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2015-16 Dallas Mavericks Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Dallas Mavericks’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last season, the Dallas Mavericks won 50 games and finished as the seventh seed in the insanely competitive Western Conference. They were eliminated in the playoffs by the Houston Rockets in five games.

Then, Dallas had a rough summer. DeAndre Jordan obviously committed to the team and then backed out of his deal, leaving the Mavericks in a very tough position. Still, they were able to acquire players like Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Samuel Dalembert and JaVale McGee among others. However, they lost key player free agent Monta Ellis, who signed with the Indiana Pacers. Will this Mavericks squad be able to crack the top in the brutal West? If so, can they advance past the first round?

Basketball Insiders previews the Dallas Mavericks’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

I feel bad for the Mavericks. Had they been able to secure DeAndre Jordan, we’re talking about them as a solid playoff team in the Western Conference. But since Jordan backed out of his verbal agreement and left Dallas with few free agency options, I just don’t think the Mavericks have enough talent to be a playoff team in the brutal West. A starting lineup of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews (coming off of an Achilles’ injury, which many players never fully recover from), Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Zaza Pachulia just doesn’t seem like a postseason team to me. There are a lot of holes on this Mavs squad. Like I said, this isn’t really Dallas’ fault; it’s just unfortunate how this summer played out for them because now they find themselves in a tough position without enough talent to keep up in a loaded conference. They may be able to sneak into the postseason as the eighth seed, but I think that’s their best-case scenario.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

Had DeAndre Jordan ended up in Dallas, we’d all probably be having a different conversation about their title aspirations – but as it stands, the Mavericks do not look like a particularly formidable team. Deron Williams and Dirk Nowitzki are much closer to retirement than their peak years, Wesley Matthews is coming back from an Achilles injury and the center rotation is a fascinating hodgepodge of players past their prime and the enigmatic JaVale McGee. It’s not all bad, obviously. Chandler Parsons is still a really good young player, and J.J. Barea and Charlie Villanueva have been good for the team as reserves. Still, they play in a really tough division and it’s impossible to lose talent in a tough division and replicate team success. It’s probably going to be a long year for the Mavs.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Joel Brigham

The Dallas Mavericks could be the odd team out in the Western Conference this season. This summer, they lost out on DeAndre Jordan in free agency – a signing that could have taken them to the next level – when he decided to return to the Los Angeles Clippers after much drama. They did add defensive stopper Wesley Matthews who, like Chandler Parsons, is returning from injury. Following the failed Rajon Rondo experiment, the Mavericks added a new point guard in Deron Williams. While some teams are going smaller, they signed legitimate centers JaVale McGee and Samuel Dalembert as well as acquiring Zaza Pachulia. Health and chemistry will play major roles, as they did last season. The Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, have talented pieces. But as other teams improved in the West, the Mavericks may find themselves on the outside of playoff seedings.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Mavericks are desperately attempting to regain a spot among the league’s elite. However, the team has been unable to land a marquee free agent the past few seasons. From Dwight Howard to Chris Bosh to DeAndre Jordan, all have decided to sign elsewhere in free agency after listening to Dallas’ pitch. At the moment, it appears future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki won’t ever get a shot at a second ring, but the Mavericks are always well coached and should at least be in the hunt for a playoff berth.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Lang Greene

JaVale McGee and Deron Williams are not filling the void that DeAndre Jordan left when he rescinded his agreement to sign with the Mavericks, and with Dirk Nowitzki continuing to age, I am really not sure if the Mavs are a playoff team, much less a contender. From a strictly basketball perspective, I like the thought of Williams playing pick-and-roll basketball with Nowitzki and finding Wesley Matthews behind the arc for some three-pointers. Matthews is just as deadly an outside shooter as Joe Johnson, so we at least know that Williams knows how to play with such a threat. I guess Williams emerges as the most important player on the roster for me because, for the most part, you know what you’re getting with Nowitzki and Matthews. Williams will attempt to drink from the Fountain of Youth (like Pau Gasol seemingly did last year) and resurrect his career. If he plays anywhere near his immense potential, the Mavs may do something this season. If not, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pelicans, Suns and/or Jazz beat them out for the final few playoff spots out West.

