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Bucks’ Rashad Vaughn Turning Heads Early

Rashad Vaughn, the Bucks’ No. 17 pick in the 2015 draft, is turning heads and seeming like a steal.

Alex Kennedy

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Bucks’ Rashad Vaughn Looks Like a Draft Steal

One of the biggest surprises early in the 2015-16 NBA preseason has been the play of Milwaukee Bucks rookie Rashad Vaughn. The shooting guard was just 18 years old when the Bucks selected him with the No. 17 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and he’s the second-youngest player in the NBA this season (behind only Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker, who is just two months younger).

RashadVaughnInside1The UNLV product was born in 1996, meaning he wasn’t alive to witness the first three years of his head coach Jason Kidd’s NBA playing career.

Because he is so young, it was expected that Vaughn would need some time to develop before making significant contributions for Milwaukee. However, Vaughn has gotten off to a very impressive start to his NBA career.

Through the Bucks’ first three games, he was the team’s leading scorer (averaging 16.6 points while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range). He came back down to earth a bit in their fourth game, a six-point outing against the Washington Wizards in which he only played 18 minutes, but his flashes of brilliance have Bucks fans optimistic.

Vaughn exudes confidence on the court, and you’d never know he’s a teenager from watching him play. He’s also an incredibly hard worker, which is one reason he believes he’s been able to make an impact right away.

“I think it’s just because I’ve been working so hard ever since I got drafted,” Vaughn told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been in the gym every single day. I’m constantly watching film. I watch a lot of different two-guards, looking for things in their game that I want to work on. I watch a lot of Bradley Beal, Kobe Bryant, Klay Thompson and older clips of Ray Allen. I try to study a lot of different two-guards and take little things and moves from each of them.

“Basketball is everything to me. I wake up and it’s nothing but basketball. I love it. Basketball is my life and I’m focused on it every day. I think the more I do that every single day, I should just continue to get better and better. I’m feeling pretty confident right now. The more I go out there to play games and go out there to practice, my confidence just builds up. It’s increasing every time I step out on the floor.”

After Vaughn dropped 20 points in his preseason debut against the Chicago Bulls – hitting 8-14 shots from the field and 3-6 from long range – Coach Kidd raved about his maturity and poise.

“He plays with a great demeanor,” Kidd said. “He doesn’t get up too high and doesn’t get too down in the things that he’s done. He is showing that he deserves time to play and he’ll get it. … At 19 years old, he’s very mature. He acts a lot older on the court and off the court.”

Vaughn says he and Kidd haven’t specifically discussed what role he’ll have with the Bucks this season, but the rookie is steadily figuring out what his head coach wants from him and how he can carve out a role in the rotation.

“I’m just trying to come in, learn as much as possible and play hard,” Vaughn said. “With Coach Kidd, that’s all he wants. He wants everyone to play hard. He doesn’t care who shoots the ball or anything like that. Our whole team is really unselfish actually, because nobody cares who shoots the ball. The focus is just on playing hard and winning games. That’s all that really matters.”

Each time Vaughn takes the floor for the Bucks, he is looking more and more like a draft steal. During the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, he scored in double-figures in every game and finished the event with averages of 17.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and one block in 29.7 minutes. While it’s still very early and hard to say how these exhibition performances will translate to the regular season, these are excellent signs of what the future may hold for the 19-year-old.

Which begs the question: how was such a talented, young player still on the board when the Bucks were picking at No. 17? The main reason Vaughn didn’t go higher was because his lone collegiate season at UNLV came to an abrupt end after just 23 games when he sustained a torn meniscus in his left knee. Prior to the injury, Vaughn had been one of the most impressive freshmen in the country, leading his team in scoring with 17.8 points per game and seeming like a probable lottery pick. Fortunately for Vaughn, he was able to get healthy in time for the pre-draft process, which allowed him to work out for teams and help his stock.

Vaughn started the summer working out at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, where trainer Joe Abunassar was blown away by the teenager’s intensity and work ethic.

“Rashad has always had a mature focus and has worked like a veteran,” Abunassar said. “He’s a gym rat who loves putting the work in, and he understands what it takes to be great.”

And make no mistake, Vaughn is determined to be great. He thinks, if everything goes according to plan, he can eventually be a star in this league.

