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2015-16 New Orleans Pelicans Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last season, Anthony Davis emerged as one of the NBA’s best players and led the New Orleans Pelicans to a 45-win season and their first playoff berth since the 2010-11 campaign. The Pelicans were swept by the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors, but New Orleans was surprisingly competitive in the series and Davis was outstanding (to nobody’s surprise).

Now, Davis has spent this offseason expanding his game and the Pelicans hired Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry as their new head coach. New Orleans is hoping this is the year that they can climb the Western Conference standings, but do they have what it takes to be an elite team?

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

I can’t wait to watch Anthony Davis this season. He finished his third season with averages of 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.9 blocks, 1.5 steals (all of which were career-highs) and became one of the NBA’s best players. Then, this summer, he has added muscle and significantly improved his three-point shot. Not to mention, new head coach Alvin Gentry should really help Davis continue to improve, particularly on the offensive end. Davis is only 22 years old, so it’s very possible that he still has room to grow as a player. That seems crazy considering how dominant he was last year, but that’s why I’m excited to see what he does in the 2015-16 campaign (and beyond). Last year, injuries to Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon among others really limited the team, making their record and playoff berth even more impressive. If Davis continues his ascent and the team can stay healthy this year, I believe they’ll show improvement over last season’s 45 wins. I have them as a virtual lock to return to the postseason, but I do think they lack the talent in Davis’ supporting cast to be a legitimate contender.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

There are plenty of players in the NBA today who would love to consider themselves stars, but only a handful of them are superstars good enough to lift their teams to new heights regardless of what other players are around them. Anthony Davis is one of those guys, and he’s starting to resemble someone who could win the league’s MVP award very soon – maybe even this year. The Pelicans made the playoffs six months ago and performed well once they were there. A lot of that had to do with Davis, but a healthy Jrue Holiday along with Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon should make for an interesting team this year. They play in the toughest division in basketball, but this is a playoff team again this year, and maybe even one that can win a series or two.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The masses complain about the NBA season being too long and each individual game not necessarily counting, but the Pelicans proved that to be false last season by making the playoffs on the final day of the season. With Alvin Gentry taking over on the bench and Anthony Davis continuing to progress, I certainly expect the Pelicans to make their second consecutive trip to the postseason. The sad thing, to me, is the fact that Eric Gordon’s scoring average has decreased each of the last four seasons. If he and Jrue Holiday could actually be healthy for the entire year and play up to their full potential, then the Pelicans would truly be a scary team. Instead, I see them as being locked into the seventh seed or so for the foreseeable future, partially due to the tough conference and partially due to the fact that they simply do not have enough talent around Davis. That could change with time, obviously, but for now, I wouldn’t consider them anything more than a first-round team.

5th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

There are 145 million reasons to watch the Pelicans this season. The organization locked in Anthony Davis to a five-year mega deal this offseason. Now the question is, how much better will he get? Last season, he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-high 2.9 blocks per game. Davis is only 22, and although he provides star power, the team can still benefit from veteran leadership. That’s where the experience of players such as Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday comes into play. The Pelicans also signed Kendrick Perkins, who has won a championship, to help mentor Davis. Last season, the Pelicans snagged the eighth seed in the Western Conference and fell to the Golden State Warriors. Their goal will be to establish themselves as a lock, not a question mark, for the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference. They should be right there this season.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Jessica Camerato

Anthony Davis has officially arrived and now it’s time for general manager Dell Demps and company to surround the future perennial MVP candidate with a title-worthy supporting cast. New Orleans has talent up and down the rotation, but the franchise has been decimated by injuries the past two seasons. Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Davis have been unable to stay healthy long enough to truly maximize their potential as a unit. Despite the injuries, New Orleans still managed to flirt with 50 victories last season and now ushers in the head coaching era of Alvin Gentry. Another playoff run should be in the cards but the squad isn’t among the few in true title contention.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

As previously mentioned, Davis averaged 24.4 points per game last season (which ranked fourth in the NBA) while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. He was also incredibly efficient, leading the NBA in player efficiency rating (30.8) by a huge margin and finishing fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares (9.9). Davis has become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in the NBA, so he’s obviously the top offensive player on his team. As if Davis’ regular season averages weren’t impressive enough, he was even better in the postseason. In the Pelicans’ first-round series against the Warriors, he averaged 31.5 points while shooting 54 percent from the field. This season, it’s very possible that Davis improves his numbers since the team hired offensive genius Alvin Gentry, who will look to increase Davis’ production and maximize the forward’s potential. Remember, Gentry played a big role in the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors becoming top offenses in recent years, serving as an assistant coach for those teams. Not to mention, Davis has spent this offseason improving his three-point shot and bulking up to 253 lbs. (while staying at 10 percent body fat) to better finish at the basket. In other words, Davis may be even more dominant in the 2015-16 season, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

