game. The big knock on Leonard was his reluctance to be a vocal leader, something DeRozan has proven to be more than capable of being and with Gregg Popovich in his ear can DeRozan become an MVP caliber future of the franchise guy? The smart money would be yes. DeRozan has a long way to go defensively, but it hard not to see him evolving in that area, mainly because of how good the Spurs staff and process has been with other sub-par defenders. There is no question the Spurs are a different team, but as the league trends more to offense, the Spurs may be better equipped to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

DeRozan’s repertoire makes a strong case for him to be the Spurs’ top offensive option. However, Aldridge gets the nod because he has more familiarity in Pop’s system and has proven he can thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Boy, that sounds weird to say remembering where the man was a year ago.

After his numbers took a slight, albeit noticeable hit in his first two years with the Spurs, Aldridge appeared ready to move on from San Antonio. After meeting with Popovich to work out all the kinks, Aldridge changed his mind, got a nice extension and had himself quite the resurgence last season.

With the offense designed more to revolve around him, Aldridge’s scoring numbers went up to 23.2 points a game on 18 shots, while shooting 51 percent from the field. Basically, he put up numbers that re-established him as one of the league’s top offensive big men. Those weren’t just empty numbers either. The Spurs were +6.0 better in net rating offensively with Aldridge on the floor. His statistical output proved that he could fit in Coach Pop’s game plan as the top offensive option.

At 33, there will be questions as to how much time LaMarcus has left as an elite offensive option. Luckily, he’s on a team that should get the most out of him while he’s still in his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray

With Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson all gone, Dejounte Murray is the obvious choice for the Spurs’ top defender. His 6-foot-5 inch height combined with his absurd 6-foot-10 wingspan made him an all-around menace on the defensive end last season.

His efforts showed themselves through advanced metrics. Murray’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 3.60 led all point guards and was ninth overall among all players. Keep in mind that players who usually are at the top of Defensive Real Plus-Minus are mostly bigs and occasionally wings. Murray is the only point guard in the top ten, and the next point guard after him is Tyus Jones, who was No. 27 at 2.40.

San Antonio’s defense was also much better with Murray as their net rating defensively was +7.8 better with him on the floor. That topped the Spurs’ roster for guys who played at least 1000 minutes.

Murray’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named to the NBA All-defensive second team in just his second year. His role is bound to expand even more for the Spurs this season. Luckily for them, he’ll be more than ready to do his part on defense.

Top Playmaker: The entire team

Sounds odd doesn’t it? At the same time, it’s not exactly a surprise either given the Spurs’ reputation for unselfish basketball. Seriously though, there really isn’t a top playmaker on this team because if you look at the stats last year, the assists numbers were pretty spread out among the players. Tony Parker led the Spurs in assists per game with 3.5. When you factor in per-36 stats, Parker had a distinguished lead, but now he’s gone. Those who came after him are so even with each other that it’s impossible to say who will be the top playmaker.

This is a good thing. It’s clear cut evidence that the Spurs run a system that everyone follows with precision. There’s no particular stand out as a playmaker because everyone plays as one unit at all times. Maybe somebody will eventually stand out, but for now, the team itself is the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Aldridge may be the Spurs’ best offensive option, but DeRozan should be their go-to guy. DeRozan has a track record for hitting clutch shots in the regular season. He isn’t necessarily automatic but, at the very least, when the game is on the line, DeRozan is never afraid and doesn’t back down. He’s never even afraid to go for the highlight reel in crunchtime either. Seriously, last season he won a game off a buzzer-beating dunk.

DeRozan’s stats in the clutch last season are fine for a player of his caliber. In 41 games that featured clutch-time minutes, DeRozan averaged 4.2 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from distance in 3.9 minutes on average. The truth is, when teams are playing in crunchtime against DeRozan, they strategize to stop him primarily.

Unfortunately that track record doesn’t hold up well in the playoffs. Hopefully now that he has Coach Pop to guide him, DeRozan’s clutch play can finally translate when the stakes are much higher.

The Unheralded Player: Rudy Gay

Adding Gay to the Spurs’ roster sparked a lot of skepticism last year because of his reputation as a selfish chucker and his inability to be an effective player on a good team. Expectations for Gay were quite low, especially since he was coming off of a devastating Achilles injury. Gay was by no means spectacular. His averages of 11.5 points, 9.4 field goals attempted and 31.5 percent from three on 21.6 minutes of action are among some of the lowest since his rookie season. Despite that, Gay proved himself to be a productive player on a good team, which is something he hasn’t really done since his days with the Grizzlies.

Another reason why he gets the nod here is because now that it’s almost been two years since he tore his Achilles, he optimistically could regain more of his form. The man is only 32 years old! Also, when you take into account all that the Spurs lost, Gay should expect a more prominent role on the team. Add in his year of experience playing under Pop, and this should be a good year for Rudy Gay.

