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Toronto Raptors 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Toronto Raptors gambled big last year and it paid off. While they did lose Kawhi Leonard in free agency, they still return an impressive group of players fresh off the franchise’s first championship. Can the Raptors stay competitive this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Toronto Raptors in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018-19 NBA Champions enter this season with mostly the same roster – sans their best player and NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard represents a huge loss for the Raptors, but don’t feel too badly for the Association’s only professional Canadian team.

The Raptors can easily initiate a rebuild during the 2019-20 season if that’s their desired course of action. They should still be highly competitive considering they returned virtually everyone but Leonard. And retooling around Pascal Siakam will be a cinch considering how well he complements other players and positions.

But if the Raptors struggle, they can speed up the rebuilding process by trading away veterans like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, for whom there should be a market considering they’re both on expiring contracts and still serviceable starters. Fortunately, the Raptors don’t have to make a decision on whether or not they want to rebuild just yet. They can take their time assessing how well their team performs and pull the trigger on deals closer to the trade deadline – when contenders typically get more desperate and become willing to part with future assets to score key veterans.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s going to be a major turnaround for the Raptors. One minute they were on top of the world having won their first championship in franchise history. The next, Kawhi Leonard was out the door on his way to Los Angeles. It was always a distinct possibility though that no matter what happened, Leonard was going to leave, and Masai Ujiri did a good job of stockpiling the team with assets. Pascal Siakam has emerged as a legit building block. OG Anunoby was looking like one too before his injury. They refused to give up all their draft picks in a potential Paul George trade to keep Leonard. Whatever direction the front office decides to go in, they’re well suited. They still have enough talent on the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference. They added a couple of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ujiri had a strong case for Executive of the Year last season and as long as he’s in charge, the Raptors will be in good hands.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

-David Yapkowitz

Congratulations to The Six on its first NBA Finals win. Last season was a magical run and a blast to watch. The Raptors paid a hefty price to win a championship, though. Kawhi Leonard headed home to the west coast and Danny Green will be in the same city of Los Angeles with a different team. So now, Toronto is left with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – all on expiring contracts. It will be interesting to see whether this core big four (Pascal Siakam as option No. 1, of course) can navigate a wide-open Eastern Conference. We certainly know that Fred VanVleet is a capable backcourt partner for Lowry, and OG Anunoby’s return will afford him valuable minutes in a crucial season. However, if things aren’t going as planned in this upcoming year, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see one or two of those big contracts moved for draft capital or future assets. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a solid pick up to fill a void at forward. Maybe Nick Nurse’s group gets the best of both worlds by making the postseason and preparing for what’s down the line. Regardless of what happens, 2018-19 was all worth it in the end. We’ll see if momentum can carry The North forward or if this is the start of a new Raptors era.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

How the mighty have fallen. The Raptors, to a degree, leveraged their future on the Kawhi Leonard trade. They bet that they could convince him to stay (they couldn’t); and if not, that it would be prudent to avoid paying $30 million+ to stars who weren’t delivering championships (e.g. DeMar DeRozan). They surprised everyone – probably themselves, too – when they won the 2018-19 NBA championship in their first year with Leonard on the roster. Now, they must deal with the fallout from the gamble.

Fortunately for the Raptors, Pascal Siakam was the breakout star (and MIP) of the year in 2018-19. His presence alone should instill confidence and hope. The Raps also managed to add some versatility to their roster by signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But neither signing moves the needle too much.

