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Washington Wizards 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The future for the Washington Wizards seems murky at best, however even with the injury to John Wall could the Wizards be a sleeper playoff team with Bradley Beal as its singular star? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Washington Wizards in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards enter next season with a lot of question marks about the present and the future of the team. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, Wall is out for the entire season due to a tear in his Achilles tendon and will be starting to earn one of the biggest contracts in the NBA. Beal is healthy and was an All-Star last year, but has not signed the contract extension of 3 years/ $111 million offered to him this past summer by the Wizards. Uncertain if Beal will re-sign or Wall will ever get back to playoff form, the Wizards have started developing a solid young core and brought in veterans to help with their development.

The Wizards will hope to follow their newly minted general manager Tommy Shepard’s vision for the future and get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the second time in five seasons with a 32-50 record. The question will be: Will the Wizards rely on their old guard, or will the young core show enough to promise to move forward without their dynamic backcourt?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Sorry, D.C. – the Wizards are in for a long season. John Wall is unlikely to return this season, and the Bradley Beal trade rumors are only going to get louder as the losses pile up. Rui Hachimura flashed his potential in summer league and through his first few games with Japan at the FIBA World Cup (not counting Thursday’s game against the Team USA), and Isaiah Thomas should have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a contributor in the NBA. But the Wizards are going to lose a lot of games in 2019-20. Their best bet may be to fully embrace the idea of a rebuild.

5th place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

It’s safe to say Scott Brooks has his work cut out for him. John Wall is sidelined with a torn left Achilles injury and Bradley Beal is about the only aspect of his squad that’s a sure thing. The rest, we’ll have to see. Thomas Bryant won’t be surprising teams anymore coming off a stellar season. There will be a lot asked of rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield – it is beneficial these are upperclassmen coming in – however, the talent level is simply not there as it has been in the past. Isaiah Thomas vying for a comeback would be one heck of a story. Again though, Washington’s year all hinges on luck, quite frankly. Consider this writer pessimistic about the situation in D.C.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Wizards are in a state of flux right now. With John Wall likely out for the entire season, the Wizards aren’t good enough to make a push for the postseason. Bradley Beal’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but it doesn’t seem like the Wizards are all that inclined to trade him. That may change as the trade deadline draws closer. It’s in Washington’s best interest to hit the reset button and trade Beal for some young pieces and/or picks if they can. This season should be about playing all the young guys they have and seeing who is worth keeping around for the long haul. If his FIBA play is any indication, the Wizards may have hit the jackpot with Rui Hachimura. He should be given ample opportunity to play, as should players like Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, and Mortiz Wagner. There really is nothing to lose.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Any analysis of the Washington Wizards must begin with the difficult truth that is John Wall is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is set to make $38,199,000 this season and $47,366,760 in the 2022-23 season. Ouch. After that, I cannot get past the thought that the Los Angeles Clippers approached the Wizards about trading for Bradley Beal and Washington basically said thanks, but no thanks. Beal is a star guard and moving him in a deal isn’t exactly a no-brainer. However, when you consider what Sam Presti managed to squeeze out of the Clippers in the Paul George trade, it makes you wonder what Washington may have passed up bypassing on any deal including Beal. Moving past this, however, Washington did make some crafty moves. The Wizards did manage to nab Davis Bertans in the Brooklyn Nets’ sign-and-trade of DeMarre Carroll with San Antonio. They also took on Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones from the Lakers essentially for free so the Lakers could clear extra cap space in order to acquire both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t end up happening, of course). Washington also drafted Rui Hachimura, a talented prospect, with the ninth overall pick. Some believe Hachimura is a reach at ninth overall, but I am of the belief it was a solid pick for Washington. Overall, this was an okay offseason for the Wizards, in my opinion. However, the Wall contract is the albatross that will hang over this team for the foreseeable future.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Wizards kicked the tires on splashy options for new leadership but ended up promoting long-time Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard to the senior operations role of the team. Since that decision, the Wizards have made a number of changes in the front office that should better prepare them for the likely and maybe inevitable re-build they will have to embark on. As much as current leadership wants to build around All-Star Brad Beal, it seems unlikely that unless he turns into an MVP caliber guy by himself that the Wizards will have to try and convince Beal he can really win in Washington, which will be pretty hard given the size of guard John Wall’s contract and his uncertain future after an Achilles tear. The good news for the Wizards is they don’t have to cross that Beal bridge this season and, given whats a stake financially with Beal becoming Super Max eligible if he makes an All-NBA team this year, things are lined up for at least one more run with Beal as the focal point and the roster as constructed might be a playoff contender, especially if Beal stays healthy.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Wizards have worked their team salary down to below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Washington is trying to field a competitive team despite having $38.2 million going to John Wall ($171.1 million over the next four years, player option on the final season), who isn’t expected to play this year after an Achilles tear. The big question is Bradley Beal, who can sign an extension through the 2023-24 season for roughly $111 million. His answer sets the course for the franchise. Even though he’s under contract through 2020-21, he could end up on the trade block if he turns down the extension offer.

