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NBA AM: The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

Here’s why it’s perfectly acceptable for Knicks fans to be overly optimistic about Kristaps Porzingis’ potential.

Tommy Beer

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The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

A cynic might reasonably assert that Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet. He’s played relatively limited minutes in just nine games in his brief NBA career. He’s yet to score more than 16 points in any one contest. His team, the New York Knicks, sit one game below .500 at 4-5.

KristapsINside1Many pundits have scoffed at how so many Knicks fans have fallen head-over-heels so quickly for this rookie from Latvia.

Yet, such skeptics might be missing the point.

Yes, many Knicks fans are overly optimistic about the promise of Porzingis. But it could also be argued that many loyal Knicks fans have earned the right to get exceedingly, even irrationally, excited.

Context is important here.

Being a Knicks fan has been tough and often exhausting. Even in the “glory days” of the 1990s, the regular seasons were extremely enjoyable and entertaining, but playoff runs ultimately ended in heartache. Still, looking back, Knicks fans didn’t know how good they had it. For younger supporters of the team, being a fan of this franchise has been brutal. Teenage fans have seen basically nothing but drama and dysfunction. Oh, and losses. Plenty of losses…

Over the last 15 seasons, the Knicks have won a grand total of seven postseason games. They have lost 672 regular season games during this same stretch. Bill Clinton was President of the United States the last time the Knicks advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Still, it isn’t simply the sheer number of numbing defeats. The Knicks often found new and inventive ways to demoralize the fan base. The poor choices on draft day, moronic trades and inexplicable front office hires are simply too numerous to list. Even short-lived successes that generated genuine excitement would inevitably be followed by a crashing return to defeats and despair. The perpetual cloud of gloom that has hung over the franchise for nearly two decades has tended to deflate even the most buoyant and supportive spirits.

The coup de grace came last season. New Yorkers actually had a reason to welcome losses, but the Knicks somehow even managed to mess that up. Heading into the final week of the 2014-15 campaign, New York was in prime position to finish with the worst record in the NBA, which would have guaranteed them a top-three pick and the best odds of winning the lottery (to secure the services of stud prospect Karl-Anthony Towns). Alas, the Knicks won their final two road games of the season (the only time all season they won back-to-back road contests), which allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to back into the coveted No. 1 spot.

At the lottery drawing held in New York City the following month, only one team had the misfortune of “moving down.” It was the Knicks, who fell to No. 4 overall.

The top three picks in the 2015 draft were essentially no-brainers. Towns, the consensus top prospect, would go first. D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor would follow, in some order.

Then the consensus ceased. Most believed it was at that point where the draft diverted from “sure-fire stars” to “promising prospects with question marks.” Different scouts and pundits predicted the Knicks would take any number of players available. Some suggested it would be in the Knicks’ best interest to move down and acquire assets.

When Commissioner Adam Silver announced “Kristaps Porzingis” as New York’s selection, many fans in the crowd booed. Others shrugged. To be fair, the vast majority of New Yorkers had never watched the kid play a single game. Most could only base their opinion on limited YouTube footage. Moreover, Knicks fans had been conditioned to expect the worst.

Back in 1999, as we know, the Knicks selected Fredrick Weis – one spot ahead of NYC’s own Ron Artest.

Ten years later, in 2009, GM Donnie Walsh and all of Knicks Nation desperately wanted sharpshooter Stephen Curry out of Davidson. It was the worst kept secret in the draft. The Knicks were sitting at No. 8 overall and Curry teasingly lasted through the first six picks, before the Golden State Warriors snatched him up at No. 7. The Knicks had to settle for Jordan Hill, who played a total of 24 games for New York before they dumped him in a cap-clearing trade. Curry, obviously, won a title and the MVP award for the Warriors last season.

Many Knicks fans, possibly suffering from post-traumatic draft-pick stress, were hesitant to embrace Porzingis. Also, rumors immediately began circulating that franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony was furious the Knicks had gambled on a 19-year-old foreigner, which didn’t help matters.

But here is where this story starts to turn…

In interviews on draft night and in the weeks and months after, Porzingis spoke with an air of confidence and answered questions competently with a remarkable grasp of the English language.

New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the tall, skinny youngster during the Las Vegas Summer League. Yes, he was raw, but he flashed some impressive skills. Many fans began to shift from initially doubtful, to uncertain, to intrigued.

During training camp, and then into the preseason, the buzz began in earnest. The coaching staff heaped praise on Porzingis. His teammates raved about him.

During limited minutes in the preseason contests, he played well. Just as importantly, he played hard. Despite his thin frame, he was unafraid to mix it up in the paint. He repeatedly asked fans not to hold the past sins of previous “soft Euros” against him. He was determined to shatter the stereotype he knew existed here in the States.

He splashed jumpers from all over the court. He rebounded in traffic. He handled the ball like a guard, despite measuring in at 7’3. He defended bigger, stronger pros down low, using his 7’6 wingspan to alter opponents’ shots.

Still, one of the most appealing aspects of the Porzingis experience is the kid’s composure on the court. He’s never in a rush. He moves quickly, but doesn’t hurry. He is shockingly confident. However, he doesn’t force shots. He is almost unselfish to a fault. It is clear he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone right now.

He manages to walk that fine line between being remarkably self-assured, yet still modest and humble.

A 20 year-old celebrity who doesn’t have his head on straight could easily get swallowed up in this town. Many have, and many more will. Porzingis just seems to “get it.” When asked about his favorite part about moving to America and living in NYC, he explained it wasn’t the exciting nightlife in Manhattan, but rather the fact that he could use an open gym at his leisure to shoot around whenever he wanted to.