The Raptors appear primed for a rebuild, but seem willing to be patient in doing so – maybe waiting to see who becomes available before the trade deadline. Regardless, they have too much talent to finish below the Knicks, but probably not enough to finish higher than fourth in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. The playoffs are a possibility, but matching the team’s recent levels of success seems like a long shot.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

-Drew Maresca

It is easy to write the Raptors off after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, but the truth is the Raptors are still a very, very formidable team. Sure, there may be some hangover from such a magical title season a year ago, but the pressure is off almost everyone. Typically teams carry the burden of repeating into the season, and that’s frankly not something the Raptors have to worry about; they can simply play. Head coach Nick Nurse isn’t going to be questioned if the team doesn’t win 60 games; he can just coach. The Raptors have some ending-contract guys they may look to move if the season isn’t competitive, but what’s more likely is that the Raptors are competitive because they were when Leonard had “load management” games last year. Winning 58 games likely isn’t in the cards, but it would be surprising if the Raptors fall off. In fact, home court in the playoffs still seems plausible, especially for a team playing with house money on the expectations front.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

First things first, congratulations to the Toronto Raptors for winning their first championship in franchise history last season. Of course, losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency hurts, but winning the championship last season makes the initial trade for Leonard worth it. The Raptors are now left with a talented, but perhaps not elite roster. Pascal Siakam is on the rise and could turn into one of the best overall forwards in the league in short order. I like the addition of young, athletic forwards like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. Whether this team can make serious noise in the playoffs this upcoming season is in question but I think the front office will give this team a fair chance to show that it can compete at the highest levels, even after losing Leonard. If the team underperforms, we could see some deals go down. Masai Ujiri is a calculated dealmaker and won’t let sentiment get in the way of making deals he thinks help his team in the short and long term. That means even players like Lowry could be on the move this upcoming season, assuming another team makes a legitimate offer for his services.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

Outside of losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors have had a relatively quiet summer. The team added Stanley Johnson via its Bi-Annual Exception ($3.6 million) and used most of its Mid-Level Exception ($9.3 million) on Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dewan Hernandez and Matt Thomas. In doing so, Toronto triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue, given the team will probably head into the season below the NBA’s $132.6 million tax threshold.

Pascal Siakam, arguably now the Raptors’ best player, is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. If the team chooses to wait until he’s a restricted free agent next July, he’ll only take up $7.1 million in cap space unsigned. That may be reason enough to wait, given Toronto could have over $80 million in cap space before the 2020-21 season, depending on what the franchise does with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and other expiring contracts. Before November, the Raptors also need to decide on OG Anunoby’s rookie-scale option.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Pascal Siakam

Siakam isn’t a traditional offensive workhorse. His three-point shot leaves much to be desired; he was a horrible three-point shooter for his first two seasons, but he improved to a 36.9 percent three-point shooter last year. But old habits die hard and Siakam regressed in the 2019 postseason, shooting just 27.9 percent from three-point range and only 23.8 percent in the Finals.

But that’s not the whole story on Siakam. He is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-9 forward who can be relied on to get to the rim in one-on-one situations. He demonstrated an improved jump shot last season. And taking on the first-option role might not have as dramatic an effect on Siakam as it does on most players; Siakam’s per-36 numbers were better last season when his usage rate was at its highest.

But will he continue to improve? He did turn 25 in April, and that is around the age where players begin to level off regarding making major improvements to their games. Regardless, Siakam is a great piece. He’s eligible for an early extension this season until October 21 though, so the Raptors must decide just how much they like him.

Top Defensive Player: Pascal Siakam

While Siakam appears primed to take on the lead offensive role for the Raptors, he is also their most important and versatile defender. Siakam’s ridiculous 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to cover much more ground than most 6-foot-9 forwards can. His defensive win share has steadily increased each year and it reached a career-best 3.6 in 2018-19. Siakam also posted the best defensive rating of all Raptors last year.

He is an above-average on and off-the-ball defender, and he anticipates passes and shot attempts brilliantly. Siakam will be leaned on even more heavily this season, as he will be viewed as a leader on both the offense and defense. He’ll have to defend other teams’ best wings and bigs. And he’ll have to be very deliberate in expending energy given the ridiculously large work load he’ll be asked to tackle on both sides of the floor.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Lowry took a noticeable step back last season, scoring less than he had per game since his first season in Toronto (2012-13) and posting a worse shooting percentage than he has in the previous five seasons. But he was good enough in The Finals to help secure the Raptors first championship, chipping in 16.2 points and 7.2 assists per game. Lowry willingly took a backseat to Leonard last year; his selflessness is a hugely helpful attribute considering many stars would resist a decreased role. But it was for Leonard and it yielded a championship.