5th Place — Southwest Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Dirk Nowitzki

Who else than Dirk? He’s seventh place all-time in points scored in the NBA (not counting the ABA) and is second-highest among active players (trailing Kobe Bryant). He’ll likely even pass Shaquille O’Neal at some point this season for sixth place, as he trails O’Neal by just 477 points. With Nowitzki entering his 18th season in the league, the case could have been made for newcomer Wesley Matthews to lead the team, but given the uncertainty surrounding him coming off of an Achilles injury, Nowitzki seems like a safe bet.

Nowitzki had a productive 2014-15 campaign, averaging 17.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He finished second on the team in scoring last season, behind Monta Ellis’ 18.9 points per game. The team will still revolve much around Nowitzki on offense, especially now that Ellis is gone. It’ll be interesting to see if his role changes any with Deron Williams now in the fold and when Matthews returns to 100 percent. The Mavericks will have more offensive weapons once they’re fully healthy, so the team may not need to rely too heavily on Nowitzki. He is one of a few players who gave his team the hometown discount (he’s owed just $8,333,334 this season) in order to help the front office assemble a talented roster, and this might be one of the more competitive squads they’ve had in the last few seasons.

Top Defensive Player: Wesley Matthews

The loss of Tyson Chandler to the Phoenix Suns is going to sting for a while. He was by far the team’s best defender last season, and his departure is going to open up a huge weakness for the Mavericks. But, with Chandler now gone, Matthews figures to take over as the team’s best defender. He arrives on a Dallas team not stacked with defensive-minded players, so he’ll likely be the team’s best option on that end of the court. While he comes in as a solid defender, his chances of becoming the best on the team rest largely on how he returns from his Achilles injury. This injury is among the worst that a player can suffer, and many individuals have struggled to return to form after coming back from this injury.

Matthews averaged 15.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals last season for the Portland Trail Blazers. Perhaps the biggest stat backing up Matthews’ case as best defender is his defensive plus-minus last season. He turned in a 2.27 defensive real plus-minus (DRPM), which puts him at 41st in the league. The DRPM is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, which is measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. To compare, Chandler’s DRPM was 14th in the league at 3.54. Matthews’ 2.27 DRPM was the best on the Trail Blazers. He’s not the fastest defender, but he’s strong and is a reliable option throughout the course of the game.

Top Playmaker: Deron Williams

Perhaps no player in the NBA stands to benefit more from a change of scenery than Williams. Last season, the veteran point guard had his lowest production since his rookie campaign as he averaged 13 points, 6.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds. Williams will now have the opportunity to start over and return to form as one of the more productive point guards in the league – just as he was a few seasons ago. This season will be his chance to prove to everybody that he still has a lot left in the tank, as he’s set to enter his 11th year in the league.

Williams will also have the luxury of reuniting with his old teammate Wesley Matthews. The two played together for the Utah Jazz in the 2009-10 season, which was Matthews’ first year in the league and Williams’ last full season in Utah. The two have remained in touch and having that previous connection should help both players make a smooth transition to their new team. The Mavericks don’t necessarily need Williams to go out and dominate every game, but if he can run the offense and get his teammates involved, he’ll be a great addition.

Top Clutch Player: Dirk Nowitzki

During his time in the league, Nowitzki has become one of the most clutch players in the NBA. Over the years, we’ve seen him hit numerous clutch shots from all over the court, from three-pointers to layups to free throws after drawing contact. As he’s often double-teamed in crunch time, he’s even had clutch passes to find open teammates for easy baskets. Since the 2005-06 season, he’s ranked in the top 24 in total points scored during the last five minutes of games when the Mavericks were either ahead or behind by five points. While he’s faded down the list in recent years, he finished in the top seven in that same category from 2005-06 until 2010-11, and was even second in 2009-10. He’s established himself as a reliable option during late-game situations for the Mavericks and has proven more often than not that he’ll come up with some sort of big shot or play.

