Last season, the Chicago Bulls won 50 games and finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they couldn’t get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, even though they put up a good fight. This summer, they opted to return just about their entire team rather than make any big changes; that is, outside of replacing head coach Tom Thibodeau with first-time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. Will the coaching change pay off and allow the Bulls to advance further in the postseason? Is this team, as currently constructed, a championship contender?
Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls’ 2015-16 season.
The Bulls haven’t gotten a lot of attention this offseason since they elected to bring back their same team rather than make big, headline-grabbing additions. But I like this approach, because I think continuity and chemistry is important and this Bulls team was already very talented. I’m looking forward to seeing how Jimmy Butler follows up his breakout campaign, how Derrick Rose does after a relatively healthy 2014-15 campaign and, most importantly, how the team plays under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. I was a big Tom Thibodeau fan, but I like Hoiberg a lot as well. The Bulls will play differently under Hoiberg, and we’ll see if that results in progression or regression. I think they’ll produce similar results as last season, finishing once again as a high seed in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Central Division
My hope for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose continues to progress and eventually rediscovers some of the magic that he once possessed. Quietly, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are getting old and Pau Gasol, though he has admirably defied father time, is already old. The truth is, the Bulls may be closer to pulling the plug on a number of their rotation pieces and taking a few steps back than many realize. If head coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t hit the ground and the Bulls end up winning 46 games and get bounced in the first round, what then? Fortunately for Bulls fans, I don’t expect that to happen. I think the Bulls are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and expect them to eventually get another crack at LeBron James, but, of course, that depends on Rose and Hoiberg. I can’t see them topping the Cavaliers in either the Central Division or in a seven-game playoff series, but they still have my respect as being one of the best teams in basketball. I suppose my sign-off will be this: nobody has the Warriors winning the title last year and nobody had the Mavericks winning in 2011. Impossible is nothing, and if there is a dark house team I would pick to shock the world in 2016, it would be the Bulls. But EVERYTHING would have to break right for them (or, not break at all, depending on your perspective).
2nd Place — Central Division
However we felt about the Bulls at the end of the last season is more or less how we feel about the Bulls now because they are almost the exact same team that was ousted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of last spring’s playoffs. Derrick Rose looked better in those playoffs than he has since tearing his ACL in 2012, but the emergence of Jimmy Butler is really what got Bulls fans excited a year ago and he should be the focal point of optimism yet again this year. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah aren’t going to get any less rickety, and even Taj Gibson seems to be dealing with chronic health issues now too, but that core, along with breakout second-year stretch-four Nikola Mirotic, is still one of the best in the Eastern Conference. They’re not winning a championship with that group, but it’s still fair to talk about them as a possible Conference Finals team because at their best, that’s what they are.
2nd Place – Central Division
Will Derrick Rose stay healthy? That is the question asked every season. The Bulls have battled over the years without their franchise player and they have been right in the mix come playoff time. But Rose is the key to how deep they can go, and that depends on him staying injury-free. This season, the Bulls will be playing under first-year NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. There will be a new system, and a new way things are done following the departure of Tom Thibodeau. What won’t be new are the faces on the team.The Bulls are returning most of their players from last year (including inking Jimmy Butler to a mega-deal), but did add the intensity-driven Bobby Portis in the draft. In addition to its star players, watch for Nikola Mirotic to continue progressing after a breakthrough second half.
2nd Place – Central Division
Tom Thibodeau led the Bulls to five consecutive trips to the playoffs, but a difference in philosophy with the team’s front office ultimately led to his departure. The Bulls’ core group remains the same, but the franchise is hoping the addition of new head coach Fred Hoiberg helps push the squad in a new direction. The positives are abundant. Derrick Rose seems to have shaken off his knee troubles, guard Jimmy Butler is ascending to stardom and forward Nikola Mirotic has the goods. But there are some question marks for sure. Joakim Noah is aging and headed to free agency and veteran forward Pau Gasol is another year older. But there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be among the few squads entering the season with legitimate title hopes.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
Top Of the List
Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler
It would be fairly easy to argue that the best offensive player on the team should be Derrick Rose, but that wasn’t the case last season and there’s no guarantee it will be the case this coming season, either. Butler did lead all Bulls players in points per game last season with 20 PPG, and he proved to be someone who could both knock down three-pointers from a stand-still and create his own shots from all over the floor. He draws fouls well, attacks the bucket with ferocity and was really consistent scoring the ball last season for the first time in his career. With Rose and Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, this team has plenty of offensive talent, but Butler looks like the best of the bunch for now.
Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler
Butler is also the team’s best defender. While Joakim Noah is only 18 months removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year, he continues to deal with various injuries and looked a step slow and less intense during the 2014-15 campaign (with much less screaming too). Butler, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the premier shutdown perimeter defenders in the league and is consistently tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. It will be interesting to see how much of an defensive burden he’ll be asked to shoulder, because as we saw in the playoffs last year it really deadens his legs on offense when he’s chasing around elite talents like LeBron James. With that said, he’ll presumably get more rest under new head coach Fred Hoiberg than he did under Tom Thibodeau. If his legs are fresher, he could be an even better defender this year.
Top Playmaker: Derrick Rose
As crafty as Butler is on offense, nobody on that Bulls roster can break down a defense and get to the basket quite like Derrick Rose. In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of players in the entire league who have the ability to do what he does, and thankfully we saw in the postseason last year that the explosive first step is still there even after all the knee issues. He’s been more conservative over the last 12 months, attacking quite a bit less, but he still led the team in assists last year with 4.9 APG and is still going to be the guy asked to create some offense when the team needs it. As long as he stays healthy, he should be able to handle that with aplomb.
Top Clutch Player: Derrick Rose
Rose has hit more than enough game-winners over the course of his career to put to bed any question anybody may have about who would take the last shot in a tight Bulls game. As good as Butler may be, Rose has repeatedly come up big in huge moments – most recently in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he banked home a miracle three-pointer to clinch a home playoff victory at a time when the team was still very much in it. Rose actually is one of the more entertaining guys in the league to watch during crunch time. The kid has alligator blood.
Top Unheralded Player: Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
While Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is “just” a role player, it should say a lot about what kind of a role player he is that LeBron James would publicly recruit him for his own elite team. While he’s not flashy at all, it is without question a good thing that the Bulls were able to re-sign him for a bargain-basement price of $14.4 million over three years this past summer. He’s 34 years old, but he’s an underrated defender and shoots well from deep (40.7 percent last season). He brings plenty of positives to the table without taking anything off of it, which is why he’s one of the most underrated players in the league.
Top New Addition: Fred Hoiberg
While it may be cheating a bit to select a coach as the best new addition to the team, since Chicago is bringing back the exact same roster as they did last year with the exception of a couple of rookies, the only new personnel expected to have a real impact on the team this year is the new coach. And to be honest, Hoiberg will have a huge effect on this team, changing the general team philosophy from one of defensive aptitude to offensive specialty, and of course Hoiberg is known for being a much more laid-back, easy-going guy than Thibs was during his tenure in Chicago. The front office likes him as well, which also will be different. This team needed a breath of fresh air and Hoiberg will supply precisely that. The change of pace had better help, because the clock’s ticking on this current iteration of the Bulls.
Who We Like
Pau Gasol: While not everybody paid attention to the FIBA EuroBasket this summer, those who did know that Gasol still has a whole lot of gas left in the tank. He was named the tournament MVP, topped all scorers with 25.6 PPG and, of course, led Spain to the gold medal (not that anybody needed any convincing that Gasol was a very talented basketball player). Coming off one of the best years of his career, Gasol actually should play a lot fewer minutes this year and maybe see a little dip in his stats, but the hope is that the limited playing time will keep him fresher for the postseason. He broke down in the Cleveland series this past spring and the team doesn’t want to see that happen again. No doubt about it, he’s one of the most important players the Bulls have.
