Draft labels are extremely tricky, ask anybody. Even for the absolute best talent evaluators, pre-draft workouts and collegiate analysis can only approximate as-close-as-possible guesses. Sure, there were shoo-ins for stardom like LeBron James and Karl-Anthony Towns – that list is impossible to cover, obviously. But for as many Dwyane Wade-like future Hall of Fame draftees, there are just as many Andrew Wiggins-lite disappointments, Damian Lillard-ish rises and out-of-nowhere Nikola Jokic-esque surprises.
The point – and it’s not revolutionary but must be said given the instant-labeling job done by most, both fans and media alike – is that judging players after just one or two years in the NBA is mostly unfair business. But at Basketball Insiders, it’s time to turn the clock back to peek at 2015’s wild draft night. With nearly five full seasons between their life-changing selection and today’s stoppage, slightly more accurate observation can be done at long last.
So, we’re sorting the 2015 NBA Draft into three buckets:
A. The Hits
B. The Misses
C. The Sleepers
D. Jury Is Out
The idea is simple: Relative to their draft position, five years later, has the player reached, exceeded or fallen short of expectations? Which franchises found gems in the rough? How many wish they could turn back time?
Karl-Anthony Towns, No. 1
Yeah, Towns is a hit. The two-time All-Star averaged 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists on 50.8 percent from the field in 2019-20, a career-best in the former category. As a court-stretching unicorn, Towns is nearly unguardable on the offensive end. Although the looming center hasn’t reached the second round of the postseason yet, it makes his pairing with the next name even more interesting…
D’Angelo Russell, No. 2
After bouncing around in Los Angeles (and playing second fiddle to the Kobe Bryant retirement tour), Russell landed in Brooklyn, ended the Nets’ playoff drought and reached his first-ever All-Star Game. Despite a strange season that resulted in being swapped for Kevin Durant and Andrew Wiggins within eight months, Russell has shown strong perseverance. The 24-year-old tallied 23.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game before he was paired up with one of his best friends in the entire world.
Will the newly-formed duo take the Timberwolves to grand heights or are they just empty calories?
Kristaps Porzingis, No. 4
The Latvian’s bitter breakup with New York was less than ideal for all parties involved, but Porzingis has found himself right at home in Dallas. Teamed with wunderkind Luka Doncic, the seven-footer was slowly rounding back into form with the Mavericks after missing the entire season to rehab in 2018-19. With an All-Star appearance under his belt already, Porzingis, should he stay healthy, is poised to re-cement his status as a league-wide unicorn sooner rather than later.
Devin Booker, No. 13
Unsurprisingly, Booker is a close friend of both Towns and Russell – and remains similar in other ways too. The 23-year-old sharpshooter has panned out incredibly so far… except for those pesky team successes. But baby steps, right? Phoenix locked the guard down with a max contract in 2018, a deal he’s certainly made good on already. At 26.1 points and 6.6 assists per game, Booker is well on his way to becoming a mid-season staple – but now it’s up to him to get the Suns back in the playoff picture.
Montrezl Harrell, No. 32
The first and only non-lottery hit selection goes to… Montrezl Harrell, the Los Angeles Clippers’ bonafide glue guy and all-around menace. After struggling to make the court for Houston during his first two seasons, Harrell has been a growing revelation in each successive campaign. Last year, Harrell finished in third place for Sixth Man of the Year voting and got even better in 2019-20. Through 63 games, the bench spark plug averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds over just 27.8 minutes per contest. If not for Lou Williams, Harrell might have some NBA-awarded hardware by now.
Jahlil Okafor, No. 3
It’s difficult to truly penalize franchises for whiffing up top – just as it’d be equally unfair to trash Philadelphia for not drafting the international unknown in Porzingis instead here. Be that as it may, Okafor had his list of worries coming out of college – but the collect-em-all Trust The Process franchise missed a handful of times in that era. For a 76ers team that had lottery-jumping misfortune, they had little choice but to go with Okafor. And, in his first season, the center showed promise at 17.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Unfortunately, those numbers came without Joel Embiid on board and, quickly, Okafor fell out of favor and, eventually, out of Philadelphia entirely. Later, Okafor made a pitstop in Brooklyn before moving onto New Orleans. As of late, the 6-foot-10 scorer has done well to keep himself in the NBA, but any formerly–made progress has stalled out once more.