The Unheralded Player: Zaza Pachulia

Oftentimes when we think about unheralded players, we think of individuals who don’t get nearly as much love as they should. The first player who came to mind when looking at the Mavericks’ roster was Zaza Pachulia. This is a guy who has made a career out of being a tough center that doesn’t back down from anyone (as he showed against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs). Pachulia obviously wasn’t the team’s top choice for center, but acquiring him from the Milwaukee Bucks for a second-round pick proved to be an underrated move this summer.

He’s been in the league for 12 seasons now and has averaged seven points per game over the course of his career. Last season with the Bucks, he averaged 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 steals. His 2.4 assists per game were good for seventh-best among all centers and his 1.1 steals per game ranked fourth-best. He could also be a candidate for the top defensive player on the team should Matthews need more time to return from his injury. Pachulia finished last year as having the 17th-best DRPM at 3.42, which was the highest of any current Mavericks player. He’s going to bring consistency to the lineup, and that alone should make head coach Rick Carlisle happy.

Best New Addition: Wes Matthews

We had this space locked in for DeAndre Jordan weeks ago, but we know how that story ended. Instead, we’ll shine the light on Matthews. We’ve already discussed his potential to become the team’s best defender. But overall, Matthews brings the most to the team out of the new additions. The team certainly has witnessed a lot of turnover this summer, as they’ve added Matthews, Deron Williams, Samuel Dalembert, Jeremy Evans, John Jenkins, JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia. Matthews is perhaps one of the biggest question marks on the team due to his return from his injury, but he’s the best acquisition if he’s healthy. He’s said in recent weeks that he’ll be ready to go for the Mavericks’ season opener, which would be excellent for Dallas, but that’s no guarantee.

The signing of Matthews represented one of the most risky moves of the summer given the uncertainty with his return. It became even riskier when Dallas decided to upgrade his deal to a max contract worth $70 million over four years once Jordan backed out of his deal. However, Matthews is still a player who has proven to be one of the best two-way guards in the league. As mentioned above, he averaged 15.9 points last season with the Blazers and averaged 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 38.9 percent clip. He’s emerged as one of the best shooters in the league and has improved his shot each year since entering the league in 2009. During his rookie year, he averaged just 0.8 threes made per game, and has improved that number each year culminating in his 2.9 makes per game last season. The potential is there for Matthews to be a huge-impact player, and the guard is ready to prove to everyone that he can be the same player who was very effective before his injury.

-Cody Taylor

Who We Like

Chandler Parsons: We like Chandler Parsons in what could turn out to be a contract year (if he opts out of the final year of his contract, worth $16,023,000, next summer). He’s a player who does a lot of things well, but not any one thing great, which is why he was left out of the previous section. It’s very possible this could be his last year in Dallas if he opts out, believing he can command a higher offer in free agency with the salary cap rising significantly. Since it seems likely Parsons will be playing for a new deal, he could have a huge season. He will be coming off of a knee injury, so he could be hampered at the start of the season, but if he can remain healthy this next season could be big for him. He’ll be entering just his fifth year in the league and the prime of his career. He averaged 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists during his first year in Dallas. He figures to see an even bigger role with Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis leaving the team, meaning the potential for All-Star-type numbers could be there. With Nowitzki in the latter years of his career, Parsons could challenge him to be the team’s best offensive weapon.

J.J. Barea: The Mavericks opted to re-sign fan-favorite J.J. Barea this summer on a team-friendly deal that will pay him $16 million over four years. It may seem like a risk to give a 31-year-old a four-year deal, but a $4 million annual salary will be very small in the NBA’s new economic environment. Barea has solidified his place as the team’s backup point guard behind Deron Williams. He may even get a few starts this season depending on how healthy Williams can be. He is very capable of stepping in and producing should he need to take on a bigger role. In 10 starts last season, he averaged 11 points, 4.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds. Barea should be ready to go from the start of the season after playing exceptionally well for the Puerto Rican national team in the FIBA Americas tournament. He even had a 37-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound performance against the Dominican Republic to indicate just how ready he is for the upcoming campaign. He was a key member of the Mavericks’ 2011 championship team and knows how to get the job done in the postseason. With Barea returning, point guard is arguably the team’s strongest position.

