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Forecasting NBA Most Improved Player Race

Jabari Davis forecasts the 2016-17 Most Improved Player race, which is always a tough award to predict.

Jabari Davis

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With the 2016-17 NBA regular season less than a week from starting, Basketball Insiders has been look at the race for each of the league’s annual awards. We’ve analyzed the race for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year thus far.

Today, let’s forecast the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Improved Player race. This particular award is always fun to monitor (and the hardest the predict) since it generally revolves around players taking the next step in their development or surprising everyone with a breakout season that few saw coming.

Last year’s well-deserved winner C.J. McCollum saw his playing time more than double from 2014-15 (15.7 MPG) to 2015-16 (34.8 MPG), and he clearly made the most of his increased role as he posted career-highs in just about every statistical (and advanced) category. As a result, the Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard ran away with the award. Guards and swingmen have dominated the award over the past 15 years, winning 10 of the last 15 years (even if you count Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love exclusively as big men) due to the shift to more perimeter-oriented play.

With so many players changing teams or walking away from the game altogether in the offseason, there are plenty of minutes and touches up for grabs entering this season. The players who can make the most of their expanded opportunity will certainly be in the mix for this award.

It is important to note this list isn’t necessarily ranking the players in a best-to-worst order, but rather by the likelihood of them winning the award. Here is a look at some of the names to keep an eye on throughout the regular season (which tips off on Oct. 25):

  1. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns – 13.8 PPG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 42.3%/34.3%/84% shooting in 2015-16

After impressing as a rookie, the sky is the limit with Booker moving forward. He’s already one of Phoenix’s best players even though he’s still just 19 years old, and there are more and more people around the NBA who feel that Booker could continue to develop into a potential star at this level. It will be interesting to see if the front office ultimately looks to move last year’s starter, Brandon Knight, in order to open even more playing time for Booker (who played 27.7 minutes per game as a rookie). Either way, it’s clear that Booker is going to be a major part of the Suns’ present and future plans. This preseason, Booker has played very well, averaging 21.5 points (on 50 percent shooting from field), four assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 25.3 minutes per game. Keep an eye on the core of Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Alex Len (among others) over the next several years.

  1. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers – 13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 41%/35.1%/73.7% shooting in 2015-16

Not only is an increased opportunity there for the taking, Russell also seems to be jelling with the new coaching staff. That’s a great sign, and it appears Luke Walton’s system is a much better fit for what Russell brings to the table, at least offensively. The key for Russell will be consistency, as is the case for any young guard. This not only goes for his offensive production, but on the defensive end as well. His overall effort has been much better throughout the preseason and, by all accounts, he’s continuing to improve as a young leader. The Lakers may not win a ton of games this year, but they should be far more exciting to watch and Russell’s potential emergence as a cornerstone is definitely something for fans to look forward to this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – 16.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 50.6%/25.7%/72.4% shooting in 2015-16

Why is the “Greek Freak” still on a list like this, you ask? The craziest thing about him and his potential is that he’s still just 21 years old. Khris Middleton’s injury was a huge disappointment and it may limit how much damage the Bucks can do in the Eastern Conference, but there’s still plenty to be intrigued about in Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo will be at the center of the action. Regardless of where head coach Jason Kidd plays Antetokounmpo, he’s going to exciting to watch and fill the stat sheet. The more you watch Antetokounmpo, the more you’ll appreciate his unique game because he is going to amaze you with some of the freakishly athletic stuff he can do on the court. If he’s able to add a three-point shot to his arsenal (as he reportedly wants to do, despite shooting just 28 percent from long distance for his career), the rest of the league needs to watch out. General managers across the league recently voted him the NBA’s top international player and it is hard to disagree if you’ve taken the time to watch him play. With another season of experience under his belt, it’s not hard to imagine Antetokounmpo being increasingly comfortable this season and putting up even better numbers. In 28 games after last year’s All-Star break, he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field. If he can produce at (or near) that level for the entire season, he will certainly be in the mix for this award.

  1. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers – 10.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 49.8%/72.7% shooting in 2015-16

Turner’s 2015-16 numbers may not have jumped off the page if you didn’t pay much attention to him as a rookie, but we can assure you the former Texas big man was truly impressive in his 22.8 minutes of action per game. Now, locked in as the team’s starting center from the beginning of the season, we love that Indiana also brought veteran Al Jefferson in to back him up and mentor him. Turner worked really hard to expand his game this summer and told my colleague Alex Kennedy that he expects to have a breakout 2016-17 campaign. “I’m looking forward to making a big jump forward next year,” Turner said. “I know I did some good things last year, and I want to build off of that.” In that same interview, he also predicted that he’ll be “a very dominant player in this league” in the near future. Turner certainly doesn’t lack confidence, and it seems that the next step in his development is extending his range. He has attempted a three-pointer in all four preseason games thus far (shooting just 1-4, but it’s a very small sample size), and it will be interesting to see if he takes more as we get into the season. Either way, he’s someone who will be playing more minutes this year and could post some monster numbers if he continues to progress as expected.

