Despite missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers came within two wins of winning the 2015 NBA championship. That, certainly, is a testament to the greatness of LeBron James—the man who has appeared in five consecutive NBA Finals. Despite making it to the Finals six times, James has walked away with the Larry O’Brien trophy just twice. As the Cavaliers enter the 2015-16 season as the hands-down favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the world will watch to see if James can deliver the elusive championship to the fans of Cleveland.
Basketball Insiders previews the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 season.
The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers will go down in history as a “what-if” unit. What if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt during Game 1 of the NBA Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t knocked out of the playoffs in the first round? What if LeBron James had one more teammate able to help him out offensively in the NBA Finals versus the high-powered Golden State Warriors? The good news for Cleveland is that the crew is back for another run and head into the training as the runaway favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers are poised to return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season. Coming off an NBA Finals run, the LeBron James-led Cavs now have a season of playing together under their belts. The same goes for David Blatt, who completed his first campaign as an NBA head coach. The Cavs will be getting three key members back from injuries at points during the season: Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving. Even if they miss some time, the Cavs have enough talent to get by during the regular season while they recover. It is important for the team to have them healthy in the playoffs, not in the early months. Tristan Thompson’s contract situation will be a major storyline for the Cavaliers until it is resolved. The key will be for the players to not be distracted by it. The roster is constructed with veterans who have been to the top before and know what it takes to get back. Expect the Cavs to jump out atop the conference early in the season and hold on to that number one seed.
1st Place – Central Division
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere and haven’t realized: I can be long-winded. Fortunately, even for me, there are some things that can be stated succinctly. The Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the East. Rather than calling LeBron James “the best player on the planet,” we should refer to him as an “all-time great,” because he is. And if you have that guy, along with this supporting cast, the only drama that awaits is whether the rest of his troops can defy attrition the way he has.
1st Place — Central Division
As the Tristan Thompson contract stalemate looms, the Cavaliers still enter the season as the favorites to win the East, mostly because they did so this past summer without the services of Kevin Love who, coincidentally, plays the same position as Thompson. Regardless of how that works out, LeBron James is still healthy and dominant, and has two star teammates in Love and Kyrie Irving. Those three, with a year of experience together, make this team a dangerous one. The bench is still thin and kind of geriatric, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the Cavs can pace themselves through the regular season, they’ll be nasty in the postseason.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers were obviously one of the top teams in the NBA last year and I expect them to be even better this season. In year two, their star-studded core will have a season of experience together, which should help them a lot from a chemistry standpoint. That first year is always tough for super-teams since they’re getting acclimated, but they typically click in the second season. David Blatt will also have a year of NBA coaching experience under his belt, and his players should be more comfortable with him and his system. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form one of the best trios in the NBA, and the Cavs did a great job re-signing Love this summer since there was no guarantee he’d be back. I also liked the addition of Mo Williams, who gives Cleveland a very good veteran point guard who can provide scoring off the bench or step in for Irving when he’s injured (as he will be to start the season). The Williams addition also means the Cavs will rely less on Matthew Dellavedova, which is good since he’s a scrappy player but not someone you want playing a huge role. I like this Cavaliers team a lot and I think a second straight trip to the NBA Finals is inevitable, barring major injuries.
1st Place – Central Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LeBron James
LeBron James is not only the best offensive player on the Cavaliers, he is the single driving force behind everything that the team does and hopes to accomplish. It seems like such a long time ago that James was renowned as being a poor shooter. Although most teams still play off of him and go behind screens in hopes that he will settle for a jump shot, that is more the result of a play on the percentages than it is a belief that he cannot score efficiently from the outside. Last season, James shot a respectable 35 percent three-point range, and also converted about 38 percent of his midrange shots. Those percentages are a bit lower than in his Miami HEAT days, but they are still above average. Even as he approaches the ripe age of 31 years old, there is no more explosive force in the league than James. He may not be perfect, but with his still-improving post game and his ability to finish in the paint, he is one of the most dominant forces in the league and certainly the top offensive player on his team.
