Fresh off of a USA-worst seventh-place finish in the FIBA World Cup, Gregg Popovich looks to get back to something he has figured out quite a bit better – the NBA. Year after year this man continues to get things done during the regular season. Whether he’s had all-timers like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli, or five associates from Home Depot, Popovich doesn’t miss the playoffs.
In fact, since Popovich took over the franchise in 1997-98, he’s yet to miss the postseason. That run, for what it’s worth, is unprecedented. Many thought that after Duncan retired and Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade that it was over, but still the streak remains alive.
Could this upcoming season quite possibly be one of the worst teams Popovich has ever coached? Certainly. But until he actually missed out on the playoffs it’d be smart to hold off on any criticisms. Let’s dive into the San Antonio Spurs and breakdown just what kind of team we have here.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s funny looking back to see that people started to doubt the Spurs making the playoffs. We all make mistakes, but perhaps we shouldn’t make such a claim when Gregg Popovich is the head of the operation. While DeMar DeRozan had his ups and downs, he still was one of the top mid-range assassins in the league. Despite father time creeping up on him, LaMarcus Aldridge continues to stick to what he does best and delivers on a nightly basis. Mix in those wily veterans with an upstart Derrick White and a returning Dejounte Murray, and San Antonio has a shot to be quite a contender (or spoiler) in the Western Conference. That, plus Patty Mills played out of his mind for Australia in the World Cup!
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Spurs continued rebuild-on-the-fly will be judged more aggressively this season than it was last. Dejounte Murray is set to return following a knee injury that forced him out for the 2018-19 season. And Murray and Derrick White promise to be an exciting and explosive backcourt tandem for years to come – something the Spurs haven’t boasted in a while. Both 2019 first-round picks – Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson –all project to be nice pros, and the return of their 2018 first-round pick, Lonnie Walker IV, from a 2018 preseason knee injury should also provide an infusion of youth and athleticism. Long story short, the Spurs are well-positioned for the future. But there’s also enough talent on their roster to make some noise in the present. Don’t expect the Spurs to tank or look too far ahead, not with Coach Gregg Popovich at the helm. The Spurs will overperform, per the usual. I expect them to end the season with somewhere around 45 wins, which will be enough to qualify for the playoffs – again.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Spurs snuck into the playoffs last season as the eighth seed, one of their lowest finishes in the Gregg Popovich era. Even then, they still pushed the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets to seven games and had a chance to win Game 7. Popovich is still one hell of a coach and can get the most out of whatever roster he’s given. Whatever player he plugs into the rotation becomes a valuable contributor whether that’s Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, or Davis Bertans. And to be honest, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t a bad one-two punch. They added some quality free agents in Demarre Carroll and Trey Lyles, and have some interesting young players in Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray, and Keldon Johnson. With Pop at the helm, this team will always play bigger than the sum of their parts. There’s no reason why the Spurs shouldn’t continue the league’s longest active playoff streak (22 straight appearances).
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
This is the year, right? This is the year the Spurs fall out of the playoff picture for the 5th time in almost five decades. Even in a loaded Western Conference it just seems implausible to count out the Spurs. They still have two bona fide stars in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge; they have young guys that look like future stars in Lonnie Walker and Dejounte Murray, and despite being hammered for Team USA they still have Gregg Popovich, which has been enough for more years than anyone can count. This has to be the year, right? Maybe, but I am not willing to bet against them, the Spurs are simply better at this than everyone else.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Spurs did well to add DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles to the roster and re-sign Rudy Gay. With those players, along with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldrige and hopefully a healthy season for Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker, the Spurs could find themselves right back in the playoff mix – even in a stacked Western Conference. Others may count the Spurs out this season but I made the decision to stop counting the Spurs out a few years ago and that will not change until Gregg Popovich is no longer San Antonio’s head coach. The Spurs, as currently constructed, don’t have the firepower necessary to make it to the NBA Finals, but no one should be surprised if they are causing mayhem for a Western Conference rival in Round 1 of the 2019-20 postseason.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Spurs are one of many hard-capped teams this season. San Antonio triggered the hard $138.9 million spending limit by acquiring DeMarre Carroll in a sign and trade with the Brooklyn Nets. At roughly $123.8 million in guaranteed salary, the team shouldn’t have any issues, given they’re still below the league’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold.
