Quarantine and stay-at-home orders look no closer to ending than they did a week ago, so Basketball Insiders is back with more draft-ready analysis. With the criteria laid out by Matt John on Monday, we’ve moved from entire drafts to the individual picks.
The picks will be sorted into the same four categories too: The hits, misses, middle of the road or role players. Did a player fall out of the league after a few years? Are they a star? Or are they at their ceiling already?
We’ve got a decade’s worth of drama to turn toward, so here’s where all the No. 2 overall picks fall.
Ja Morant – Memphis Grizzlies – 2019
It’s safe to reason, somehow, through just 60-or-so games, that Ja Morant is a hit.
Everybody was mesmerized by Zion Williamson’s delayed debut, but Morant is the one that likely would’ve taken home Rookie of the Year honors. Everybody wants to talk about how difficult it is to make the postseason in the Western Conference – but the 20-year-old rookie point guard had them there. He dropped 30 points on Brooklyn, a triple-double at Washington and racked up 14 assists against Los Angeles.
Morant’s 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game lead Memphis, and his electric brand of athletic playmaking aren’t going anywhere but to multiple All-Star Games. Already, the former Murray State standout is going to make future voting competitions even more complicated – between him, De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the guard position out west is in excellent hands. Anyway, we ask: Is it possible to almost jump over a future Hall of Famer and not be considered a hit? Just asking for a friend.
Brandon Ingram – Los Angeles Lakers – 2016
Well, Ingram wasn’t the biggest of hits in Los Angeles – but, better late than never, right?
After featuring in the major blockbuster for Anthony Davis, Ingram has taken his game to another level. Freed to experiment and grow, the 6-foot-7 scorer took a whopping six points forward in his per-game points average (24.3) and has reached career-highs in rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.3) too. By no means was Ingram a slouch in Los Angeles, but the now All-Star-worthy cornerstone has taken steps too large to place by the wayside.
Crazier, if he has room to evolve even further, Ingram, Williamson and Lonzo Ball will likely form the next great NBA-wide trio.
Perhaps, then, all a player needs is a change of scenery…
D’Angelo Russell – Los Angeles Lakers – 2015
But if that’s the case, won’t somebody please save D’Angelo Russell from his coast-to-coast pilgrimages?
And yet, none of that happened in Los Angeles. The Kobe Retirement Tour. The overplayed incident with Nick Young. Dumped to the Nets so that the Lakers could take a new shiny point guard in Lonzo Ball. Russell found himself at home with Brooklyn as the king of the forgotten misfits and then helped to break their lingering playoff drought. But when the opportunity to upgrade to Kyrie Irving came, he went out to Golden State. And, after just half a season there, Russell was dealt for Andrew Wiggins.
Getting traded so often and early in your career tends to come with a negative connotation – for Russell, it is anything but. Russell has notched back-to-back 20-plus point campaigns and becomes must-watch television when he’s hot from downtown. Now paired with a close buddy in Karl-Anthony Towns (the No.1 pick in 2015), the test is truly afoot for Russell. Although he wasn’t a hit until he left Los Angeles, much like the aforementioned Ingram, doesn’t that say more about the Lakers than it does the players?
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats – 2012
Looking back, it’s hard to believe this trio of misses went No. 2 overall – but general managers weren’t blessed with the deepest of opportunities here either.
But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, unlike the other two here, is at least in the league still. With Charlotte, back before a rebrand to the original brand, Kidd-Gilchrist survived based on his defensive ceiling, always a philosophical question of well-if-he-figures-this-out type-isms. And even though he struggled to stay healthy, the forward managed to earn a four-year extension worth $52 million in 2015.
Renowned for his funky-looking release, the once-National Champion has played in just 21 games between Charlotte and Dallas this season. Taken ahead of Bradley Beal (No. 3), who would have paired excellently with Kemba Walker, only adds extra salt to the wound.
Derrick Williams – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2011
From the opening number, Derrick Williams was going to cause headaches for whoever drafted him. Naturally, Williams viewed himself as a small forward, an athlete that could go toe-to-toe with LeBron James – no, seriously, that was a real thing – but the tweener was most suited for the power forward position at the pro-level.
The only problem was that he largely lacked the toolkit to succeed there either. During his two collegiate seasons at Arizona, Williams soared up draft boards thanks to his ability to finish alley-oops and slash through the paint at ease. But in the NBA, recreating that magic against bigger, stronger and faster adults proved to be far more difficult. Williams averaged 12 points in his second season with the Timberwolves, but then the parade of franchises began: Sacramento, New York, Miami, Cleveland and Los Angeles, where he last played for the Lakers back in 2017-18.
