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NBA AM: Howard Excited for Fresh Start With Hawks

Dwight Howard seems thrilled about his latest change of scenery to join his hometown Atlanta Hawks.

Cody Taylor

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Howard Excited for Fresh Start in Atlanta

After establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier players during his stint with the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard’s time in the NBA has been a bit rocky ever since. Over the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Howard has dealt with various injuries, on-court chemistry issues with teammates and a reduced role.

Most notably, Howard struggled to adjust to teammates like Kobe Bryant and James Harden. The Lakers were one of the teams on Howard’s wish list when he decided to force a trade from the Magic, but his time in L.A. didn’t go as planned as he clashed with Bryant and head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Howard’s move to the Rockets was expected to give Harden the help he needed to compete for a championship. But as Howard left the Rockets this offseason, the center’s relationship with Harden didn’t end on the best of terms. Howard even mentioned over the summer that their relationship wasn’t good enough for the team to be successful.

His decision to sign elsewhere this summer didn’t come as a surprise to many. Howard inked a three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks over the offseason in a move that will bring Howard back to his hometown. Signing with the Hawks can be seen as a new chapter for Howard, one that will presumably allow him to return to playing at a high level without any distractions.

“It’s another chapter in my life,” Howard said Sunday night in Orlando. “There will always be good chapters and bad chapters, but I think I’ve already got those bad chapters out of the way. Everything else will be up from here. Atlanta is great; it’s my hometown. My family has been great, my friends have been great and the team, for the most part, everybody is amazing.”

Watching Howard interact with friends, family and fans in a city that he once played for indicates that he is in a much better place in his life after having many ups and downs over the past few years. Howard flashed that vintage smile that was so popular during the positive times while playing for the Magic, and he seemed genuinely happy to be back interacting with old friends.

It seems as though signing with the Hawks can only be a positive for Howard. Atlanta has formed an outstanding infrastructure that starts with the front office and goes down to the players. Mike Budenholzer is one of the most respected head coaches in the league and has helped the Hawks qualify for the playoffs in an Eastern-Conference-high nine straight seasons.

Howard echoed those statements to reporters prior to a 105-98 win over the Magic on Sunday. Howard was held out of the game for rest but offered high praise for his new team. He called Budenholzer an unbelievable human being and said the Hawks are an organization that really cares about what’s best for their players.

“I really couldn’t be happier with how Dwight has integrated himself into our program – his willingness to work [and] his willingness to be open to coaching,” Budenholzer said. “He’s added a lot of positive energy and he’s got a big personality that I think our team has welcomed. It just feels like it’s a great opportunity for us and him. We’re just looking forward to growing together.”

While Howard didn’t appear in Sunday’s game, he’s turned in a strong preseason thus far. He said that he’s feeling great heading into the season, and it’s showing on the court. Through three games, Howard is averaging 15.7 points, eight rebounds, 1.7 blocks and one assist per game. He turned in a monster game last Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 26 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two assists and one steal.

The Hawks are hoping Howard can step into the lineup and take Al Horford’s place in the paint. While it’s safe to say that Howard is far removed from his dominating days with the Magic, he still has shown that he can be among the best centers in the league when healthy. His numbers dipped a bit last season with the Rockets – he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game – but Howard’s role with the team diminished down the stretch of the season.

Based on how things have played out so far during the preseason, it seems like Howard will have a big role with the Hawks this year. Coach Budenholzer’s teams have performed well on defense under his watch, finishing 14th in defensive efficiency during the 2013-14 season, seventh in 2014-15 and second last season. Adding a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard can only help bolster the defensive unit.

“He adds another layer to our defense, being a guy who can block shots,” Paul Millsap said. “He’s athletic enough to switch the pick-and-rolls and move on the pick-and-rolls. We look forward to that. We look forward to having a big body under the basket, altering shots and making guys work for twos.”

The Hawks have generally avoided making huge roster changes. When you have a nine-year playoff streak, you tend to stick with the same core group and value continuity. However, with Horford joining the Boston Celtics via free agency and Jeff Teague being traded away to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks will enter this season with a much different look. With much of the Eastern Conference improving over the summer, it remains to be seen where exactly the Hawks fit into the playoff picture.

In addition to Howard, the team also added veteran Jarrett Jack to the roster to provide some depth at point guard behind Dennis Schroder, who will replace Teague as the team’s starting floor general. With so many veterans on the team that have won at a high level, it seems reasonable to believe the Hawks can continue to compete for a high playoff seed.

For Howard, returning to a place in which he’s personally comfortable seems like it’ll help his play on the court. He seems to be as happy as he’s been in awhile and looks to be the same player we saw in Orlando – the upbeat guy who gets along with everyone. Don’t be surprised to see Howard deliver a strong bounce-back campaign and send a reminder to the NBA that he’s still among the best centers in the game.

Millsap Returns with Strong Performance Against Magic

When Hawks power forward Paul Millsap underwent a preventative procedure to reduce swelling in his right knee in late September, the news came as a bit of a surprise since it was taking place so close to the start of the season.

The team deemed the procedure to be the best course of action to treat Millsap’s knee. The All-Star forward has stayed pretty close to the initial timetable to return, as it originally called for the big man to miss two preseason games and he ultimately missed four games.

While Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to rest several starters Sunday night in Orlando including Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, Millsap returned to the court for the first time this preseason.

In 19 minutes of action against the Magic, Millsap recorded 19 points (on 7-12 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists. In a game in which his minutes were limited and many expected him to just knock off the rust, Millsap looked like he’s already in midseason form.

“We think he’s pretty good; we’ll probably keep him,” Budenholzer joked after Millsap’s impressive performance. “He’s such a unique and gifted player. I think the seven assists is probably what stands out to me as much as anything. He’s just a playmaker. He finds guys. He just feels things that I think are on another level. He had a good practice. It was good to see him now get out and do it in a game.”

Budenholzer said that the plan with Millsap is to continue monitoring his status through game situations and practices. He played in 19 minutes on Sunday night and will continue to increase his minutes incrementally each game. The biggest objective for Millsap moving forward will be getting his conditioning back.

“My body feels great,” Millsap said. “I was just getting my wind up. That’s going to take a few games. You can’t simulate that type of style in practice or [by] running on the treadmill. It’s good to be out there playing games. We still have two more preseason games to get ready.

“You have to get on the floor in game-like situations with the starters. We got two more games to do that. Hopefully, we can get out there and get our chemistry down and get ready for the regular season.”

As Budenholzer pointed out, the biggest takeaway from Millsap’s performance was his seven assists. It was surely an encouraging sign for the team that he was able to find his teammates like that in his first game back in action. It also shows his chemistry with his teammates is there, despite not yet playing during the preseason.

“[I’m] just taking my time, especially with these younger guys cutting to the basket and moving without the basketball,” Millsap said. “I think our offense was in pretty good sync tonight – guys moving without the basketball, setting screens for each other, just sharing the basketball. I think that’s what we’re all about. It just so happened to be me tonight, but any other night it could be anyone else.”

Last season, the 31-year-old averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks while earning his third-straight All-Star nod.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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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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