San Antonio still has $3.8 million of its Mid-Level Exception available, although the roster already has 15 guaranteed players.
Before November, the team needs to decide on Derrick White and Lonnie Walker’s rookie-scale options. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are eligible for extensions until the start of the season. The Spurs could have significant cap room next summer, over $60 million, but that number drops considerably if DeMar DeRozan opts in and the franchise holds onto LaMarcus Aldridge, whose $24 million for 2020-21 is only $7 million guaranteed.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan
Does he still struggle from three? Yes. In today’s NBA, that’s the last thing you want from your biggest offensive threat. Despite his lack of range, DeMar still gets buckets. He has one of the better mid-range games in the league. He’s also solid at finishing at the rim. And speaking on his lack of range, he is very self-aware and won’t take shots he isn’t confident in. In fact, last year he took just 0.6 three-pointers per game, the lowest mark since his rookie season.
He finished last season shooting 67.4 percent within five feet of the hoop, a higher mark than the team’s center LaMarcus Aldridge. This was his first season away from Toronto, but his scoring didn’t really slip too much despite him playing in a completely different system.
Obviously, offense is as much about passing as it is about shooting. DeRozan led the team with 6.2 assists per game, over two assists greater than the next guy. He has great handles, runs the offense fluidly, and has gotten much better at involving the rest of the team. His 6.2 assists per night are a career-high.
DeMar entering his year 30 season isn’t quite yet on the decline, but it feels as if his prime has passed. Regardless of what we’ve seen on the court, DeRozan could be in for a pretty big season. He now has an entire year under his belt with the Spurs and could use that comfort to put up some big numbers under Popovich’s system.
Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray
Murray missed all of the 2018-19 season with a knee injury. In his last full season with the Spurs, he had a 98.7 defensive rating, good for fourth on the team. Now, that is normally a stat that is heavily dependent on the team, but Murray was much of the reason that the Spurs had such a good defensive team that season – and largely why they slipped to 20th in the league this past season with his absence.
Dejounte has great length for a guard and is incredibly quick. His lateral speed allows him to stay in front of just about every guard in the NBA. And above all, he has high-level defensive instincts, especially for such a young player.
In his last full season, he averaged 1.2 steals per game on just over 21 minutes of action per night.
It’s true, there isn’t too much tape to go off of for Murray, and it’s definitely up in the air how he’ll return after an ACL tear. But if he returns to the form he had before he hurt his knee, the sky is the limit for his defensive abilities.
Top Playmaker: DeMar DeRozan
Not only will DeMar be San Antonio’s premier scorer this upcoming season, but he will also be their top playmaker. This was touched on during the top offensive player segment, but DeRozan led the team in assists last season and there is zero indication that he won’t do it again. And maybe by even a larger margin.
DeMar led the team in assist percentage last year at 27.7 percent. He also led the team in usage percentage, at 27.7 percent. These statistics show that the offense essentially ran through DeRozan and that any success they have can be pointed back to him.
Top Clutch Player: LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge is the de-facto vet on this Spurs roster and with that comes the responsibility of taking late-game shots. Last season, he led the team in games played in clutch situations and had a shooting percentage of 51.7 percent.
Aldridge is incredibly smooth around the rim and his height coupled with his fade-away makes his mid-range shots almost unguardable. This comes in handy when the clock is winding down and San Antonio needs a bucket. DeRozan is the go-to scorer but other teams know this and often put their best defender on him or even double him up at times. This makes Aldridge the next logical choice, as all you need to do is give him the ball and let him go to work.
The Unheralded Player: Patty Mills
This recognition could go to a handful of different players, but no one embodies the traditional Spurs’ mentality quite like Patty Mills.
He checks all the traditional Popovich Spurs’ boxes. International player? Check. Relentless on defense? Check. Does what he’s asked? Check. Ultimate team player? Check.
But in all seriousness, Mills is a great player that often doesn’t get enough credit. He plays at full-throttle every time he is on the court, acting as a menace on defense and a sharpshooter on offense. He took 4.9 three-point attempts per game last year and knocked down 39.4 percent of them.
