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NBA Daily: Biggest Surprises – Pacific Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ series on surprises by evaluating three teams in the Pacific Division, their statuses in your social circles and whether or not to abandon all hope already.

Ben Nadeau

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Listen, if you’ve found yourself here at this exact moment in late October and/or/potentially early November, there’s likely only one thing on your newly-refined, basketball-obsessed minds: hot takes.

Make ‘em as hot as you can. And none of that Cholula weak sauce spiciness either — no, let’s sear some taste buds off and shoot them all to the moon, never to be seen or heard from again. While a handful of my colleagues — sorry, Matt, Jordan, Drew — have launched reasonable observations in their by-the-division assignments, the conclusion still remains: any sample sizes, to this point, fall firmly under the difficult umbrella of filing — too tough to commit to, too impossible to guarantee.

In other words: they’re boring. (And what’s spicier than sending shots across the bow about your web-based teammates — I’m doing this correctly, right?) The Utah Jazz will probably have an elite-level offense, eventually. There’s little reason to worry about James Harden’s nosediving percentages until the All-Star break, too. And, sure, the Indiana Pacers have disappointed without Victor Oladipo to steer the ship — but, in reality, they weren’t true Eastern Conference contenders at any point.

Naturally, to make up for that tameness, the Pacific Division edition of the series will merely just lean in even harder. The Golden State Warriors? Send them to the G League. The Sacramento Kings? We were all suckers for believing that a tortured franchise could ever claw their way back from the depths of decade-long despair. The Pheonix Suns? They might as well be anointed as the new Kings, appropriate as that title may be.

And after five games, these are some undeniable and concrete conclusions. Set in stone, you can send them along in group chats with absolutely zero worry or responsibility. Embrace the hotness of October basketball and try to invent some even bigger claims about the Pacific Division!

Disband The Warriors — Better Yet, Take Away The New Arena

Has it really been that long since the We Believe Warriors of 2007? While that lovable gang of misfits shocked the world over ten years ago — early on, it’s obvious that this current version of the once-historically-great Golden State franchise will be lucky to even sniff the postseason. In lieu of outright saying that they stink — their 30th-ranked defensive rating of 118.5 speaks for itself — perhaps then, should they lose the rights to play in their brand-new, state-of-the-art arena until matters course correct.

Of course, before Wednesday, the answer was obviously that they should not tank. Of course, they could not consider blowing it all up. Of course, Klay Thompson is hurt and most of their notable role players are gone, retired or suffering in Memphis — but tank? No, that’s a building worth $1.4 billion and the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back NBA Finalists could never embrace such a fate. Unsurprisingly, Draymond Green couldn’t buy into the rose-colored, glass-half-full perspective just yet, even after finally breaking into the win column:

“Oh, we’re still not a very good team,” Green said. “We have a lot of room for improvement, just because we won one game doesn’t mean we don’t suck right now, we still have a lot of improvement to do.”

And then, the optimism — if there was any — went out the window when Stephen Curry broke his hand. Out for the foreseeable future, the tank-worthy takes came faster than ever — after all, they would likely owe their 2020 first-rounder to Brooklyn if things didn’t completely capitulate. So, maybe: Rest up, nurse Curry and Thompson to health and take a year to evaluate the potential surrounding pieces. D’Angelo Russell is still adjusting and Green will keep Golden State from being historically bad on defense — but that’s not exactly the biggest issue at this point.

Alas, it’s the rest of the roster that remains a question mark of the highest variety. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alec Burks made their season debuts during Wednesday night’s loss against Phoenix — 12 points, five rebounds; seven points, respectively — but the bench is littered with unproven youngsters.

At this time last year, Eric Paschall was gearing up to lead a depleted Villanova squad as a 21-year-old — today, he’s Warriors’ third-highest scorer. Glenn Robinson III averaged 4.2 points over 13 minutes per game for the Detroit Pistons in 2018-19 — as of now, he’s Golden State’s nailed-on starter at small forward. Kevon Looney, Cauley-Stein and Burks will help — but not enough in a Curry-less Western Conference hierarchy. Already, continuing their monumental half-decade run to the Finals seems nearly impossible.

But that’s OK: Basketball is cyclical and those on top rarely stay there forever. Still, their current level of play is not befitting for one of the most expensive stadiums in human history — although, in their defense, the New York Giants and Jets doubly share in that pricey mediocrity as a yearly tradition without issue.

So here’s the proposal: Play like a G League team, play in the G League. Until the Warriors improve as an overall unit, swap them out with Santa Cruz.

The Santa Cruz Warriors are set to open their season on Nov. 8 and if their parent club can’t figure it out by then, give them the heave-ho. Last year, Santa Cruz went 34-16 and made the Conference Finals — and, honestly, that might be a better on-court product than whatever the 126-opponent-points-per-game-Golden State Warriors are offering up.

Disband the franchise, shoot their championship banners into the outer reaches of our solar system and then pray for mercy — but sadly, the basketball isn’t even pretty as it stands and maybe that’s the most surprising bit of all. Without Curry, it’s bound to get way worse.

The Phoenix Suns Are Basically A Disney Movie

This is difficult, but Basketball Insiders would like to apologize for any shade, tweets or personal negative thoughts shared — both publicly and privately — about the Phoenix Suns and general manager James Jones over the last six months. They’re actually… good? For some real statistical analysis, we’d suggest moseying over to Quinn Davis’ earlier piece on the conversation. Better then, that means this section-long apology can continue unbarred from here on out.

Frank Kaminsky? Maybe he didn’t get a fair shake in Charlotte after all as the seven-footer is currently averaging 12 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists over 26 minutes per game — all would, obviously, set new career-bests. Deandre Ayton: Suspended, but still promising. Devin Booker: Not a fan of double teams, but remains an undeniable scoring machine (and now a much-improved passer). Kelly Oubre Jr., once famously the fourth man of a two-ring Washington circus, has absolutely continued to thrive with the new scenery (and his new swimming pool of cash, too).

