Give Mikhail Prokhorov credit: it seems that from the very moment he became involved with the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise has been one of the most talked about across the entire NBA. Now, as the Nets stare at the prospect of what may be a very long season, the faithful fans of Brooklyn collectively wonder what the first year of the post-Deron Williams era will bring.
Built around Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson, when compared to the likes of the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and certainly the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets seem to be a team headed in the wrong direction. Williams is off to Dallas and fans of this team wonder what the 2015-16 season will bring. Quietly, we wonder the same.
Basketball Insiders previews the Brooklyn Nets’ 2015-16 season:
The Nets haven’t been this unexciting since they officially moved to New York. While it’s good that they were able to hold onto Brook Lopez and add some exciting young talents like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thomas Robinson, the reality is that the Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovic starting backcourt isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence in fans. The Nets have pieced together an interesting roster with loads of likeable players like Donald Sloan, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller, but despite that it really is a pretty sad little roster. It’s a time of transition for the Nets, who very likely will entertain trade offers for Joe Johnson non-stop from now through February.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Brooklyn Nets are a team I expect to drop out of the playoffs next season. They snuck into the eighth spot last year with 38 wins, but that was by surpassing Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT teams set back by injuries. Deron Williams left the Nets this summer for the Dallas Mavericks, which could end up benefiting the team given his lack of consistency and production over the years. The Nets, however, have underperformed since a team of mega-contracts was compiled. Joe Johnson is in the final year of his deal and the Nets will have more flexibility to add new talent once that’s off the table. Until then, the Nets are poised to remain in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Nets have been one of the league’s biggest spenders over the past two seasons, but only have one playoff series victory to show for their investment dollars. Heading into training camp, the expectations surrounding the club are now much lower – and rightfully so. Seven-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson is the best player in the Nets’ rotation, but he’s been on a decline since 2012. Brook Lopez is a nightly 20-point threat, but has had more than his share of injury woes. The team has $81 million in guaranteed salaries on the books this season, but just $45 million for the 2016-17 campaign. Brooklyn may fall out of the playoff mix this season, but a quick bounce back next year isn’t out of the question.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
Ever hear of addition by subtraction? The Nets are certainly hoping to find some of that. Just two short seasons ago, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Deron Williams, the Nets dreamed of toppling the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference. Now, amazingly, and in short order, none of those players are with the franchise. I can’t deny Brook Lopez’s above-average abilities, but I simply do not think that a team built around him and his gifts will ever be a championship contender. By necessity, his team will need to force-feed him and play down to his speed and I am just not sure if that is a winning recipe in today’s NBA. Aside from that, the Nets lost many of their best three-point shooters and defenders over the past few years and although they are getting much younger, they do not seem to be getting any better. Who is the emotional leader for this team? Who will lift their spirits? Who will teach the younger players? I honestly have no clue, just like I have no clue how they can expect to be any better than fourth in their division this year.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
Last year, Brooklyn managed to sneak into the playoffs with just 38 wins. This year, I think it’s going to take significantly more wins than that to be a playoff team in the East, and I have the Nets on the outside looking in. With that said, I like some of the young players they added including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller among others. The team cut bait on Deron Williams this offseason, which was the right move, and it’s good to see them bringing in some young players. They’ll take a step back, but creating flexibility is likely a smart decision.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
With all due respect to Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez is the top offensive player for the Brooklyn Nets. Lopez may have his faults as a player and the mobility of dump truck, but he is an efficient offensive player who possesses both an ability to play with his back to the basket and confidently score from well outside of the paint. In 2013-14, Lopez averaged 20.7 points per game and although he scored substantially less last season (17.2 PPG), it’s because his usage seemed to deteriorate more as a result of Lionel Hollins playing off of his wing players a bit more. To his credit, Lopez still shot 51 percent from the field and handled a demotion to the bench quite well, all things considered. Assuming he can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe that Lopez will cease being one of the more productive and efficient big men in the NBA, and it is easy to consider him the top offensive force on the Nets.
Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young
After losing Kevin Garnett, Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston fairly recently, the Nets now find themselves devoid of many plus-defenders. For that reason, Thaddeus Young almost wins here by default. Young has always been a good on-ball defender, but does often struggle to stay in front of small players. Together, he and Brook Lopez form a credible tandem in terms of making opposing big men work for their baskets, but overall, the Nets may truly miss Alan Anderson. Newcomer Shane Larkin can be fairly pesky, but his lack of size has been perhaps the biggest obstacle he has had to overcome to this point, and he will continue to face challenges as a result. As for Young, while far from perfect, he is capable on the defensive end. Markel Brown certainly warrants mention here, as he certainly proved himself a capable defender last season, but with such a small sample size, we would have to say that Young remains numero uno in this regard.
Top Playmaker: Jarrett Jack
It’s amazing to us that a quality player and person like Jarrett Jack has been so transient in his NBA career. Now playing on his seventh team, Jack appears destined to be the full-time starter for the Brooklyn Nets at the point guard position. Jack hasn’t started as many as 50 games since 2010 but it certainly appears that the job is his to lose now that Deron Williams has taken his talents to Dallas. Overall, Jack is only a mediocre distributor, partially evidenced by his career 5.6 assists per 36 minutes. Where Jack excels, however, is creating space off of the dribble. Jack is an outstanding step-back shooter and is quite capable at dribbling around screens and shooting after creating a sliver of space. As the full-time starter and playing the lion’s share of minutes as the team’s point guard, Jack will be higher on the opposition’s scouting depth chart and will have an opportunity to consistently find his shooters. Though we prefer Jack in situations where he is creating his own shot opportunity, he has always been willing to move the basketball and has the ability to help Andrea Bargnani, Joe Johnson and the other shooters on this team shine.
Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson
There are numbers and metrics that would support the notion that Joe Johnson is the top clutch player in the entire league, at least over the past five years. So yes, it is easy to declare that he is the top clutch player on the Brooklyn Nets. During the 2013-14 season, Kevin Garnett famously referred to Johnson as “Joe Jesus.” The reason? According to Garnett, “He may not be there when you want him, but he’s there when you need him.” Johnson earned the moniker after a January 2014 victory over his former team, the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a dearth of late-game heroics last season, at least comparatively speaking, there are few players across the entire league that strike fear in the opposition the way Johnson does.
The Unheralded Player: Thaddeus Young
Entering his ninth season, Thaddeus Young is a player whose name probably rings a bell to some NBA observers, but only those who live and breathe basketball. In other words, he is not a household name or known by many casual fans. Now, out of necessity, the Nets will lean on him to be one of their top playmakers and with that, for Young, will come tremendous opportunity. Always regarded as a capable defender over the years, Young’s game has improved immensely. He can finish around the basket and in traffic, possesses good athleticism and can create his own scoring opportunities off of the dribble. He is observant and engaged on either end of the court and also excels at playing off of the basketball. What was most impressive about Young last season, however, was that in his 28 games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he connected on 38 percent of his three-point looks. Although it was a small sample size, it may be indicative of his learning how to effectively play with and off of both Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. In his final season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Young averaged 17.9, six rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. With the Nets, if he proves himself capable of shouldering a heavy load, his usage and minutes will likely increase to the point where he can best those numbers. The potential is certainly there.
Best New Addition: Thomas Robinson
Since being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has had a tough time finding consistent minutes and productivity. His career 14.1 minutes per game average is all the proof one needs to recognize that Robinson hasn’t been given the requisite minutes to make a difference in the league. Entering his fourth season, it is fair to question whether or not Robinson has something to do with his lack of opportunity. Still, with the flashes he has shown, the Nets hope that they have acquired a youngster that will prove to be a late bloomer. And if there is one thing that Robinson has already shown, it is a ferocious presence on the glass. In just 22 games with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Robinson grabbed 7.7 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game, translating to a ridiculous 15 rebounds per-36 minutes. Over the course of his career, Robinson has grabbed 12.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, proving that he has at least one bona fide NBA talent. Although he may be overly assertive with his shot selection, he is an impressive finisher around the basket and plays at a breakneck pace. The Nets have made other acquisitions this summer that may prove to be worthwhile for the club, but with his upside and ferocity, we lean toward choosing Robinson as the best among them.
