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Six Prospects Who Helped Their Draft Stock

These players are using March Madness to help build their résumé for the NBA, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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College basketball in March represents the culmination of countless hours spent by players throughout the season honing their craft.

The NCAA Tournament provides Cinderella stories, feel-good program “firsts,” and usually the postseason savvy of blue-blood programs looking to continue their dominance. When it is all said and done, however, only one team can be crowned champion.

For this reason, the Big Dance also serves as a platform for a handful of players to impress decision makers at the next level. A solid stretch of play on college basketball’s biggest stage can do wonders for a prospects NBA draft stock.

Throughout this season’s NCAA Tournament there hasn’t been any shortage of draft stock boosting. Here are the players who have helped themselves the most heading into draft season.

De’Aaron Fox

Despite not helping Kentucky advance to the Final Four, Fox’s play in the tournament has vaulted him from his already lottery-projected status into potential top-five pick territory. DraftExpress.com currently has Fox listed as the No. 6 pick.

The knock on the 6-foot-3 point guard this season was his inability to consistently knock down a jump shot. Over the last four games Fox played, he was able to shoot 50 percent from the field. In the process, he displayed decent shooting mechanics and that he could hit shots once he got into a groove.

Averaging 21.2 points per game in the tournament and being the catalyst behind Kentucky’s near Final Four appearance, Fox’s Sweet 16 matchup against Lonzo Ball will largely be considered the game that helped his draft stock the most.

Going head-to-head with Ball, the projected No. 2 pick in the draft, Fox was smothering defensively and imposed his will offensively. En route to a 86-75 Kentucky victory, Fox dominated Ball by scoring 39 points and committing just one turnover. Even more impressively, the pesky defender disrupted Ball all night, allowing him to only score 10 points and turn the ball over four times.

While Fox’s elevated play in the tournament is crucial to where he may land in the draft, teams will also be impressed with the level of commitment and heart Fox has to winning. After falling to North Carolina on buzzer-beating shot in the Elite Eight, Fox was filmed breaking down in the locker room over the outcome.

Devastation that pure certainly suggests a player that will work hard enough to make sure they don’t feel that way again.

Sindarius Thornwell

The SEC Player of the Year and catalyst behind this year’s Cinderella story, Thornwell has turned heads during South Carolina’s run all the way to the Final Four.

Averaging 25.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game, Thornwell keeps impacting the game on both ends to the point where it may be hard to ignore the senior guard as a legitimate NBA prospect.

Age is always a factor in the NBA draft, and while Thornwell’s experience seems to be helping him in March, it may wind up hurting him in June. But after putting up 24 points, six rebounds, and five assists against a freshman-laden Duke team to propel South Carolina into their first ever Sweet 16, Thornwell showed signs that he could more than keep up with the heralded one-and-done picks.

Over the course of the season, Thornwell shot 39.7 percent from the beyond the arc. During the tournament, that figure has increased to 42.3 percent. At 6-foot-5 Thornwell brings decent size to an off-ball guard position. Coupled with his skill and high-level intensity on the defensive side of the ball, Thornwell could project nicely into the coveted “3-and-D” player in the NBA.

Currently projected the No. 49 pick on DraftExpress.com, Thornwell’s play this March should help him get consideration from drafting team’s well before that pick.

Justin Jackson

Another conference player of the year winner, Jackson is battling the similar age problem as Thornwell, despite being named the best player in the ACC this season.

At 6-foot-8, Jackson possesses the necessary size from an NBA wing player, but the fact that he is a junior at North Carolina may keep Jackson out of the lottery. However, if there is any way to sway an NBA front office that your age is an issue, it would be to keep winning. In the Final Four yet again, should Jackson deliver the Tar Heels a national championship he may surpass his current No. 12 projected selection by DraftExpress.

Throughout the tournament, Jackson has turned in impressive numbers. By averaging 19.8 points and 6.3 rebounds a game Jackson continues to show his consistency, but as the game’s importance continues to climb in the tournament, so does Jackson’s performance.