Top Defensive Player: Anderson Varejao
Yes, one could certainly argue that LeBron James is the top defensive player on the Cavaliers, but aside from him, it is Anderson Varejao who is the vital defensive cog. While both Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are plus-defenders, Varejao is far more nimble and adept at playing out on the perimeter than either. With his speed and agility, a fully healthy Varejao provides substantial resistance to opposing offenses, as there is almost no advantage in putting him in pick-and-roll situations. He is one of the strongest rebounders in the game, as evidenced by the 12.6 rebounds per-36 minutes that he hauled in over the course of the last four seasons. What is most appropriate to wonder about Varejao is whether he will actually be able to continue to be as impactful as he has been to this point. He managed to play just 26 games last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in December, and overall, has missed 238 of a possible 410 games over the past five years. Staying healthy has been his biggest issue.
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
That LeBron James has seemingly done so much with so little is a testament to his ability to make plays not only for himself but also for his teammates. Long before he brought the 2014-15 Cavaliers to within two games of winning the title, James helped to lead the HEAT to victories, despite enduring long stretches that saw him play without Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade. And long, long before that, he led an underwhelming cast of running mates in Cleveland to a franchise-record 66 wins back in 2009. The following year, the Cavs won 61 games in a season in which James averaged a career-best 8.6 assists per game. With all that he is required to do on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, James has an impressive 6.9 assist-per-game average over the course of his career, and although Kyrie Irving is officially listed as the point guard in Cleveland, at this point, he can only dream of being the playmaker that James currently is.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
When one thinks of clutch LeBron James moments, his buzzer-beater that defeated the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series last spring may come to mind, but one could certainly argue that James was at his finest during the waning moments of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Although Ray Allen will always be remembered for hitting one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, it is James who single-handedly kept the HEAT around long enough for Allen to even have the opportunity to make that difference. Any player who comes up huge in the Finals has our respect, as the stakes will never be higher. Once upon a time, James was thought to lack the courage and fearlessness required of a top clutch performer. Today, the same argument cannot be made, and without reciting his long list of game-winning and game-clinching shots, anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against this assertion.
The Unheralded Player: Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is just one of many young Canadians making an impact in the NBA today. He has dominated the post-July headlines across the NBA, as it was recently reported that Thompson and the Cavs are at an impasse as it relates to his next contract. Thompson is reportedly looking for a five-year maximum offer from the Cavs that would pay him $94 million total, while the Cavs have refused to offer more than $80 million. While it is arguable that Thompson is not worth that type of investment, the fact of the matter is that he is an incredibly gifted athlete. Thompson’s unique blend of athleticism, power and agility enables him to stay in front of smaller offensive players, yet still battle bigger players at the rim. The staff in Cleveland loves his motor and work ethic and at just 24 years old, Thompson’s ceiling is nowhere in sight. What will get him to the next level is becoming a more versatile offensive player. He is not a threat from the perimeter and still seems to lack the overall poise, patience and balance of a dominant low-post threat. Still, limited as he may be, Thompson has proven that he can be a meaningful player on a winning team and he has shown that he can fit in with LeBron James and the other shot-happy Cavaliers. He fits in quite nicely, but may be overlooked since he doesn’t make the highlight plays in Cleveland – opting instead to do the important dirty work.
Best New Addition: Mo Williams
Because this past summer was marked by the Cavaliers deciding to re-sign their own players, Mo Williams almost wins this label by default. However, over the course of last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, Williams was very effective. With the Wolves, he scored a career-high 52 points. Then, after being dealt to the Hornets, he remained productive. Although he was not able to help the Hornets qualify for the playoffs, Williams gave them 17.2 points per game and looked pretty good during various spurts. Now, he returns to Cleveland having unfinished with LeBron James. At this point, Williams’ ball handling is still respectable, but it is his off-the-dribble shooting ability that will continue to help him find minutes at the NBA level. Last season, he converted 34 percent of his three-point shots, and this season, with open looks created by playing off of both James and Kyrie Irving, that number may increase. Williams also provides the Cavs with another ball handler who can score when given the opportunity, certainly solidifying the point guard rotation that proved incredibly weak when Irving went down over the course of the 2014-15 season.