Nikola Mirotic: There’s a strong argument that Mirotic, with his big-time three-point shooting and strong rebounding, should be a starter for the Chicago Bulls this year ahead of either Gasol or Joakim Noah. Whether that actually happens, the second-year forward is set up for an expanded role this season and should be featured prominently in Hoiberg’s new offense. Expect a lot of screen-and-roll and a whole bunch of drained three-pointers from Niko this year, as he seems like the Bulls player most ready for a breakout campaign.
Taj Gibson: While there isn’t anything particularly sexy about Gibson’s game, he remains the driving force for Chicago’s frontcourt off the bench, having averaged 10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG and 1.2 BPG last year in a little over 27 minutes per night. He’s coming off an offseason in which he had an ankle injury surgically repaired and he did turn 30 years old this past summer, but he’s still a stout defensive presence and hard-working bench mob stud who will help anchor what should be a pretty deep reserve rotation for the Bulls this season.
Doug McDermott: While Summer League success rarely translates over to the NBA, it’s worth nothing that McDermott was, once again, one of the stars in Las Vegas this July. He scored the ball well, even though he shot the three atrociously, which will have to change considering how badly the Bulls need him to knock down some deep balls and keep defenses honest. But he looks like he has it in him. His rookie year was marred by injury and mediocrity, but he’ll have a larger role and more minutes under Hoiberg. Stacey King said McDermott could be the Most Improved Player this year, which is nothing short of insane, but he almost certainly will be better than he was a year ago. Expect a big step in the right direction for McBuckets this season.
Bobby Portis: In a frontcourt as loaded as Chicago’s, there’s no way Portis is getting any sort of minutes early in his NBA career, but Gasol, Noah and Gibson all have histories of injuries, which means Portis could at some point stumble his way to 15-20 minutes per game for stretches of this season. It’s hard to “like” a guy who’s not playing much, but Portis is a logical and entertaining fit for a Bulls team that loves its hard-nosed big men. This young man, who describes himself as “crazy,” is sort of insane in the best way possible, and this will be the first year of what should eventually be a lucrative career as a Bull. Growing pains are imminent, but he sure is a fun kid to watch hoop.
Chicago is still one of the premier defensive teams in the NBA, though it will be interesting to see if and how Hoiberg’s reputation as an offensive guy will change that. The Bulls were ninth in the league last year in points allowed with 97.8 PPG, and they were fourth in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage at 43.5 percent. They also were third in rebounds and fifth in blocks, all which hammers home just how effective Chicago was on defense just a year ago. The personnel is exactly the same, so it’s hard to see things falling off too much, and in fact their familiarity with each other (if not the system) also should be considered a strength.
Chicago’s biggest problem a year ago was injuries, and that still could be an issue for them this coming year, as most of the team’s most integral players have dealt with either big time injuries or big time minutes in the last couple of seasons. While Hoiberg won’t lean on his horses quite as heavily as Thibodeau did, the damage may have already been done to some extent. Just look at what happened to Luol Deng after multiple years leading the league in minutes. Last year, Butler led the NBA in minutes and Gasol finished in the top 25 despite his age. That, combined with Noah’s issues and Rose’s fragile knees, make for some frightening basketball this season.
The Burning Question
Does Coach Hoiberg make the difference?
For years, the Chicago Bulls front office has been waiting and waiting for this group of players structured around Derrick Rose to contend for a title. Between the injuries to Rose and the existence of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have fallen short every time they’ve gotten even within sniffing distance of the NBA Finals. Despite Tom Thibodeau’s success in his first half-decade of NBA coaching, there’s been a general feeling that he had simply worn out his welcome in Chicago over time. Hoiberg is supposed to be the shot in the arm that the team needs, but if he can’t do anything with this team either, it might just be that the roster isn’t talented enough. This feels like this team’s last year to make a run at things as currently constructed, and if it doesn’t work out, some form of a rebuild may be coming shortly thereafter.
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.