Who We Like
Lionel Hollins: Without question, Lionel Hollins, both as a player and a head coach, is someone with identity. Hollins is a proven leader who believes in playing the game of basketball a certain way and if there is one thing he deserves credit for more than anything else, it was how he was unafraid to challenge both Brook Lopez and Deron Williams last season. At various points during the season, we received word that Lopez and Williams were the subjects of questioning and prodding by their head coach and each went through stretches of the season where their minutes and usage waned tremendously. That type of accountability is rarely seen in the NBA these days and it is hardly ever seen as it relates to a first-year head coach attempting to pull greatness out of the two players that many regarded as franchise mainstays. From an Xs and Os perspective, Hollins leaves a bit to be desired, but most coaches do. Tough-nosed and seasoned, he is a plus-contributor on the bench and is one of the few bright spots for a team that has become a perennial underachiever.
Their Young Players: During the 2013-14 season, nine Nets players were at least 30 years old. Last season, that number dipped to six. Entering the 2015-16 season, the Nets will have just three players on their roster who are 30 or older. Led by Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Nets have an array of youngsters – Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Boatright, Thomas Robinson and Willie Reed – that still have some perceived upside. Over the coming years, the Nets will continue to shave their payroll, but they have at least added some young players whose best days seem to be ahead of them. In the short term, the team is not likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference Championship, but clearly, building around overpriced veterans was not a recipe of success for these Nets, so kudos for altering the game plan. Now, if only they still owned their draft picks…
Mikhail Prokhorov: Say what you want about Mikhail Prokhorov, but until you have actually stood next to him in person, you simply have no idea what kind of charm and personality the man has. One other thing he certainly has? It’s a way with words, and we say that sincerely. Prokhorov is witty and intelligent and has no issue with being controversial. He entered the NBA beating his chest and declaring his team to be a championship contender, and although he has fallen short of his own grandiose predictions, he is still committed to winning and is willing to spend money in that pursuit. At the very least, he is worth commending for that.
Strengths are admittedly difficult to find on the Nets, but if there is one thing that we can point to as potentially causing the opposition some headaches is size. With Brook Lopez, Andrea Bargnani and Thaddeus Young all getting minutes in the front court and Thomas Robinson expected to get some bench minutes, it seems that the big man platoon for the Nets may surpass its perimeter players in terms of productivity. Willie Reed, who was a Summer League standout, could also be a surprise contributor (much like Hassan Whiteside emerged for the Miami HEAT last year).
Another strength is how young they are, especially when compared to previous iterations of Brooklyn’s team. Lopez and Young are each just 27 years old while Joe Johnson (34), Jarrett Jack (31) and Andrea Bargnani (29) are the three oldest players on the roster. With a collection of youngsters, the Nets certainly have more upside than they have had in recent years.
The biggest weakness of the Nets is their seeming lack of an alpha-male and emotional leader. Brook Lopez is the team’s longest-tenured player and arguably their cornerstone, but he is not particularly emotional or otherwise able to galvanize and lead troops into battle. Joe Johnson is similar in that regard. Although a fine citizen and a tremendous teammate, Johnson is renowned for being soft spoken and leading more so by example than with his words. With youth surrounding Lopez and Johnson, it will be on them to set the tone for this franchise and for them to show their teammates how to make things work in Brooklyn. That may be easier said than done, at least for these two.
The other obvious weakness for the Nets may be outside shooting. As currently mentioned, it stands to reason that the team will primarily rely on Brook Lopez for their offense, but without capable shooters surrounding him, opposing defenses will have the green light to collapse on the interior and dare many of those who will be sharing the court with Lopez to fire away. That doesn’t necessarily apply to Joe Johnson, Andrea Bargnani or Bojan Bogdanovic, but the former two are among the older pieces on the team. After losing Deron Williams, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson this past offseason, it seems that there is an obvious void in terms of proven three-point shooting ability.
The Burning Question
What exactly are the Nets doing?
After paying a king’s ransom for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two have both been moved along and the Nets have very little to show for it. The team has $86 million on its ledger this coming season and just recently re-signed Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young for a combined $117 million dollars. Yet the team also cut bait with Deron Williams—the player who was the face of the franchise since arriving back in 2011. With Joe Johnson entering the final year of his contract, he will earn about $25 million, so by next summer, we will have certainly gotten an answer to the burning question.
Just what exactly are the Nets doing? Are they rebuilding? Restocking? Does general manager Billy King have another ace up his sleeve? Built around Lopez, Young and newly installed starting point guard Jarrett Jack, can the Nets compete in the seemingly tougher Eastern Conference? There are tons and tons of questions, but very little answers.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.