Phoenix’s point differential is a ridiculous plus-9.2, fourth-highest league-wide and surrounded by Finals hopefuls and rosters with bonafide MVP candidates. The Suns’ 28.8 assists per game slot them at second-best in the NBA; last year, they finished in 20th in that category. Then there’s Ricky Rubio, recently cast out of both Minnesota and Utah for shinier toys, who tries on defense and satisfies the Suns’ multiple-year effort to both identify and sign/trade/develop a real point guard.

And maybe that’s the emerging theme in Phoenix this year: They’re clearly just copying the plans to any nondescript gritty, underdog Disney movie. And better yet: It’s actually working. Cool Runnings, Rudy, The Big Green; rinse and repeat, take your pick, it hardly matters. Maybe once a team hits a certain amount of castaways and underrated athletes, they automatically transcend proceedings and take on an unshakable date with destiny. If it’s not too late to bet the house and your entire life savings on the Suns, do it.

The easy caveated asterisk would be to mention that this probably won’t last. In the end, they’ve still got to play the two Los Angeles-based squads and the rest of Western Conference for, oh, six more months and, again, these are small sample sizes. So unless we’ve got a 1988 Winter Olympics situation afoot — remember, the Jamaican bobsled team came this close — then try to enjoy it while this lasts. Still, the damage has been done to media egos across the board: Phoenix has a competitive roster and we were all wrong — sorry, James.

The Sun(s) Will Rise Again starring Timothée Chalamet as Ricky Rubio to hit theaters in April 2020 — don’t miss it!

The Kings Are Suddenly No Longer Everybody’s Favorite Undisclosed Second Team

In 2018-19, you’d be hard-pressed to find another darling as loved as the Sacramento Kings were. De’Aaron Fox was affable, funny and, better yet, a blossoming basketball player. Marvin Bagley III looked, too, like a star in the making, while Buddy Hield, pre-contract negotiations, had ascended to long-range royalty. Although the Kings barely missed the postseason, the message appeared to be clear: At long last, the curse had been lifted and Sacramento would finally and definitively graduate to the rank of “Real Basketball Team” again.

And how silly it was to believe any of that, right?

Bogdan Bogdanovic may or may not be unhappy. The Kings may or may not have buyer’s remorse on Harrison Barnes’ offseason deal. Through five games, Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento’s newly-signed center, is rocking a PER of 2.06. Over 22 minutes per game, Trevor Ariza is only tallying 3.8 points and the Kings’ defensive rating is down near the cellar. Harry Giles has struggled to stay healthy and now Bagley is out for the next 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured thumb. Worse, the run-and-fun offense that the young Kings made a staple of their surprise campaign has evaporated completely.

In the five defeats, Sacramento has notched just 12.4 fastbreak points per game — ranking them at No. 18 thus far. It’s a distant cry from the league-leading 20.9 points they averaged last season with head coach Dave Joerger at the helm, who was unceremoniously fired despite leading the Kings to their best regular season record since 2005-06. Now under the watchful eye of Luke Walton, they’ve begun to trend backward and sideways instead ahead. In what seems to be a competitive division hidden amongst a cutthroat conference, the Kings may be digging themselves into a giant, bottomless pit — so, unfortunately, it’s time to say farewell to your secret second favorite team.

Everybody’s got them, don’t lie.

Generally speaking, these teams are tailor-made for post-practice and corporate water cooler conversations. Fun and scrappy — and, importantly, unable to truly disappoint given a low bar of expectations — the Kings often gave onlookers an outlet of solace for their regular-day pains. With Fox, Hield and Bagley operating on all cylinders, Sacramento existed as a breezy secondary option, a late-night solution for any iso-laden trappings and star-heavy shortcomings found elsewhere. For a brief moment, the Kings were a dose of cure-all medication: Young, speedy and modern — a match made in heaven within a social-media indebted society.

Now, unfortunately, those Kings are dead. We’ve buried them. They’re gone and all we can do is swiftly move on.

Other new sneaky-good options to claim fandom ownership of come the holiday season: Ja Morant; the Orlando Magic; mastering the art of tradsies between James Harden and Russell Westbrook; the Cleveland Cavaliers; Nikola Jokic; the aforementioned Suns; Kyrie Irving’s desire to freestyle dribble every possession permanently into the hardwood; Joe Ingles and steadfastly defending Ben Simmons’ role as ‘a peacemaker, not a three-taker.’

The point of a secret backup team is having an easy-to-reference comeback when somebody sullies the great and impeachable name of your favorite squad. Oh, really, I should believe in Bobby Portis? How’s Terry Rozier working out so far? The Chicago Bulls? More like the Chicago Dulls, right? And if that go-to retort happens to be 0-5, everybody is suddenly unhappy and playing slow, slow basketball — then they’ve got to go.

There’s already too much sadness in the world already, so find yourself a secret second favorite team that won’t make your trips to the office kitchen even more upsetting than usual.

Time can only tell if the Kings are truly cursed for eternity — but you can’t afford to wait around.

The season is only five games young, but don’t hesitate to write teams off completely, bury them alive and erase years and years worth of data from your mind with reckless abandon. In the case of the Pacific Division, that means demoting the Warriors to the G League and/or sending their championship banners into space. It also mandates that the Kings should probably be treated as an ex-significant other when whispered about in the hallways and on gym floors too — they’re just forgotten ghosts to you, don’t get it twisted

In the end, we’re already a full six percent into the season and that’s plenty of time to build an irrefutable narrative from which nobody will dare deviate from. So, for the moral of our story: Just lean in, we all know you want to.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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