Who We Like
Kyrie Irving: Despite a lack of post-high-school basketball experience, Kyrie Irving entered the NBA with high expectations that we have seen crush some of his predecessors. Despite the pressure, he has hit the ground running and, like Damian Lillard, has already become one of the top point guards in the game. Best of all, he is just 23 years old and is already a three-time All-Star, averaging 21 points per game over the course of his young career. The 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals that Irving racked up in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals before his postseason ended showed the type of all-around, dominant performance he is capable of having on a daily basis. This season, we will be watching intently to see if he can continue to thrive and progress, despite somewhat being in LeBron James’ shadow.
Iman Shumpert: Iman Shumpert fell out of favor with New York Knicks fans and management after his attitude and demeanor deteriorated. As a rookie, Shumpert opened eyes across the league as he quickly earned a reputation for being a top-flight defender and explosive athlete. It certainly seems as though the trade to the Cavs rejuvenated Shumpert and helped him refocus on being a pesky on-ball defender. It seems that is the skill and talent that will help him remain in the league for many years to come. He needs to continue to work on his shooting, though, as his field goal percentage dipped to just 36 percent during the course of last year’s playoffs. Still, Shumpert filled a major void for the Cavs last season, and with championship expectations and a brief taste of success, we believe that Shumpert can re-tap some of the potential that had him among the NBA’s most talked about rookies back in 2011.
Kevin Love: After trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, it would have been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Love to have taken his talents elsewhere this past summer. Fortunately, for the Cavaliers, that didn’t happen. Although Love seemed to have issues fitting in with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving last season, his re-signing in Cleveland is an obvious indicator that the trio is intent on making their partnership work. In theory, Love’s skills in the low-post and proficiency from behind the arc should fit seamlessly with the diverse skill set that James possesses and many continue to believe that it is merely a matter of time before the two figure out how to work together more proficiently. Now that James knows that Love is all in, expect whatever tension that existed between the two before to dissipate and for them to be fully focused on winning.
Sharing the ball is a strength for the Cavs. Despite having three of the most offensively gifted players in the NBA, the Cavaliers were 10th in the league in assists per game last season with 22.1 a night. With increased chemistry and familiarity, that could easily rise this year. Another advantage for Cleveland is their experience. Their roster features many players with postseason and championship experience. Also, losing to Golden State in last year’s Finals may ultimately be good for some of the younger players on the roster – as a learning experience and team-building opportunity. Sometimes, suffering heartbreak in the Finals can draw a team closer and allow them to dig deeper in trying moments. The experience of coming up short against the Warriors is one that the Cavaliers are, no doubt, thinking about quite often. But with proven leadership and a talented core, the experience of reaching the 2015 NBA Finals should be a positive for this team as they attempt to join the 2014 Spurs, 2012 HEAT and 2009 Lakers as teams that won the championship after losing the Finals the previous year.
It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: health is going to be the major concern for the Cavs during the 2015-16 season. As we saw their hopes for a championship thwarted, we were collectively served a stark reminder that having all the talent in the world at your disposal won’t help you win if it isn’t on the court. All eyes will be on Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao to stay healthy this season given their injury histories.
The team’s big men rotation and rebounding are also weaknesses. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked a mediocre 18th in the league in rebounds, with just 43 boards per game. Because of the team’s lack of reliable big men last season, coach David Blatt opted to play smaller lineups and often depended on players who were undersized to help out with rebounding the basketball. If Varejao can remain healthy this season, he will go a long way toward helping to cure these ailments, but as it stands, the Cavaliers did not address the apparent need for another dependable big man. In the end, that could end up haunting them.
The Burning Question
Can the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA Finals?
In a word, the answer here would be “YES!” Had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love each been 100 percent healthy for the entire postseason last year, the Cavs may very well be entering the 2015-16 season as the defending NBA champions. With those two stars returning and Anderson Varejao (hopefully) becoming a difference maker on the floor once again and the addition of Mo Williams, the Cavs should be able to fix some of the weaknesses that were exposed last season. When you have one of the best players in history on your roster and one of the best young point guards in the NBA playing as his second option, you do not need very much to be a good team. That the Cavs have an awesome supporting cast to play off of their three superstars makes them the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference and should give them a legitimate opportunity to defeat any team that survives the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. If the Cavs earn home-court advantage in the Finals and if they can remain relatively healthy as a unit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win it all. Those are big ifs, but this team appears to be on the cusp of greatness.
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.