Knicks fans were beginning to buy in.  He remains remarkably easy to embrace. He’s said and done all the right things since the day he was drafted.

Prior to the draft, he let it be known that it was his “dream” to be drafted by the Knicks. He wanted New York. He was ready for the challenge. New Yorkers wanted him to be good, so they could get behind the promise that exuded from his game. He looked good in Vegas and in preseason action, but how would he hold up once the real games began?

The Knicks played their season opener on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and cruised to an easy 25-point victory. Porzingis struggled from the floor (3-for-11), but still managed to pour in 16 points by getting to the line 12 times.

The excitement in New York was palpable.

In New York’s fourth game of the season, the Knicks hosted the San Antonio Spurs at MSG. Porzingis finished with his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. He also produced the first of what has been become his trademark highlight: an awe-inspiring put-back dunk, this time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

Porzingis was starting to go viral now. The bandwagon was gaining steam and supporters. Early expectations had been exceeded. Could he possibly keep this up?

Porzingis has posted double-doubles in four of the Knicks’ last six games. His per-36 minutes averages are incredibly impressive: 16.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. As of Tuesday, he was one of just two players in the NBA leading his team in rebounds, steals and blocks (with Detroit’s Andre Drummond being the other).

Knicks fan are downright giddy, to the point where, in some circles, they are being ridiculed for being overly optimistic. “Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet,” the critics claim.

The doubters aren’t necessarily wrong. But that’s not the point.

Those Knicks fans who have stuck by their team though thick and (mostly) thin these past 15 years have earned the right to be irrationally excited. In fact, they should be encouraged to go crazy over the first handful of Porzingis highlights. Who knows when they will be in this position again?

Of course, Porzingis does have flaws. He fouls too much. His shooting percentage is still south of 40 percent. But the extraordinary talent and immense potential is impossible to miss if you’ve watched the kid play at all. And it’s been a very, very long time since Knicks fans have had the opportunity to invest emotionally in one of their own young players with such a high upside.

Over the past two decades, many people have been introduced as saviors to resurrect this woebegone franchise. Owner James Dolan hired Isiah Thomas to much fanfare, who immediately traded the farm for Stephon Marbury. Zeke’s next big move was trading two unprotected first-round draft picks to Chicago for Eddy Curry. After that experiment crashed and burned, Donnie Walsh was brought in as GM to clean up the mess and was tasked with luring LeBron James to New York. That didn’t work, so the Knicks ended up handing $100 million to Amar’e Stoudemire, who boisterously proclaimed that the “Knicks are back.” But Stoudemire’s well-worn knees soon buckled under the weight of expectations. New York next traded half their organization to bring in Anthony. The early returns were promising, but New York has failed to even qualify for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

It’s been even longer since Knicks supporters had a homegrown star to latch onto. New York has struck out on plenty of picks. They have also failed to develop and retain those promising players they did draft. Amazingly, the last player the Knicks drafted and subsequently signed to a multi-year contract after his original rookie deal expired was Charlie Ward, who was selected 24th overall in the 1994 draft.

Long story short, it’s been hard for Knicks fans to be hopeful.

The Knicks are once again part of the New York sports talk conversation. Many ardent fans have noticed that friends and brothers and uncles who hadn’t watched the Knicks in years have recently tuned in to catch a glimpse of this European dude that people are talking about. Porzingis is on the path to becoming ‘must-see TV.’

There is obviously no guarantee that Porzingis reaches his full potential and develops into a legit superstar in New York. He’s a long, long ways from even starting that discussion. He will have to hurdle countless road blocks before reaching those lofty heights. Maybe Porzingis gets hurt or flames out at some point soon or further down the road.

But the flip side of that coin remains a distinct possibility as well.

Maybe we are watching a truly great player take the necessary baby steps towards stardom?

For Knicks fans that have had so precious little to get truly energized about in recent years, why not go all in? It’s understandable that New Yorkers have been reflexively attempting to curb their enthusiasm. Still, those fans that have suffered through the torment of the 2000s and beyond deserve the anxious excitement of unknown and untapped potential. Anybody can appreciate and root for an established star; getting in on the ground floor is always more exciting. It requires taking a leap of faith.

Porzingis’ on-court production thus far is undeniably impressive. He is one of just 11 players in the last 30 years to tally at least four double-doubles of points and rebounds in his first nine career games (Patrick Ewing only had three). He is also the only player of those 11 to post four double-doubles while averaging fewer than 25 minutes per game. Kristaps is the first player in Knicks franchise history to grab 15 rebounds in a game before celebrating his 21st birthday. He is also the first player in NBA history with at least 100 points, 80 rebounds and five three-pointers in his first nine games.

And although the numbers are remarkable, it’s far more than just the statistics that have fans in all five boroughs so encouraged and enthused. It’s the sense that Porzingis is merely just scratching the surface.

After beating the L.A. Lakers last Sunday, Porzingis sat at his locker and coolly answered questions from the gathered media. At one point, I asked him if he, like the rest of us, was surprised at just how well he’d played this season. He responded with a one-word answer: “No.” He wasn’t bragging; he was simply relaying his belief in himself.

It’s justifiably difficult for dubious, downtrodden Knicks fans to believe in Porzingis as strongly as he does in himself, but fortunately for those fans, they hopefully have the rest of his bright career to be persuaded.

For anyone on the fence, feel free to jump on the bandwagon. There’s still room, but seats are filling up fast.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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NBA

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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NBA

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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