  1. Jusef Nurkic, Denver Nuggets – 8.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 41.7%/61.6% shooting in 2015-16

We could have easily thrown another two or three Nuggets players onto this list, but Nurkic, in particular, has looked really solid in the preseason. Through six games, the 22-year-old big man is averaging 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.2 steals in just 24.5 minutes per contest. He seems to be developing good chemistry with second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and he actually works well alongside fellow big man Nikola Jokic, providing twin towers for head coach Mike Malone. Not that preseason statistics and productivity should be taken as any sort of basketball gospel, but Nurkic looks like even more of a load in the post, has displayed a soft touch by the basket and has proven to be a willing and able passer from the center position. Big men may not get as much love as they once did, but keep an eye on year three from Nurkic in Denver.

  1. Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks – 11 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.6 RPG, 42.1%/32.2%/79.1% shooting in 2015-16

After three years as a backup, Schröder now finds himself running Atlanta’s offense as the starting floor general following the departure of two longtime pillars (Jeff Teague and Al Horford) this offseason. Schröder averaged just 20.3 minutes per game last year and that was actually his career-high, so this will be the first time he’s playing such a big role. The 23-year-old did enough in his relatively limited minutes to prove to Mike Budenholzer, the team’s head coach and president of basketball operations, that he could handle running things on a permanent basis. Now, Schröder will play a crucial role in getting Dwight Howard acclimated; Atlanta needs the point guard and center to develop chemistry in order for the team to play to its full potential. Major tests could come if the Hawks get off to a slow start, but there should still be enough talent on the roster for the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference and potentially keep their nine-year postseason streak. Schröder’s numbers and production should increase with his added playing time and responsibilities, but he could really help his case for this award if he can also lead the Hawks to another high seed in the East.

  1. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets – 7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 58.2%/37.9% shooting in 2015-16

Capela is another one of those players who should benefit from a drastic increase in playing time. With Dwight Howard moving on to Atlanta and Donatas Motiejunas’ status (and future with the team) remaining an uncertainty, all eyes will be on Capela. The 22-year-old was strong in a reserve role last season, but he’s actually a better fit for what the Rockets are trying to do this year and is a slightly more versatile defender than Howard at this stage in his career. Plus, you don’t have to worry about keeping Capela happy with post touches and you won’t hear him complain about primarily being used as the “roll” man in any two-man action. The Rockets should show improvement under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, at least offensively, but Capela should really make his greatest impact on the defensive end and on the glass. Couple his increased minutes with his internal development, and it seems inevitable that Capela’s numbers and efficiency will improve this year.

  1. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks – 11.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46.6%/38.3%/76.1% shooting in 2015-16

Not to pile on, but if anyone still had questions about whether Barnes can be the No. 1 option (or even No. 2 option) for a team on a consistent basis, let’s just say the preseason hasn’t exactly eliminated all doubts. So far, Barnes is shooting just 12-51 (23.5 percent) from the field and 3-16 (18.8 percent) from three-point range. Not to mention, he has just three assists and 20 boards in 120 minutes of action. But that isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s time for Dallas to panic. The Mavericks essentially made a four-year, $94 million bet that Barnes can settle in and be a viable offensive option alongside veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Wes Matthews among others. Again, this is just the preseason and a transition period is always expected after a player changes scenery and has to adjust to a new system, team, coaching staff and role. It’s not all that surprising that Barnes has gotten off to a slow start with this in mind. The contract will make more sense as he grows increasingly comfortable in head coach Rick Carlisle’s system and gains chemistry with his new teammates. It would be nice to see Barnes ultimately flourish with the new opportunity. Dallas sure seems to be counting on it.

  1. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic – 9.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47.3%/29.6%/66.8% shooting in 2015-16

As is always the case with Gordon, he’s in phenomenal shape. Sore ankles have slowed him a bit this preseason, but expectations are high for him as he adjusts to playing at the small forward position with head coach Frank Vogel now running the show in Orlando. Gordon has mainly played power forward since being drafted by the Magic, but with Serge Ibaka taking over the power forward spot, Vogel appears comfortable with the idea of Gordon moving to the three and working from the perimeter when not attacking or slashing off-ball. He shot just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but the floor would absolutely open up for him (and his teammates) if he were able to consistently hit the corner three this year. He has been working on his three-point shot and told Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy over the summer that he’s ready to have a breakout year by doing a little bit of everything (which is what Coach Vogel has asked of him).

  1. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat – 6.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 42.2%/27.6%/68.4% shooting in 2015-16

With Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng departing and Chris Bosh’s stint with Miami coming to an unfortunate end due to his health issues, there will be plenty of room for Winslow to take a step forward and embrace new responsibilities. Winslow showed glimpses last season, but struggled to consistently produce on the offensive end. But with that said, he wasn’t very high on the list of guys being asked to assert themselves on that end. He won’t necessarily be propelled into the “go-to” player role just yet (that may be Hassan Whiteside, who inked a max deal in July), but there will certainly be more opportunities for Winslow and touches seem largely up for grabs at this stage. Don’t be surprised if head coach Erik Spoelstra leans on Winslow as a multi-purpose or hybrid player this season. If that happens, Winslow’s numbers could see a significant spike.

Honorable Mentions: Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks), Zach LaVine (Minnesota Timberwolves), Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics), Tyler Johnson (Miami Heat), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons)

Again, these are just some of the players to keep an eye on this season, and you can always count on one or two surprise contenders for this award emerging once the regular season gets underway. If you think we left anyone off who has a legitimate chance at competing for the award, leave a comment below!

 

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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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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