We try to spread the love around in these previews and not focus too much on one particular player, but there’s simply no way someone else could be selected over Davis as the Pelicans’ best defender. Last season, the big man led all NBA players in blocks per game (2.9) and total blocks (200), while also averaging 1.5 steals per game. In addition to those excellent numbers, he grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game. And just like his offensive numbers, Davis improved his defensive stats in the postseason, averaging 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Warriors. Davis finished the season ranked seventh among all NBA players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (4.20) and 12th among all NBA players in Defensive Rating (100.2), showing he was one of the league’s better defenders. With his terrific offensive and defensive contributions, one could make the case that Davis is the best two-way player in the game today. New Orleans’ next best defenders were Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday (according to DRPM, but Davis was clearly the team’s most effective weapon on that end of the court).

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

Holiday is the Pelicans’ best playmaker, running the offense well and leading the team in assists with 6.9 per game. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Holiday missed 42 games last year. Over the last two years, the veteran point guard has started in a combined 71 games. He has been sidelined for far too many games and in order for New Orleans to play to their full potential, they’ll need Holiday to be completely healthy and playing his best basketball. The year before Holiday landed in New Orleans, he started 78 games and was an All-Star (averaging 17.7 points, eight assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals). If he can get back to that level and stay on the court, that would really help the Pelicans as they try to take the next step as a team. Also, keep in mind that Holiday just turned 25 years old in June, so it’s not out of the question that he’ll make some strides this season. Tyreke Evans definitely deserves a mention in this section since he averaged 6.6 assists over 79 games last year and did a really good job handling the ball and facilitating once Holiday went down.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

When thinking of the Pelicans’ best clutch player, Davis’ double-clutch three-pointer that beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in early February immediately came to mind. If you aren’t familiar with the shot, you should watch it right now. But that wasn’t Davis’ only clutch play of the season. In fact, he finished last year as one of the best clutch players in the NBA. In clutch situations (defined as a game with under two minutes to go and a score differential of two points or fewer), Davis hit 13 of his 16 attempts from the field for a league-best clutch shooting percent of 81.3 percent. He also led the league in clutch blocks with four. Not to mention, he was 10 of 11 on clutch free throws (90.9 percent). As if it hasn’t been made clear, Davis is a beast who destroys teams on offense and defense, from the start of the game to the very finish. If this preview hasn’t sold you on the fact that Davis is a superstar, nothing will.

The Unheralded Player: Ryan Anderson

Since winning Most Improved Player with the Orlando Magic in 2012, Anderson has flown under the radar with the Pelicans. That’s mainly because he comes off of the bench for the team, but he’s still an extremely effective three-point shooter and a solid rebounder. Last season, he averaged 13.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in just 27.5 minutes off of New Orleans’ bench, and his spacing really helped the team. Not to mention, he’s capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry and helped the Pelicans pull away in some games with his excellent shooting (he ranked 17th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, despite being a reserve). But Anderson, like Holiday, needs to stay healthy for the Pelicans to take the next step as a team this year. He has missed a combined 81 games over the last two seasons, but the hope is that he’s 100 percent this year and can stay on the floor in 2015-16. One more thing to keep in mind: Anderson is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Best New Addition: Alvin Gentry

Two years ago, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers and was in charge of running their offense. They finished that year with the NBA’s No. 1 ranked offense, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Last year, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors and was in charge of running their offense. They finished with the NBA’s No. 2 ranked offense, scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions (just barely ranked behind the Clippers, who scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions and were still using Gentry’s concepts). In other words, Gentry helped the Clippers and Warriors turn into offensive juggernauts in recent years, and now he’s hoping to do the same thing with the Pelicans. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what Gentry can do with an offensive weapon like Anthony Davis, who many feel wasn’t utilized correctly under former head coach Monty Williams, as well as complementary pieces like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The Pelicans didn’t make any significant roster acquisitions this offseason, so Gentry is the clear-cut best addition of the summer. Gentry has said he’ll run an up-tempo offense with Davis as the focal point, and he has encouraged his superstar to shoot plenty of three-pointers this summer to prepare for the season. As a head coach, Gentry has a 335-370 regular-season record (which he should improve upon this season) and a 12-9 playoff record. The best year of his career was the 2009–10 season, when he coached the Phoenix Suns to 54 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals (where they lost to the L.A. Lakers).

-Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

Tyreke Evans: While I could go on and on about why I like Anthony Davis and think it’s inevitable that he’ll be the NBA’s best player in the near future, I’ve spent enough time talking about him. Let’s move on to some other Pelicans, starting with Tyreke Evans. The 26-year-old is another player I like quite a bit and his well-rounded game was very important for New Orleans last year. His versatility was huge for the Pelicans, especially since their backcourt of Holiday and Gordon has been so injury prone in recent years. Evans was able to move around the lineup throughout the season, playing three positions (starting 61 games at either point guard or shooting guard and 15 games at small forward). Evans finished the year with averages of 16.6 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals – which was quietly one of the better seasons of his six-year career. We’ll see if he can pick up where he left off and thrive in Coach Gentry’s up-tempo offense.