In North Carolina’s Sweet 16 matchup with Butler, Jackson poured in 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Jackson delivered 19, five and four in those same categories. But most importantly, in each game, the latter decided by just one possession, Jackson turned the ball over just one time.

Playing three seasons under head coach Roy Williams seems to have developed Jackson into a prospect with the ability to stay cool under mounting pressure. A quality like that can always find a home in the NBA.

Dillon Brooks

Not only is Brooks battling the age question as a junior at Oregon, but he also doesn’t necessarily have a true position. At 6-foot-5, Brooks is slightly undersized to play the wing in the NBA and his athleticism isn’t really up to NBA standards either. A backcourt position is unlikely for Brooks as well, as he isn’t much of a playmaker. Paired with his below-average rebounding ability and previously mentioned lack of size, a stretch-four position seems out of the question as well.

Despite all of the knocks against Brooks, none of it has seemed to matter.

The junior has his team in the program’s first Final Four since 1939. Projected to be drafted No. 38 this June by DraftExpress, Brooks is dispelling the documented negatives against him by just going out there and playing basketball.

Averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range in the tournament, Brooks has delivered in big spots for the Ducks when they have needed it the most. While trailing lower-seeded Rhode Island in the second half of their second round tournament matchup, Oregon turned to Brooks to help pull them back. The positionless upperclassmen delivered 19 points and seven rebounds to help Oregon live to see another day.

Against Kansas Brooks delivered once again, notching 17 points along with five rebounds and four assists to upend the No. 2-seed Jayhawks and send Oregon to the Final Four. Brooks doesn’t seem too worried about his clear lack of position on the basketball court, and with continued performances like those, it may be hard for an NBA team to worry about it too.

Trevon Bluiett

Few players in the tournament have proved as much as Bluiett did by dragging No. 11-seed Xavier all the way to the Elite Eight. After losing their starting point guard and projected NBA draft pick Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL, the outlook was bleak for the Xavier Musketeers. Then, in stepped Bluiett.

Averaging 21.3 points per game while shooting 41 percent from downtown during the tournament, Bluiett displayed his full offensive repertoire against higher-seeded opponents each night.

Scoring over 20 points in three of his four games, Bluiett produced two back-to-back dominant performances. He scored 29 and 25 points against Florida State and Arizona, respectively. Beating the No. 3-seed and No. 2-seed in consecutive games showed that Bluiett was up to the challenge going head to head with blue-chip prospects.

While not currently projected in DraftExpress’ 2017 or 2018 mock drafts, and with a year of eligibility remaining, it isn’t a guarantee Bluiett declares for the NBA. However, should he test the waters, the junior guard certainly has a beefed up resume to show teams after his performance this March.

P.J. Dozier

The second player from South Carolina’s Cinderella squad, Dozier’s second fiddle role this March has shown the impact two-way player he can be at the next level.

Averaging 15.3 points and 1.5 steals a game during the Gamecocks’ tournament run, Dozier has delivered consistency alongside Thornwell’s dominance. Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-7 guard is currently projected No. 39 in the 2018 draft by DraftExpress.com.

In the game that started South Carolina’s run to the Final Four, a first round matchup with Marquette, Dozier scored 21 points while shooting 9-of-14 from the field. His shooting percentage from the two-point range this tournament sits at an impressive 66.7 percent. With his length advantage for his position, Dozier should be able to consistently do damage from the mid-range at the NBA level.

Whenever South Carolina’s improbable run comes to an end, Dozier should have a legitimate decision on his hands whether to declare for the NBA draft or not. With a few more impressive performances under his belt, Dozier could make waves in the 2017 draft class and skip another year of school altogether.

With all of the attention that winning the NCAA Tournament brings each March, it’s hard to see anybody else as a winner besides that final team left standing. But for those programs and players that don’t get to the hoist the trophy after the madness subsides, March is a great opportunity to audition for their next team.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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