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The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the season finally here, Matt John takes a look at what the NBA was like ten years before, and the implications it had on today’s league.

Matt John

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Here we go again!

Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.

Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.

Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.

Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.

This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.

Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.

Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.

More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling

In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.

Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.

The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.

But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.

Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.

Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.

Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.

As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.

Less (Shaq) Is More!

When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.

Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.

Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.

The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics

As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.

But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.

With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.

It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.

It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.

About The Label “Future Star”

The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.

But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.

When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.

Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.

But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.

In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.

His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.

But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.

No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.

What Could Have Been

We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?

James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.

That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.

But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?

People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.

That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.

Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.

There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?

We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.

The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.

Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.

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NBA

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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NBA

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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NBA

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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