“Definitely, that’s the goal for me,” Vaughn said. “That’s why I work so hard. I’m trying to win games and hopefully be a star in this league. … I’m just going to stay focused, stay humble and keep trying to get better every day. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m focused on doing all of the little things, mentally and physically, that it takes to win games and be successful.”

Initially, Vaughn was a bit frustrated that he slipped to pick No. 17 on draft night. However, now that some time has passed and he’s gotten to experience everything in Milwaukee, he thinks falling out of the lottery may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to him.

“I used it as motivation, but I’m glad to be where I’m at,” Vaughn said. “I think it was meant to be for me to come to Milwaukee. I wouldn’t [change anything] and I don’t really think about it too much. I think I’m in a great position, on a great team, with a great coaching staff and great vets. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

“It’s definitely fun to be a Buck right now. There’s nothing better than having this kind of support from the city. They have really embraced us and I’m glad to be on the team at this time. We’re getting a new facility, we’re coming off of a playoff appearance and we have a lot of great players. I’m here at a great time and it’s so fun to see the city supporting us like this. I’m just so excited.”

Having so many other young players on the roster has also helped Vaughn as he gets acclimated in the NBA. Sometimes, being a rookie can be intimidating – with limited opportunities and few players to relate with. However, Vaughn finds himself in a locker room surrounded by players near his age, which he loves.

“It has definitely helped me a lot; these guys are all like my big brothers,” Vaughn said of joining the young Bucks. “They have all taken me under their wings and really helped me. It’s fun too and we all vibe together. Like I said, I couldn’t ask for anything better than this. I really think I entered the perfect team, with the perfect organization. I’m just glad to be here.”

Vaughn falling to No. 17 seemed to work out perfectly for Milwaukee too, since the shooting guard is a perfect fit for their squad. Last year, two of the Bucks’ biggest weaknesses were their scoring and shooting. In the 2014-15 season, Milwaukee ranked 25th in offense (scoring just 100.5 points per 100 possessions) and 23rd in three-pointers made per game (6.6).

The Bucks still managed to win 41 games, which was a borderline miracle considering they won just 15 games the prior season, they lost No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker to a torn ACL 25 games into the year, they overcame Larry Sanders’ shocking midseason retirement and they traded leading-scorer Brandon Knight in a February deal that brought in Michael Carter-Williams, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis (forcing them to learn on the fly and adjust to a new team, coaching staff, city and more late in the season).

Coach Kidd deserves a lot of credit for Milwaukee’s surprising success. Despite all of the obstacles the team faced and their struggles on the offensive end, the team exceeded expectations because Kidd turned the young squad into the second-best defense in the NBA (allowing just 99.3 points per 100 possessions) and their size, length and versatility caused a lot mismatch problems for opposing teams.

However, even though they were successful, it was clear that the team needed a more well-rounded attack. Now, the offense is expected to improve after signing free agent Greg Monroe over the summer, adding Parker back in the lineup, drafting Vaughn in the first round and seeing their young core further their development (as well as get more comfortable under Coach Kidd in his second year at the helm).

As Vaughn looks at the pieces within the organization, he sees a legitimate East contender.

“Yeah, definitely, I think we have all of the pieces we need,” Vaughn said. “With the new additions and everyone who came back, we have a great team and great coaches. We’re definitely going to be a contender.”

While Vaughn has made an excellent first impression, he knows he still has a lot of work to do. For one, he needs to add some muscle since he weighs just over 200 lbs. in a league filled with physical specimens. He cited Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler as the toughest player he’s had to guard thus far, due to his toughness and two-way talent.

“I need to bulk up; that’s one of the first things I learned when I started playing against NBA players,” Vaughn said. These are all grown men and everybody is strong. I’ve been in the weight room every other day, just trying to get in there and get stronger.”

Still, the kid has already started to make his mark and earn respect from those around the NBA. Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy recently praised Vaughn’s game and potential.

“The Vaughn kid put on a show in the fourth quarter, as he did in Chicago the other night,” Van Gundy said recently. “We’re going to be dealing with him for a long time in the league.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

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

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

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

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

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

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

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

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

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

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

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

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

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

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

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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