Additionally, the team needs to pick up the team option on Troy Brown Jr. and Mo Wagner before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal is entering his eighth NBA season this season and delivered the best offensive season of his career by averaging 25.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5.5 APG. Even with the Wizards having a down year, Beal was a shining star for the team. During the offseason, Beal was highly sought after because of his scoring ability without having the ball in his hands.

Teams like the Lakers and Rockets perused Beal to be an All-Star alongside each of those teams’ ball-dominant stars. Beal has shown that he does not need to have the ball in his hands to make a strong offensive impact, which has made him such a dynamic star alongside John Wall. Wall requires the ball in his hand to make the most of his offensive abilities. Beal has really benefitted by being a perimeter threat that can finish at the hole if pressed too tightly. With Wall out for the season, we should see Beal being more aggressive and handling the ball more. With Wall out, we saw career numbers from Beal by the end of last year.

Top Defensive Player: Thomas Bryant

Thomas Bryant will become a focal point of this year’s Wizards team on the defensive side of the ball. Despite competing with Ian Mihainmi for minutes, it is looking like he will break the starting rotation and will secure the starting job at Center. Mahinmi will come in to be a defense and rebound specialist, but Bryant has shown that he can be a threat on that end of the court as well. The Wizards looked to rely heavily on Dwight Howard last year to stabilize the defense, but he had to undergo back surgery and only played nine games last season. Instead, the Wizards relied on a tandem of Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi to make up for the loss of Howard. Bryant ended up starting because of efficiency on offense and signed a 3 year/ 25 million dollar extension with the team this off season.

Bryant led the team in defensive win shares with a +2.7 rating, defensive rebounds with 10.8 per game and blocks with 2.7 per game. Bryant looks continue to build on the defensive success by cementing himself as the starting Center by not having Howard on the roster anymore.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

For the 2018-2019 season, Thomas signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards.

At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics and led them to the Eastern Conference Finals by averaging 28.9 points per game. The Wizards brought Thomas and Ish Smith to compete for the starting point guard position due to Wall’s injury. If Thomas can stay healthy, he look to be able to run the Wizards offense and will have a great offensive tool with Beal. Look toward Thomas having Beal playing off of his playmaking ability and maximizing both of their talents this year.

Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal

Beal’s stats during “Clutch Time” (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points) were some of best in the NBA last season. During Clutch Time, Beal had the one of the best last minute field goal percentages among players who took 25 or more attempts with a 45 percent conversion rate. Beal also ranked seventh in most points scored during clutch time with 125 points.

Isaiah Thomas was the first option in many crunch time situations when he was with the Boston Celtics. If Thomas can gain the trust of the Wizards coaching staff through the season, he may steal some crunch time shots, but still look for Beal to be the primary option.

Unheralded Player: Troy Brown Jr.

With C.J. Miles healing a stress fracture in his left foot to start the season, Troy Brown Jr. has a strong opportunity to be the starting small forward on opening night for the Wizards. Being a lottery pick in the 2018 draft, the Wizards have high hopes for Brown to turn into reliable small forward in his sophomore year. Brown was quite clearly the best player on the Wizards’ Summer League roster. In his only full game, he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds, but he only shot 40.6 percent in Vegas. Brown will not have any pressure of being the focal point of the Wizards’ offense, which will make it easy to play off players like Beal or Thomas to gain some easy scoring opportunities.

Best New Addition: Rui Hachimura

Hachimura only played in three of the Wizards’ summer league games, but posted a dominant performance in his final game of the tournament, scoring 25 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Hachimura was definitely seen as a cerebral player who smoothly adjusting to the speed of the NBA and improving game-by-game. Hachimura also had a strong performance in the FIBA World Cup this summer, where he averaged 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.3 APG. He has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him out of two games in the World Cup. If Hachimura can overcome his leg injuries, it should give Wizards fan hope he can contribute as a rookie.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Free Lakers Pieces

The Wizards acquired center Moritz Wagner, forward Jemerrio Jones, guard Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans. Wagner was selected 25th in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Lakers. In 43 games with the Lakers last season, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, including 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in five games as a starter. Bonga was selected 39th in 2018 draft and Moon went undrafted.

Wagner appears to be the most coveted one since Bonga and Jones both played sparingly or didn’t spend much time with the Lakers. Despite their lack of experience, they both have tremendous upside – Bonga being a 6-foot-9 point guard and Jones being one of the toughest defenders in the league according to Mo. The Wizards were able to get players who will be long term projects that can continue to build a solid young core.

2. Veteran Balance

Tommy Sheppard’s focus this offseason was to balance the Wizards roster by bringing in young talent. The front office focused on securing veterans leadership for the team as well. Besides signing eight-season NBA vet Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards also signed guard Ish Smith, who is entering his ninth season. The Wizards also signed guard-forward C.J. Miles, who is coming into his 15th NBA season. There is strong potential for these veterans to mentor younger Wizards and boost the team’s confidence with the help of Beal.