It may sound odd to say, but San Antonio should be excited for Round Two of Gay and DeRozan.

Best New Addition: DeMar DeRozan

This is an obvious choice for three reasons.

1. The Spurs’ offense was pedestrian last season. Their offensive rating of 107.9 points per 100 possessions was good for 17th in the league. Adding one of the league’s best scorers should be just what the doctor ordered.

2. As evidenced by their diverse playmaking, the Spurs hope to implement DeMar in their pass-heavy offense. Luckily for them, DeRozan made great strides in his passing game last season. His 5.2 assists per game was the highest average of his career and is high enough for them to believe that he should fit seamlessly in their offense.

3. Even without Kawhi, the Spurs managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Now they basically add one of last season’s MVP candidates to their squad. It would be shocking if they don’t add several wins from DeRozan alone.

-Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Enough has already been said about Coach Pop so let’s just leave it at this. Besides LeBron James, there isn’t another figure currently in basketball who is as reliable and consistent as Gregg Popovich. The man is simply a basketball guru. As long as he runs the plays, his team will always be in the conversation no matter what he has to work with. People can doubt the Spurs. They can’t doubt Pop.

2. Pau Gasol

The man deserves league-wide respect. Even at 37, the future Hall-of-Famer is still chugging away. In his eighteenth year in the NBA, Pau averaged a solid 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists for a winning team. Better yet, he’s added a three-point shot to his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent on 1.6 attempts a game last season. Most impressive of all, Gasol has proven himself to be a positive contributor on defense despite his reputation as a defensive liability. The Spurs’ defense was +2.2 in net rating defensively with Gasol on the floor, and his individual defensive rating was an adequate 102. He should be expected to decline more this season, but Pau Gasol should be revered for both his perseverance and his adaptability.

3. Patty Mills

A shout-out needs to be made for the now longest-tenured Spur on the team. Mills has been both a good soldier and one of the league’s best backup point guards since he joined San Antonio in 2011. The Spurs were +4.7 in net rating offensively with Mills on the floor, which was second on the team after LaMarcus Aldridge. In other words, he was doing exactly what a backup point guard should do. On a team that lost a good chunk of its identity this summer, Mills is one of the few remaining remnants from the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili days. As Pop figures out who deserve minutes, he still has a dependable option in Mills.

4. Jakob Poeltl

Plenty have said it already and it needs to be repeated: Jakob Poeltl was a sneaky good acquisition by San Antonio. He’s a fantastic energy big whose only in his third year in the league and now has Gregg Popovich to learn from. It’s not just what he brings to the table. It’s how timely acquiring him right now is for the Spurs. Pau Gasol will do what he can, but his further decline is inevitable. Should his impact continue to dwindle, Poeltl can pick up the slack. Poeltl shouldn’t have too lofty of expectations, but he should help keep the Spurs on course.

5. The Spurs’ handling of Kawhi Leonard

It’s rare to see a team that has a proven method and track record like the Spurs have their best player turn his back on them. It’s also rare to see a team get good value for a disgruntled star in a situation like that. The Spurs could have waited out the situation hoping Leonard would change his mind or they could have started a rebuild. Instead, they went for the best player offered to them so they could try and continue competing in the Western Conference playoff race. DeMar DeRozan by himself was an impressive haul all things considered. With him on board, the Spurs will still be in the playoff conversation. Hats off to Spurs management for making the best of a serious predicament.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

Coach Pop. No questions asked. Their key ingredient to their success has been and still is Pop. Besides him though, the Spurs now have two of the league’s top scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. In them, San Antonio has two guys who they can go to when the going gets tough and who should make the offense more dynamic. Also, an underrated strength the Spurs have is their youth. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are talented young players to groom, and there’s been a fair amount of chatter surrounding Lonnie Walker IV. This may not be Pop’s most talented roster, but it’s far from average.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Pairing DeRozan with Aldridge will give the Spurs two of the league’s top scorers, but it might be a challenge to run the offense through them since neither are reliable floor spacers. Much has been brought up about the Spurs losing Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, but what about Danny Green and Kyle Anderson? Anderson and Green played big roles for the Spurs, producing their third-best defensive rating last season at 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Losing them could spell disaster for San Antonio on the defensive end.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Do the Spurs still have what it takes to compete in the west?

Again, the Spurs did a fantastic job in how they handled their fallout with Kawhi. Getting someone as good as DeRozan for a disgruntled player that was leaving one way or another is impressive, epecially when you consider that Kawhi may leave Toronto after this season. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the same league as a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, and he likely never will be. He’s never been a solid defender and he has a long history of failing to step up in the playoffs. If he does his disappearing act again when and if the Spurs make the playoffs, that doesn’t leave them in a promising spot going forward. This is especially the case because the Warriors and the Rockets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and more challengers in the west are knocking on the door.

-Matt John

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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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