Will his willingness to be Toronto’s second fiddle begin to wane now that Leonard is no longer a Raptor? Either way, his playmaking abilities should help keep the Raptors afloat; and if he must carry more of the load, that’s okay because he’s done so before. But will the Raptors keep him around beyond the February trade deadline?

Top Clutch Player: Norman Powell

With Danny Green heading to the Lakers, Powell appears poised to step into the starting two-guard spot – and with good reason. Powell shot 40 percent on 2.8 three-point field goal attempts per game last season. But 2.8 three-pointers per game was a career-high, and it’s not that many threes for a sharpshooter in the modern NBA. Can he maintain the strong shooting with increased volume? There’s no reason to think he can’t.

Powell shot 37.5 percent from three-point range last season when playing 30 or more minutes, and he shot 36.5 percent in the nine games combined when he shot five or more threes. Further, Powell continued his hot shooting into the 2019 playoffs, posting 38.7 percent from long-range through 23 games. So last season’s numbers suggest that Powell is still more than proficient from distance under duress, and when playing more minutes and shooting more threes. Hopefully for Toronto, that trend continues as the sample size increases.

The Unheralded Player: OG Anunoby

Anunoby is well-positioned for a strong year. He increased his scoring average by about a point per game in 2018-19 to 7 ppg. His usage also jumped from 12.4 to 15.5 and his PER remained mostly unchanged (dropping to 9.8 from 10). Anunoby’s dimensions (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 reach) and age (recently turned 22) are feathers in the young forward’s cap. He is built in the Siakam mold – a versatile player who can affect the game in a number of ways. The Raptors are hoping he will have a similarly successful breakout year similar to Siakam’s 2018-19. And considering Leonard’s departure, there will absolutely be an opportunity for him to prove his worth in the frontcourt.

Best New Addition: Stanley Johnson

Stanley Johnson has not lived up to the high expectations inherited by lottery picks. But he’s moved on from the Detroit Pistons (and New Orleans) and gets a fresh start in Toronto. Johnson is a very athletic forward who can lock down opposing wings. He must work on his three-ball, but he’ll definitely have a role on the Raptors and he’ll help form a capable frontcourt rotation that can switch off on guards in pick-and-rolls, while also defending most power forwards. Johnson needs to focus on his offensive game, as he’s never even averaged 10 points per game. But despite being drafted back in 2015, he’s still only 23-years-old. Johnson still has time to mature and grow into his NBA game. Hopefully, for Johnson and Toronto, that happens with the Raptors.

-Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rondae Hollis Jefferson

Hollis-Jefferson is a scrappy and versatile defender. He plays the small forward spot and is equally well-suited to be a small-ball power forward. Hollis-Jefferson’s dimensions are similar to that of Anunoby and Siakam, and all three give the Raptors a dangerous group of defenders who can switch all screens and defend multiple positions. He doesn’t shoot the three-ball well, but he doesn’t shoot many threes. He is otherwise pretty efficient offensively and can score when given the right opportunities; and his athleticism aids him well – on both sides of the court.

2. Fred VanVleet

VanVleet proved his worth last season. He enters 2019-20 as one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, and he should only build on his career year. VanVleet averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, and he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. VanVleet is a hard-nosed defender and should be far more confident in 2019-20 considering his experience. Unfortunately, VanVleet’s stature prevents playing him alongside Lowry for too long. Otherwise, he might have a case to become a full-time starter.

3. Serge Ibaka

Ibaka had a resurgence of sorts last season. He scored and rebounded the ball better than he has since 2013-14. And while he shot poorly from three-point range, he posted a higher overall shooting percentage than he has since 2013-14, too. His role changed entering last season, as he only started approximately 68 percent of games in which he appeared (compared to all of the games he appeared in in his previous five seasons) – and his new role obviously suited him. The presence of Marc Gasol was also helpful, allowing Ibaka to rotate between backup center and a stretch four. He plays well with Lowry and VanVleet. And while Ibaka blocks fewer shots than he once did, he limited opponents to shooting 52.6 percent at the rim when he was defending – which is on par with Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Ibaka appears to have at least one more good year left in him, and considering he’s still only 30 years old, he might have even more than that.