These days, Williams is a heavily-featured option for the world-renowned Fenerbahce franchise – but he’ll long be remembered as a draft miss over here.
In a weak draft, however, after Irving, it’s hard to fault Minnesota for going for the highest ceiling option at the time.
Hasheem Thabeet – Memphis Grizzlies – 2009
When you talk about busts, Thabeet’s name would almost certainly pop up on a Family Feud-style board of the most recognizable names. As a rookie, Thabeet only played 13 minutes per game and averaged 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds. And it never got any better from there. Considering that James Harden went immediately after doesn’t make that pill easier to swallow either.
The 7-foot-3 center lasted just five seasons in the NBA before splitting for Japan. Last seen in the G League during the 2019-20 campaign, Thabeet is still around – but his bust status will likely last forever.
The Middle of the Road
Marvin Bagley – Sacramento Kings – 2018
Marvin Bagley is a good basketball player. Someday, he might even be great. Clearly, the skills and tools are there for Bagley. Unfortunately, as unfair as it may be, he went ahead of Luka Doncic and Trae Young, so he’ll always be graded against such standards.
Bagley is part of a strong, young core in Sacramento, along with De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic (for now), Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes and Harry Giles – but the best-case franchise scenario rests with the forward’s development. Given his injuries this season, the former Duke standout has only played in 13 games in 2019-20 but averaged nearly the same as his rookie-year effort – about 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and any dangerous range just yet.
Give him time and you might be surprised at how well Bagley measures up to the draft class stars, guaranteed.
Lonzo Ball – Los Angeles Lakers – 2017
It may seem tough to stick Ball down here and Ingram up there when they were also noted as part of the next great trio in the NBA. And, OK, that’s probably fair. But in order for the Pelicans to reach their highest potential, they’ll need Ball to keep growing himself. Ball, of course, is the third Laker on this list and the third to post a career-best season after leaving. The point guard, and all his former baggage, has managed to top his points (12.4) and three-pointers made (2.5) per game totals, while also upping his field goal (41.2) free throw (56.7) and three-point (38.3) percentages as well.
Now armed with Williamson, Ball has loads of worthy playmaking options… and ones that might put him in league-leading assist territory sooner rather than later. During a late January game, Ball tossed 15 assists – but he’s also scored nine or fewer points in 21 of his 56 appearances. Clearly, there’s room for improvement, but the early signs are improving significantly – and fast.
Victor Oladipo – Orlando Magic – 2013
At another period of time, Victor Oladipo might be an undeniable hit. But after an injury took him out for a year, the jury appears to be out on the scorer. Although Oladipo had reached back-to-back All-Star Games from 2017-19, it’s fair to wonder what exactly comes next. The former Indiana man only featured in 13 games prior to the lockdown and, shaking off some evident rust, averaged just 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.8 steals – all down from his last full campaign.
Everybody is pulling for the loveable Pacer – but we’re in wait-and-see mode through this quarantine. If the playoffs happen, expect Oladipo to play a huge role in Indiana’s ultimate fate.
The Role Players
Jabari Parker – Milwaukee Bucks – 2014
Needless to say, injuries have decimated the health of the once-super-promising Jabari Parker – but his story is not over just yet. He may not ever get back to the 20-point-per-game plateau, last averaged way back in 2016-17 with Milwaukee, but he’s still a workable and score-heavy bench piece. Through 32 contests with Atlanta this year, Parker averaged 15 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals – even starting 23 of them as well before being moved to the Sacramento Kings, where he’s only suited up for one game.
The days of superstardom are long gone for Parker, but he can still play a part for a team that means something.
Evan Turner – Philadelphia 76ers – 2010
Solid but not spectacular, Evan Turner has lasted awfully long – especially considering the volatile nature of top-five picks once they don’t take the step toward stardom. Over the last ten years, Turner has seen successful stops in Philadelphia, Boston, Portland and Indiana, earned a fat paycheck in 2016 and then gracefully aged into a veteran that franchises can utilize multiple ways. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent once this season ends – whenever that may be – and Turner should have plenty of suitors with postseason-ready rosters.
So, in all, the No. 2 picks over the years have had a little bit of everything: Stardom, offense-end generals, injuries and intrigue – but if we’ve learned anything about basketball, it’s that the story is never truly written. While only a few of these players will feature on a would-be postseason roster, the ending to the 2019-20 campaign is still very much in question. Either way, more often than not, selecting second has yielded a handful of wonderful outputs over the last decade – who is next?
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.
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.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old