Eric Gordon: As previously mentioned, injuries have ravaged this Pelicans team in recent years and nobody has been sidelined more than Gordon. In his four years with the Pelicans, he appeared in nine games, 42 games, 64 games and, most recently, 61 games. He has missed a large chunk of time in every season since his rookie year, which has obviously held the Pelicans back. With that said, Gordon was effective this past season when he was on the court, averaging 13.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 44.8 percent from three-point range. Now, Gordon enters a very important season since he’s in the final year of his contract (worth $15,514,031) and is poised to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he has a big year, perhaps there will be a team willing to give him a decent pay day next offseason. After all, his career averages (16.8 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 38.3 percent from three) show that he can be a significant contributor when healthy. But staying on the court has always been the problem, and he’ll a risky signing for whichever team inks him next summer.

Quincy Pondexter: Pondexter has been a solid role player throughout his career, providing quality defense and three-point shooting. Last year, the Pelicans acquired Pondexter from the Memphis Grizzlies in January once New Orleans realized their bench needed reinforcements. The 27-year-old small forward was targeted since he’s a reliable two-way reserve who can defend multiple positions. In 45 games with the Pelicans last year, he averaged nine points and 3.1 rebounds while providing spacing by shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range. He even slid into the starting lineup for 28 games due to injuries, and improved his averages to 9.4 points and a 44.5 percent from three. He’ll likely play the same reserve role this season (unless injuries force him to start again) and the Pelicans know he’ll be around for a while since he’s under contract for the next three seasons.

Norris Cole: The Pelicans and Norris Cole couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal this summer (and, as a restricted free agent, Cole didn’t sign an offer sheet from another team), so he took the one-year qualifying offer worth $3,036,927 and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer when the salary cap will increase significantly. With that said, Cole is a key player for the Pelicans since they have very little depth. Much like Pondexter, Cole was acquired in a midseason trade when New Orleans was desperate to improve their bench. After coming over from the Miami HEAT in a trade deadline deal, the point guard was thrust into a significant role for the Pelicans. Aside from Ryan Anderson, he was the team’s top bench scorer, averaging 9.9 points in 24.4 minutes a night while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and (a career-high) 37.8 percent from three-point range. He also averaged 3.2 assists as a reserve. Expect Cole to play a similar role this year, and he could have some extra motivation with unrestricted free agency right around the corner.

-Alex Kennedy

Strengths

Having arguably the best two-way player in the NBA is certainly the Pelicans’ biggest strength, and Davis is bound to win them a handful of games on his own each season. Their offense should be a big strength as well, especially with the addition of Coach Gentry. Last year, New Orleans ranked ninth in the NBA in offense, scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions, and you can expect that number to increase with Gentry’s up-tempo offense and (hopefully) less injuries to key players. The Pelicans weren’t bad shooting the ball, ranking 12th in True Shooting Percentage (53.7 percent) and, again, that number will likely go up thanks to Gentry. The team’s ball movement was also solid, as they ranked eighth in the league in assist ratio (with 17.2 percent of their possessions ending in an assist). They also finished seventh in the league in rebound rate (51.1 percent).

-Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

Despite having Davis – one of the game’s best defenders – the Pelicans have struggled on that end of the floor. Last year, New Orleans had the league’s 22nd-ranked defense, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That put them behind non-playoff teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons among others. Some people expected the Pelicans to go with a defensive-minded coach because of their struggles on that end last year, but they obviously went with Gentry instead. We’ll see how the team fares on that end under him. New Orleans’ bench is obviously a huge weakness as well, which is why they traded for Pondexter and Cole last year (as well as signing Dante Cunningham and various other players for brief stints). Even with the addition of those two players, New Orleans isn’t deep at all, which is very bad considering their injury history.

-Alex Kennedy

The Burning Question

New Orleans will only go as far as Anthony Davis takes them, and we’ll have to see what kind of impact the added muscle, expanded shot and addition of Coach Gentry has on Davis’ game. Still, even if Davis somehow finds a way to get better, health is a big concern with this Pelicans team. They rely on too many injury-prone players for me to trust them to stay at full strength for an entire season, so it’s hard to consider them a contender. Not to mention, they just don’t seem to have the talent (even when healthy) to stack up against the best teams in the Western Conference like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. I think the Pelicans are a lock to make the playoffs, but I think they’re still a year or two away (and perhaps some moves to improve the supporting cast) from being a legitimate contender.

-Alex Kennedy

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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

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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