He’s the ideal bench guy, brings quite a few different tools onto the second unit, and has the ability to go on a heater from three better than about any player in the NBA. He’s embodied everything you’d want in a Popovich player since joining the Spurs eight seasons ago and will continue to leave his mark on the court for at least the foreseeable future.
Best New Addition: DeMarre Carroll
The only man that obviously fits this designation, Carroll will be a huge help for San Antonio this year. Coming off a season where he scored 11.1 points and notched 5.2 rebounds per game, DeMarre brings multiple skills to the table.
He’s a career 36 percent from three, so that should help San Antonio’s three-point game which is very efficient, but super low volume.
Carroll brings quite a bit of size and versatility to San Antonio’s roster and is quite the workhorse on defense. Popovich will be able to plug him into multiple positions and his tenacity on D will certainly bolster the Spurs unit that struggled on that end last season.
Look for Carroll to make an immediate impact on both offense and defense. He’s the ideal type of player for the Spurs’ system and should fit in quite nicely.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1. Gregg Popovich
He’s still one of the best coaches in today’s NBA and when it comes down to it might be considered one of the greatest of all time. He hasn’t quite adapted to the modern era, but so far it hasn’t seemed to matter. If you would have given their roster last year to any other coach in the NBA it’s unlikely they even make the playoffs.
Popovich year-after-year churns out wins at an incredible rate and this year shouldn’t be any different. The West as a whole got better, but so did the Spurs. They didn’t lose anyone important and should be much better with Murray back, Carroll on the roster, and a more assimilated DeMar.
2. The Backcourt
While DeMar is the only name that flashes, the Spurs have a really nice backcourt.
Bryn Forbes, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Patty Mills round out a stellar group of guards that all contain unique skills. And outside of DeMar, they’re all high-level defenders.
DeMar will likely be the biggest threat on offense this upcoming season, barring a surprising rise from White or Murray, but each of these guys will help the Spurs win. Every one of these players would get significant minutes on almost every roster in the league. Look for this group to be a force in the West this season.
3. Rudy Gay
Bringing back Gay will prove to be a huge plus for the Spurs this season. Outside of DeRozan and Aldridge, he was the next biggest threat on offense. Against certain teams, he was often San Antonio’s best bet to get points when needed. He’s big, he has the ability to create his own shot, and he’s actually fit quite nicely into the Spurs’ system.
A major bright spot from last season? Gay knocked down a career-best 40.2 percent of his threes. Another surprising stat? He pulled down a career-best 6.8 rebounds. These alone show that Rudy isn’t necessarily slowing down, so while he’s getting older and less athletic than he once was, he’s clearly finding ways to still bring value to the court.
4. Lonnie Walker IV
The Spurs’ first-round selection from last season has looked really strong this offseason. He’s long, super athletic, and still rocks a PR-worthy haircut. He is really young, so he has lots to learn, but he looks ready to make an impact this season.
– Jordan Hicks
The biggest thing the Spurs have had going for them all these years is the fact that they play team basketball. No one in the league does it better. With the roster they’re bringing into the upcoming season, we have little reason to believe they won’t keep playing in the system.
Led by Gregg Popovich himself, the Spurs employ a system that is hyper-fluid on offense, and incredibly tenacious on defense. They move the ball really well, usually get the shot they want, and always give their best effort.
– Jordan Hicks
Like mentioned earlier, they still haven’t adapted to the modern NBA era. They shot the least amount of three-pointers per game last season, but oddly enough had the highest percentage. It seemed to work out just fine, but eventually, the game will catch up to them.
There’s a reason more-and-more teams keep increasing the number of threes they get up per game because the more you shoot, the more your chances you have of making them. It seems elementary, but threes are worth more than twos, so the more you make, the more points you’ll score. Not to mention, you can draw up so many different types of plays to get open looks from beyond-the-arc. The Spurs have survived thus far, but need to modernize their offense if they want to find championship-level success.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Do the Spurs still have what it takes to make the playoffs in the somehow-better-than-last-year West?
Honestly, until someone takes their spot, there’s little reason to believe they won’t be back. They’ve now made the playoffs 22 years in a row and have continued to do so even though their original core is now gone.
Popovich is absolutely up for the G.O.A.T. debate and there’s a reason for it. Until the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, it’s safe to assume that they will.
– Jordan Hicks
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.