Mario Hezonja, No. 5
Although Hezonja once believed he could’ve gone No. 1 overall in another scenario, his NBA career has yet to really breakout. He was unable to find consistent time down in Orlando and only took a one-year stint with the Knicks after that. Now in Portland, Hezonja has stuck around – but how many more chances will he get? It’s unfair to call this a total miss, however, given the slew of tough picks following the Croatian’s selection: Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and…
Frank Kaminsky, No. 9
Hot off a run to the NCAA title game, Frank Kaminsky (and teammate Sam Dekker) found himself rising up draft boards fast in April of 2015. And why shouldn’t he have? At Wisconsin, the seven-footer averaged 18.8 points on 41.6 percent from three-point range. But Kaminsky’s professional career never really took off, stuck behind a slew of veterans in a middle-of-the-pack playoff chase. Made even worse in hindsight, the Celtics were allegedly so desperate to net Justise Winslow that they offered six draft picks (including four first-rounders) to Charlotte.
Cameron Payne, No. 14
It was one thing for the Thunder to take a point guard in the lottery with Russell Westbrook onboard already – but then they promptly buried him on the depth chart and traded him a year later. On a team with heavy postseason expectations, Payne still doesn’t make much sense years down the road. Payne last played nine games for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018-19 and has since appeared in China and the G League.
Just before the country-wide shutdown, the guard notched 23.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks over three games for the Texas Legends. Maybe this story isn’t over just yet…
Larry Nance Jr., No. 27
Richaun Holmes, No. 37
Josh Richardson, No. 40
Pat Connaughton, No. 41
Norman Powell, No. 46
The Jury Is Out
Kelly Oubre Jr., No. 15
Terry Rozier, No. 16
Bobby Portis, No. 22
This category was hand-tailored for our three recipients today: Kelly Oubre Jr., Terry Rozier and Bobby Portis. If the measurement for success is dependent on securing the bag, this trio has already done so. In fact, in 2019-20, the group combined to make $50.5 million. And, all things considered, they’re pretty important and reliable contributors for their franchises, albeit ones that find themselves outside the postseason picture during this stoppage.
Moreover, they all needed changes in scenery before truly blossoming too.
Oubre, never quite able to break from the three-headed monster of John Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter Jr., had a career-year for Phoenix in 2019-20. Tallying 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals, Oubre genuinely looked like an intriguing piece alongside Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Will the high-flying scorer continue to grow in his new role?
Elsewhere, Rozier – first stuck behind Isaiah Thomas and then Kyrie Irving – made waves when he publicly looked toward greener pastures last summer. As the Hornets’ starting point guard, Rozier has put up a solid line of 18 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists on 40.7 percent from three-point range – but he also got outshined by former second-round selection Devonte’ Graham for most of the year as well.
Portis, once most famous for busting Nikola Mirotic’s face in a scuffle, did well to earn a bruising, hard-working reputation in Chicago. The Bulls eventually dealt Portis in lieu of ponying up a huge contract, but the power forward has shown flashes of strong paint prowess. Earlier this season, the 25-year-old big man laughed at the idea of an early buyout in New York and it makes sense – Portis has always bet on himself. He’s seen a decrease in both minutes and games started with the tumultuous Knicks but he’s got gritty-role-player-on-a-championship-contender written all over him.
Drafting is hard.
That should go without saying, but given the landscape of instant judgment, it can’t be repeated enough. From overseas tape, maturity, positional fit, roster fit, growth and a million other factors, draft picks just don’t pan out at times. The Timberwolves and Lakers get credit for not getting reckless, but the 76ers shouldn’t be criticized for not doing so either. Just as the Knicks and Phil Jackson looked shrewd for the outside-the-box thinking on Porzingis, surely, then, Jordan would love to rewind time and take the Celtics’ mega-offer.
But the draft is a fickle beast and there’s always time to rewrite your narrative one final time.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.