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NBA AM: Larry Nance Jr. Living His Dream

Larry Nance Jr. is living his wildest dream, and it still hasn’t hit him that he’s a Laker.

Alex Kennedy

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Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato and CineSport’s Brian Clark discuss several NBA players who are feeling the pressure to deliver a strong 2015-16 season.

Larry Nance Jr. Living His Dream

When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Los Angeles Lakers had selected Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the 22-year-old forward was stunned.

“I was just hoping to hear my name called at all,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “So to hear it called 27th overall by the Lakers, I was like, ‘Really? Really?!’ I had a sense of disbelief because it was just so crazy. I mean, I was just fighting to hear my name called at all and now I’m picked in the first round by the best franchise in history? I couldn’t have dreamt up a better scenario.”

To be clear, Nance absolutely believes the Lakers made the right choice and he’s determined to prove he was worthy of that first-round selection. But in that moment, he was pleasantly surprised and honored. Growing up as a huge NBA fan, he knows all about the Lakers’ rich history and what it means to don that purple and gold jersey. And now, suddenly, he was part of that exclusive fraternity.

LarryNanceInsideImage“My first impression was, ‘This is the Lakers. The Lakers! THE. LAKERS.’ I couldn’t get that out of my head,” Nance said with a laugh. “I mean, it was just really cool. These guys are a part of my family now! I’m a part of their family! I’m a Laker! It was very surreal.”

Once the shock wore off, Nance knew that his life had changed. He was introduced to Lakers Nation, and bombarded with followers, likes, messages and friend requests across his social media accounts.

“It’s really cool; Lakers fans are everywhere,” Nance said. “They are very outspoken about being Lakers fans. I mean, my comments have spiked, my followers have spiked. They love their Lakers and I’m one of them now.”

Overnight, he went from being recognized only in Wyoming (where he played his college ball) to being stopped for pictures and autographs all across the country. That’s certainly an adjustment for a 22-year-old who hasn’t dealt with large-scale fame before. In the weeks that followed the draft, going out became difficult because he was constantly being stopped by fans – no matter what state he was in.

“It’s different,” Nance said. “When I was in Wyoming, I would get recognized everywhere because it’s a small state. I mean, it’s Wyoming. But now that I’m with the Lakers, I go to Chicago and I’m recognized. I go to Las Vegas and I’m recognized and get pictures taken. I go back home to Ohio and get pictures taken. I went from being recognized on a very small-state scale to now on a country-and-worldwide scale.”

Nance still finds it’s strange that people are excited to meet him.

“Every time, I just think, ‘These people know how I am? In Chicago? In Vegas? They want my picture?! Why?’ It still really hasn’t hit that I’m an NBA player.”

That’s one of the weirdest things about becoming an NBA player. You’re the same person, and many of the players aren’t recognized in public before the draft. But overnight, once your name is read off of that piece of paper on television, you’re suddenly a big deal and everyone wants a piece of you. Nance is still getting used to all of this.

However, the Lakers rookie has noticed some positives that come with this new-found attention and large audience of supporters. Nance suffers from Crohn’s Disease (as he detailed in a Basketball Insiders profile back in March), and he’s determined to use his large platform to start a foundation and raise awareness for the disease.

Back in March, he talked about the possibility of getting drafted and being able to help some people diagnosed with Crohn’s. Now, as a first-round pick on the NBA’s most popular team in a huge market like Los Angeles, he realizes he can really make a difference.

“It’s great for me, but even better for the Crohn’s community,” Nance said. “I’ve tried to be as vocal and open about it as possible and now, being in the NBA and in Los Angeles, it’s like having a big megaphone. I’m ready to maybe start a foundation and just get Crohn’s [awareness] out there more so it’s not off to the side like it is right now. I want to get it out there and reach as many people as I can.

“[Since being drafted] I’ve gotten messages via Twitter, via Facebook and via Instagram from people saying, ‘Hey, I know your story and I have Crohn’s as well. Keep it going, you are an inspiration.’ They say little things like that. I see all of those, and reading comments like that is just awesome. That’s my goal in this entire thing, to show somebody that if I could do it, you could do it too. The kind of responses I’ve gotten from this whole process is really cool.”

For his message about Crohn’s Disease to reach an even larger audience, Nance knows that he must have success in the NBA and become a notable player. This summer, he has been working hard to expand his game and prepare for his rookie season. He’s communicating with the Lakers’ coaching staff and believes there could be minutes for him in the rotation this year.

“I really haven’t spoken to the [coaches] too much about my role; they are more so [telling me] to keep working hard, get in the weight room, just telling me how to improve and things like that,” Nance said. “From what I understand, if I put the work in, if I work as hard as I can, there is going to be minutes available for me because we do have such a young and up-and-coming team.”

This offseason, one of Nance’s main focuses has been improving his shot. In college, he shot 51.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range, but he wants to ensure that he can shoot a high percentage in the NBA and be consistent against the tougher competition. Nance recently attended Tim Grgurich’s famed camp and altered his shot, which should pay dividends once the NBA season starts.

“The biggest thing I want to work on this offseason is my shooting,” Nance said. “I went to the Tim Grgurich camp in Vegas and that was great for me because I got to work with a bunch of coaches there and we kind of changed my shot a little bit. Now, it’s more functional and stuff like that. I’m just working on perfecting that and just getting better at becoming a knock-down shooter. This season, [I’m focused on] mid-range. Next season, I’m moving onto threes and moving to different spots on the floor and things like that. Shooting is definitely the biggest thing I’m working on.”

Another reason Nance was in Las Vegas this summer was to compete in the NBA’s Summer League, which was his first time representing the Lakers organization. Nance did well in the event, appearing in five games. His best outing was an eight-point, five-rebound, three-steal, two-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. He had a number of highlight plays that went viral, including a monster block off of the backboard and a powerful put-back slam.

“It was really cool because that’s a type of stage that I had never been on before,” Nance said of playing Summer League. “Being in Thomas and Mack Center and actually hearing the Lakers fans chanting my name gave me goose bumps. It gave me the chills. It was like, ‘Wow, welcome to the NBA, there’s 20,000 people here!’ I just can’t wait to see more of it honestly.”

Summer League was Nance’s first opportunity to play alongside his fellow Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell, who was the second overall pick in this year’s draft. The two players have hit it off and become good friends, spending a lot of time together off the court. Nance has been impressed with how mature and confident Russell is as a 19-year-old.

“D’Angelo is a great kid,” Nance said. “I mean, it’s crazy because he’s 19 years old! I’m coming into the league with the mindset of like, ‘Alright, after four years of college, I’m ready and I can do this.’ He’s coming into the league like, ‘Alright, after one year I decided I can do it.’ He’s great.

“He’s fun-loving, and loves to just do things. It doesn’t matter what it is. He’ll go to the mall, go to the golf range, go play mini golf. Whatever it may be, he is always moving, always doing stuff. So I’m really enjoying trying to keep up with him. He’s just so eager to see everything and I’m tagging along.”

Nance can’t wait for the start of the season, when he’ll step onto the NBA court surrounded by thousands of cheering fans and play his first real game as a member of the Lakers.

It may feel surreal, but this is Nance’s life now. His wildest dreams have become reality, and he’s enjoying every second of the journey.

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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