Devin Harris: Harris could be in for a bigger role this season given the uncertainty with Wesley Matthews. He’s been a starter for much of his 11-year career, but played the last two seasons in Dallas in a reserve role. Harris averaged 14.2 points, 5.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, which could be a preview of what he’ll bring this season as he’ll likely fill in as a starter at times for Matthews. Last season was the first in which Harris was healthy and it showed. He’s been injured throughout his career and appeared in at least 70 games last season for the first time since his 2010-11 campaign. Although he’s lost a step since his first few years in the league, we like Harris this season in the sixth man role and as a possible fill-in starter.

Rick Carlisle: One huge advantage that the Mavericks hold is having Carlisle at the helm of the team. He’s been one of the best sideline generals in the league during his 13 seasons as a head coach. He’s guided his teams to over 600 wins, and has a career 59 percent win percentage. Under Carlisle, the Mavericks have been a great offensive team, as the team finished fifth last season in offensive efficiency. The problem lies on the defensive end, which Carlisle has admitted will be a point of emphasis during training camp. Last season, the Mavericks ranked 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, but the team knows they’ll need to improve on that end of the floor to compete in the stacked Western Conference. It’ll be interesting to see how Carlisle runs the offense this season with last year’s leading scorer Monta Ellis gone. Matthews and Parsons figure to see a large role in the offense once they are healthy and we’ll see how Carlisle uses Williams. Carlisle has proven that he can integrate new players into the system and make everything work, and this season should be no different.

Jeremy Evans: One player who we like that could have an improved season is Evans. It would seem likely that Evans stands to benefit in a new situation this year. He’s been a player who has averaged just 10.8 minutes per game during his first five seasons in the league, but could see an increased role in his first year in Dallas. He’s a player that can spark the team off of the bench with his energetic play. His vertical is 45 inches and he has plenty of highlight-reel dunks to his name. The Mavericks brought Evans in on a low-risk, minimum deal and could see tremendous value in Evans this season if he outperforms expectations.

-Cody Taylor

Strengths

The biggest strength for this team is their experience, since they have so many veterans. In fact, the team has the fourth-highest average age in the NBA, with only the Miami HEAT, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs boasting a higher average. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Devin Harris, Samuel Dalembert and J.J. Barea have all been in the league for at least nine seasons and represent some of the key contributors on the team. While they may represent one of the oldest bunches in the league, they all have playoff experience and have had success in the league. With a lot of younger teams making the jump to playoff status, the Mavericks are an experienced team that don’t make a lot of mistakes, which is an advantage over some of the younger teams in the NBA. The team persuaded Nowitzki to take a pay cut to ensure they can stay competitive, and thus have opted to field a more-experienced squad to try to win one more ring for him. In terms of on-court strengths, as previously mentioned, Dallas had the fifth best offense in the NBA last year (scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions).

-Cody Taylor

Weaknesses

It’s been much discussed to this point that the team’s overall health will be a big question mark this season. Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons likely won’t be ready to participate when the Mavericks’ training camp opens on Monday and it’s still unclear at this time whether they’ll be ready once the regular season starts on October 28. They represent a huge portion of the offense for next season and their overall health will dictate largely how the season can go. After those two players, Devin Harris will likely have health concerns attached to his name as well as he’s had a history of various injuries (even though he was mostly healthy last season). Then, obviously, Dirk Nowitzki’s health could be an issue as he’s set to enter his 18th year in the Association. On court, the Mavs must improve their 18th-ranked defense (allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions).

-Cody Taylor

The Burning Question

Can the Mavs stay healthy enough to be a playoff team?

It’s a question that’s going to remain on everybody’s mind throughout the season. It’s clear that the team has enough talent to compete in the West, but that means several key players must stay healthy. While the news that Matthews and Parsons will be extremely limited in training camp isn’t necessarily a surprise, it is a concern due to the injuries that both players are recovering from. If the team can stay healthy and their key players can contribute at a high level, the Mavericks could be an underrated team in the West this season. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question, and neither is a postseason run if everything goes Dallas’ way.

-Cody Taylor

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

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

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

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

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

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

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

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

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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