Thomas only played 12 games with the Denver Nuggets last year and is looking to make a strong come back from a hip injury his sustained in 2016. Smith played three years with the Detroit Pistons where he averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season on 41.9 percent from the field. Miles only played 13 games last year but can contribute as a stretch four, averaging 36 percent from behind the arc for his career.

3. New Management

On July 22, 2019, the Wizards hired Tommy Shepard as general manager of the team. Shortly after the team hired Shepard, he started filling out the front office by naming Johnny Rogers as Vice President of Pro Personnel, Antawn Jamison as Director of Pro Personnel, Sashi Brown as Chief Planning and Operations Officer and former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III the head of  athlete development and engagement department This rebuild was organized by Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) CEO Ted Leonsis after he let go of Ernie Grunfeld in April after 16 years of service.

MSE went soul searching during this rebuild and used 78 different consultants for this front office reorganization. Leonsis picked the brains of the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States. Leonsis made it clear that he needed help in his search for a replacement or, better yet, an entirely new system for his organization to run on. More importantly, the front office rebuild will not be a success if Shepard is unable to put together an NBA Finals contender. Though it seems that the Wizards are searching for a championship and will do anything to improve their odds.

4. Thomas’ First Fully Healthy Season

Isaiah Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016 but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. The Wizards hope that Thomas has fully addressed the hip issue and can make a full recovery after his surgery. The likelihood of him fully recovering is not in his favor, but if he can manage to be the starting point guard for the Wizards, that would justify taking the risk on Thomas.

Thomas has always a narrative of being an underdog: Being picked last in the 2011 draft, having the Kings refuse to sign him after averaging over 20 points a game, to the Celtics who traded him to the Cavs after having two All-Star seasons. Thomas was all but counted out when he tore his labrum and to come back from this injury would solidify the underdog narrative.

-David Weissman

STRENGTHS

Realistically, the most proven piece of the young core is Thomas Bryant who started 53 games for the Wizards last season and this summer got a new contract of 3 years/ $25 million. At 22, Bryant has the best resume and most upside to start at the five, especially with per-36 numbers last year of 18.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

Troy Brown Jr. will also be an integral part of this young core. Brown played in only 52 games, 10 of which he started. He averaged under 15 minutes per game, scoring 4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 1.5 APG. With an opportunity to play bigger minutes this season, Brown has provided optimism from his performance during the summer league and is anticipated to make a jump statistically this next season.

The Wizards also acquired Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, Jemerrio Moon, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to bolster the youth movement on the team. Sheppard looks like he is attempting to rebuild while still maintaining Wall and Beal on the roster. Beal has been offered 3 years/ $111 million extension, but has yet to accept. If Beal walks after two seasons, the young core can hopefully supplement his absence in the future.

-David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

The one glaring issue that the Wizards face is the lack of security at the point guard position. Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on Jan. 8, 2019, to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years.

Wall is a six-time All-Star who has averaged 19 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.3 RPG during his career, creating a glaring hole of productivity at the point guard position. The Wizards took a risk on Isaiah Thomas to try and fill the offensive productivity they are used to with Wall. As mentioned before, Thomas is coming off of a serious hip injury and may be limited himself. The Wizards signed Thomas on the veteran minimum salary, a small risk especially after having so much money tied up at the point guard position already with Wall’s massive contract.

The Wizards will probably know fairly early in the preseason about what they have in Thomas and what they can expect. If Thomas’ last season performance is any indication about his availability this season, Ish Smith will be spending a lot of time on the court. Smith averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, solid for a backup point guard, but a far drop from the productivity of Wall.

-David Weissman

The Burning Question

What Does Sheppard Do With The Future Of The Team?

As Tommy Sheppard takes over as General Manager for the Washington Wizards, he faces a tough choice that will determine the Wizards’ future: (1) Blow the team up or (2) Continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Blowing up the team would require trading away the All-Star backcourt, allowing Sheppard to focus on developing a young core featuring Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. Building around Wall and Beal, on the other hand, would require keeping a duo together who has not had the best relationship in the past and Wall overcoming injury. Sheppard has suggested he wants to maintain the established backcourt by offering Beal a full max extension, the best approach for the Wizards’ future despite the risk of gambling on Wall’s health.

Wall had been an All-Star for the five seasons prior to the 2018-2019 season, mainly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability. In December 2018, Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on January 8, 2019 to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles, worsening the injury from December 2018. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years. Trading this incredibly expensive contract with a devastating injury attached to it is an incredibly difficult feat without giving up assets, making sticking with Wall an almost unavoidable option for Sheppard.

Trading Wall and Beal, the Wizards would start off fresh with whatever is left of a young core comprised of Brown Jr., Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The Wizards’ hopes would rest on the young core developing into a strong foundation that could attract All-Star caliber talent and drafting well during a multi-year rebuild.

Given the difficulty of moving Wall and the uncertainty of what the rebuild can actually achieve, sticking with the current Beal/Wall duo seems like a better recipe for success in the near future. Best case scenario, Wall is able to perform at an All-Star level again and re-develops a dynamic duo in a wide open Eastern Conference with Beal.

-David Weissman

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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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 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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