4. Masai Ujiri

Ujiri is viewed very favorably around the league – in fact, he is seen as one of the very best general managers and/or team presidents in basketball. Ujiri has fleeced his share of opposing teams. He takes chances, but he sees the bigger picture better than most. Most recently, he swooped in and snatched up Leonard from the Spurs shortly after it became obvious that the situation had become irreconcilable; and in doing so, he won the Raptors their first NBA title and freed up their cap situation moving forward. Ujiri is excellent at team building and he instills confidence in his staff, the coaching staff and the roster. He is an executive players and coaches seem to enjoy working for, which will continue to benefit the Raptors for as long as he remains with the team.

-Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

Versatility. The Raptors boast a good amount of versatility – especially at the forward and center positions. Their roster boasts a number of ultra-versatile wings/forwards who will enable them to defend opponents at a very high level. Siakam, Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all long and capable defenders, and their athleticism makes them all very dangerous in transition. While none of the aforementioned players are overly adept three-point shooters, they are full of potential – and none are older than 25. And they’re able to share the floor with one another and switch most screens really effectively, causing nightmare matchups for opposing wings/forwards.

Their flock of centers also provides interesting versatility. Gasol played less impressively last season than he had in previous years, but he looked better in the FIBA World Cup and was named to the tournament All-Star Five. Gasol morphed into an above-average shooting big a few years back and connected on 36 percent of his three-pointers in 2018-19. And while Gasol might not be quite as strong a defender as he once was, his ability to stretch the floor and pass the ball from the perimeter presents additional options for the Raptors.

And then there’s Ibaka. And while Ibaka’s three-point shooting was down last season, he launched fewer long balls last year than he has since 2013-14. And Ibaka seemed to understand the importance of good possessions and took more shots from the mid-range last year than in the recent past – and he scored more last season (15.0 points per game) than he has in years for that very reason. Ibaka and Gasol’s complimentary skill sets make the Raptors even more dangerous.

-Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

No star power. Not that the Raptors necessarily wanted it this season, but their one true, current star just recently left to head back home to Los Angeles. The Raptors would have preferred to run back their 2018-19 roster, but they took a Leonard-or-bust approach when they traded DeRozan for Leonard. The Raptors knew they might not return Leonard and they were OK with the possibility of losing him because, in adding him last season, they also offloaded long-term, high-level salary. But regardless of their team-building preferences, the success of NBA teams in 2019-20 is contingent on star power – and the Raptors really don’t have much.

They might not be down for long – depending very heavily on if Pascal Siakam is able to develop into a superstar this season – but given the competition in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors could be the first team since the 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers to miss the NBA Playoffs the very next season after winning a championship, and the fourth team to ever do so, joining the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls and the 1969-70 Boston Celtics.

-Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Raptors hold or fold?

They not-too-subtly dealt DeMar DeRozan with a contingency plan of jump starting a rebuild if Leonard didn’t re-sign. Well, Leonard didn’t re-sign. Now it’s time to pay the piper.

The Raptors must decide if they’re going to try to get something back for Lowry, Gasol and others. Otherwise, the majority of the roster expires following 2019-20, so they’re rebuilding by choice or not. The Raptors will probably be patient in the early part of the season. But if it looks like they’re on the bubble regarding the playoffs, they will probably become sellers. The market for point guards (Lowry), centers (Gasol), etc. at the time they decide to deal will dictate how much they get back. The Raptors should – and probably will considering the savviness of Ujiri – be proactive in fielding offers. And if they get one that improves the roster long-term, they would be well-served to take it. However either way, the Raptors appear primed to initiate a rebuild beginning next offseason at the very latest.

-Drew Maresca

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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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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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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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