During NBA Summer League, it’s no secret that many players like have a good time. After all, many of these prospects are in their late teens or early 20s and this is the first time that they get to experience anything close to the NBA lifestyle. In fact, for some it’s the only time.
In July, Las Vegas clubs are often full of very tall men wearing NBA warm-ups (players love donning these out in public since they’re extremely comfortable and, more importantly, let everyone know, “Oh, yeah, I play for the team. No big deal…”). Even for unknown players who are just on a Summer League contract, it’s relatively easy to get V.I.P. treatment and free drinks at a club by playing the NBA card. Many players know this and enjoy their time in Las Vegas.
However, some players want nothing to do with the extracurricular activities and treat Summer League like a business trip. Take Brandon Paul, for example. At 25 years old, he played in both the Orlando Summer League and Las Vegas Summer League this year, and he entered each event with one thing on his mind: Earn an NBA contract.
Paul isn’t a wide-eyed kid who’s excited to be around the NBA festivities. He has played Summer League in the past, suited up in the NBA D-League and even had stints in Russia and Spain. For Paul, Summer League wasn’t about enjoying the Las Vegas nightlife and partying. This was his chance to show NBA executives, coaches and scouts what he can do on the court, how he carries himself and why he belongs on an NBA roster this upcoming season.
Last July, Paul wasn’t able to participate in Summer League due to a shoulder injury, making him even hungrier to shine this time around. He did just that, and his professional approach paid off.
Paul played for the Charlotte Hornets in the Orlando Summer League. He scored double digit points in his first four games, including a 17-point, 11-rebound, two-assist, two-steal, two-block outing against the Oklahoma City Thunder that impressed NBA decision-makers. He was confident and comfortable on the floor, and he carried himself like a veteran. With Charlotte, he ultimately averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range.
The Philadelphia 76ers liked what they saw and asked Paul to join them in Las Vegas. Once he arrived and got acclimated, he did well and made his presence felt all over the court. He had an 18-point, six-steal, two-rebound outing against the Brooklyn Nets. In a win over the D-League Select Team, he had 20 points, six rebounds and two steals in 24 minutes (while shooting 4-6 from three-point range). Over the final three games of Summer League with Philadelphia, Paul averaged 16.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and three steals in 25 minutes per game.
Philadelphia was so impressed that they signed Paul to a partially guaranteed contract. He will attend training camp with the 76ers on a $543,471 salary (of which $155,000 is guaranteed). It’s worth noting that Paul’s $155,000 is more money than Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, T.J. McConnell, Shawn Long and James Webb have guaranteed to them in their own partial or non-guaranteed deals.
At first glance, it may seem like Paul is a long shot to make Philadelphia’s roster. After all, they have 20 players coming to training camp. However, a closer look reveals that only 11 of those players have a fully guaranteed deal – meaning there’s an opportunity for Paul and others to make the team and even carve out a spot in the rotation. Given the Sixers’ needs in the backcourt, Paul felt confident betting on himself with this situation.
At the very least, Paul will earn a six-figure payday for his camp commitment, which then would likely lead to a spot with the Sixers’ D-League affiliate (the Delaware 87ers) and the possibility of a midseason call-up. Philly clearly likes Paul’s game, so this could be a smart route for him to take.
After thriving in Summer League, grinding in the D-League and going abroad to Russia and Spain, the 25-year-old guard is closer to achieving his NBA dream than ever before.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Paul to discuss his professional journey, why he chose to sign with the 76ers, what he can bring to Philadelphia’s roster, what he learned overseas and much more.
Alex Kennedy: What was the moment like when you officially signed with the 76ers? I know you’ve been working toward this for a long time, so how did it feel to achieve that goal?
Brandon Paul: “It was great, real humbling. Just thinking about all of the stuff I went through and all of the hard work I put in – especially this past summer – it was just a really exciting moment. It didn’t really come as a shock, but it was hard to put my thoughts in words when I got the call from my agent, Adam Pensack. It’s a great feeling.”
Kennedy: After your performance in Summer League, there were quite a few teams showing interest in you. How did you decide on the 76ers?
Paul: “I just felt like, all around, it was the best decision for me to come in and compete. They obviously have a young roster and I kind of bring in a little bit of maturity to that roster. Obviously, I’m relatively young as well. But around those guys, I’m kind of the older one and I’m a little more seasoned because I played overseas and in the D-League. I think I can bring a little bit of toughness and maturity to the roster.”
Kennedy: You played in Russia and Spain. How was your experience overseas, and how did it help you grow as a player and as a person?
Paul: “I mean, it’s definitely tough for a player coming out of college to go overseas and kind of build their resume over there. A lot of guys feel like if they don’t get the NBA right away then it might not happen; I just had the mindset of staying positive and staying the course. I definitely think it helped a lot. It helped shape me as a player and as a man. I learned a lot about myself because you have a lot of alone time when you’re living more secluded. Your family and friends aren’t around – it’s just you and your team – so I definitely think playing over there helped me grow a lot more.”
Kennedy: You had to overcome a number of obstacles to get to this point, from going undrafted to dealing with various injuries. How frustrating were those setbacks at the time, and does it make your current success even sweeter?
Paul: “It was definitely frustrating – especially because the injuries occurred at, I would say, some of the worst times. Every time I had another opportunity, a setback happened. Everyone’s got their story and I’m just kind of building mine up. I think the mental aspect was a lot tougher than it was physically. The rehab was brutal, but from a mental point, you’re kind of like, ‘Why does this keep happening? Is it going to happen again?’ I have a good circle around me, though, and I just stayed positive no matter what. People were asking me questions about it like, ‘How do you feel?’ and I just kept speaking positively. I think that helped me get to where I am right now.”
Kennedy: You’ve always had a chip on shoulder and used different slights as motivation. What’s your mindset entering training camp with the 76ers?
Paul: “I just have to go in and do what I do. I’ve always been a hard worker and I’ve always prided myself on working harder than others around me. It’s not about trying to prove anything – that’s just really all I know, that’s how I grew up, that’s what I was taught. I plan on competing every single day and just showing guys that it’s nothing personal, it’s just basketball. When I go out there, I got a team out there, but it’s not about making friends. It’s about playing and getting yourself better and getting the team better. I just want to go out there and just kill every day and prove myself. I want to prove to the staff that I deserve a roster spot.”
Kennedy: It seemed like that was your approach in Summer League too. You weren’t messing around out there – you were looking to take someone’s job.
Paul: “I unfortunately missed some opportunities the last couple summers because of injuries, so just getting the Summer League opportunity with Charlotte and then Philly was a great experience and I appreciate all of the help they gave me.
“I knew when I was going to Vegas that it was just another opportunity to open some eyes up. Every day you step on the court, it’s a job interview and I used it. I wanted to prove myself – regardless of who was in the stands – that I’m an NBA player who can do multiple things for a team.”
Kennedy: For fans in Philadelphia who may not know your game all that well, what will you bring to this 76ers team?
Paul: “They’ll get a guy who competes extremely hard and enjoys playing both ends of the floor. I understand that 90-93 percent of individuals in the league are role players and I’m ready to come in and just do whatever role I need to in order to help the team be successful and help myself be successful and continue to build my resume. I’ve been known as a scorer my whole career and I score the ball at a high level, but at the same time I’m capable of guarding multiple positions and I definitely use my length to my advantage. I think that as I continue this process I’ll be able to show more and more people my capabilities as an athlete and as a pro.”
Kennedy: It seems strange to say, but you’re one of older guys on this Sixers squad at 25 years old. With your maturity and experience playing professionally, are you looking to take on a leadership role and helping some of these young guys in Philly?
Paul: “I think that’s something that the staff enjoys about me – that I’m seasoned. I played all throughout college, I played overseas for a couple of seasons and I have experience in the D-League. Those experiences help me to bring that maturity and the professionalism to this stage as well so any chance I get, I try to talk to them and pass on a little bit of my knowledge. I see myself as the rookie and the vet. Yes, it’s my first year on this stage, but at the same time it’s my fourth professional year so I’m not new to this.”
Kennedy: Two Drake lyrics in one answer! That was awesome.
Paul: “I just realized that. Literally as I said it, I realized it (laughs).”
Kennedy: Since Summer League, what has your offseason training been like?
Paul: “I’ve been all over the place training – Las Vegas, Charlotte, Chicago and now Philadelphia. It’s really just been a lot of rigorous workouts. I’m working on my explosion, my quickness, my shot consistency and being able to finish with contact.”
For more of our one-on-one interviews, check out our recent conversations with Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., Atlanta Hawks forward DeAndre Bembry, New Orleans Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore and Sacramento Kings swingman Garrett Temple.
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
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