The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s greatest enigma.
At home, the Sixers are a powerhouse. Their 25-2 record speaks for itself, but that number still fails to encapsulate their impressiveness in their own arena. The 20-point drubbings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the teams with the best record in each conference, add a little context. As does the 30-point rout against the Miami HEAT back in November.
Outside the Philadelphia city limits, though, the team has looked downright feeble. Their 9-19 road record, while fittingly bad, also lacks context. For that, look no further than the 30-point beatdown dished by the same HEAT team, or the 20-point waxing handed to them by the Boston Celtics.
To say the Sixers have been two different teams is an understatement. They have been playing two different sports.
How does this wide of a gap come to be? Is it simply an effort issue, as some believe, or is there something more going on here? To best answer that question, Basketball Insiders did a little research on all 28 of these road games, broken into stretches. The statistics are taken from the Cleaning the Glass game logs unless otherwise noted.
The First Two Weeks
For the first stretch of road games, the Sixers had moderate success. The started the season 3-0 on the road with wins over the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and then a wild win in Portland that saw them come back from down 21 late in the game.
They did lose Joel Embiid to a suspension and Ben Simmons to a shoulder injury in this stretch, so the ywent 0-3 to close out a west coast road trip against the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.
Each of those games was hard-fought, however, and came down to the wire. The Sixers put themselves in a position to win against good opponents.
In summation, the first two weeks of road games went about as you would expect given the circumstances. The Sixers went 3-3 in this stretch, with four of those games and all three losses coming without one of their two best players. They probably should’ve lost in Portland, but it can be argued they should have won in Denver. The effort level in these games was not of much concern and there was no reason to set off any panic signal just yet.
The Rest of November
Record: 2-3, 5-6 overall
While the effort level may have sufficed over the first two weeks of road contests, it did not continue. The Sixers went down to Orlando after a two-game homestand and were trounced by the Magic 112-97. It is notable that this was the second night of a back-to-back and without Joel Embiid yet again, but that still does not excuse the low energy level that becomes clear on the stat sheet.
The Sixers only attempted 17 shots at the rim and 13 free throws in this game. You can credit the Magic defense for some of that, but a team with Ben Simmons and Al Horford playing should be able to carve out a little more space inside. They also rarely go out in transition in this game, something that should’ve been a priority with a Simmons-centric lineup. This can be chalked up as the team’s first truly worrisome road performance.
The Sixers then lost a very tight game on the road in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the first game they lost on the season with the full starting lineup available. They followed that tight loss up by taking care of business against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.
The next road game came up north against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who have had a lot of success defending the Sixers dating back to last season, shut them down again and most notably held Embiid scoreless.
Not only did the Raptors stifle Embiid, but they also kept the Sixers out of the paint and out of transition as a team. The Sixers were able to keep it close by going 15-for-38 on threes and outrebounding the Raptors by 11. The Sixers received a lot of criticism for this loss and rightfully so, but the Raptors’ defense also deserves credit here. This one should go in the outplayed by a good team column, rather than lack of effort.
The Sixers would close out their November road schedule by eking out a six-point over the New York Knicks. While the margin is concerning, a win is a win. The team imposed their will in that one, getting to the charity stripe for 40 attempts.
That brought the team to 5-6 on the road. A mediocre record for a team with title aspirations, but given the context of only two of those losses coming at full strength and only being truly blown out once at the hands of Orlando, it wasn’t so bad.
Onward to Christmas
Record: 2-2, 7-8 overall
The Sixers entered December looking like a pretty formidable team. Undefeated at home with some impressive beatdowns, they seemed like a tough out in the playoffs.
After a few more home wins, the Sixers took to the team bus once again, this time heading south down I-95 to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards, who were near the bottom of the East standings. The Sixers laid what was probably their second true egg of the season in this one, falling 119-113. They were without the services of Josh Richardson in this one, who had recently pulled his hamstring.
A sign of weak effort, the Sixers transition defense was horrid in this game. They allowed the Wizards to score 1.5 points per play after live rebounds. The Wizards shot eight more free throw attempts than the Sixers, nabbed five more offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle 21-11. All of that combined led to the Sixers dropping one to a weaker team while shooting 48 percent from three.
After this, the Sixers returned home for three more wins before heading up north to face the Celtics. Before this game, Embiid had a quiet night against the Nuggets, which prompted the ire of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. The criticism seemed to light a fire, as Embiid dominated the Celtics in Boston, leading the Sixers to their best road win.
It wasn’t just Embiid who came to play. The Sixers, who were without Al Horford in this game, outrebounded the Celtics by 12, took four more free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times. They also shot 50 percent from three.
The three-point shooting is an outlier, but the rest of those statistics are replicable based on the personnel if the effort is there.
Two games later, the Sixers did not replicate that effort. They fell by 20 points in Brooklyn to the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid themselves and unable to get anything going offensively.
They only attempted 15 shots at the rim and 17 free throws, compared to the Nets’ 44 attempts and 18 free throws. They shot 5-for-26 from three as well, en route to an offensive rating of 87.8.
The Nets, starting a lineup featuring Taurean Prince as the nominal 4-man, outrebounded them by 13, which included 12 offensive rebounds. The effort culminated in the Sixers’ third true egg-lay of the season.
The Sixers went back out on the road right before Christmas to play the Pistons in Detroit and actually took care of business in this one. They dominated the glass, won the turnover battle and played solid transition defense.
Heading into the Christmas showdown with the Bucks, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road, with only one of those losses coming while at full strength. Three of the losses could be largely attributed to effort issues.
The Disney on Ice Trip From Hell
Record: 0-4, 7-12 overall
When Disney on Ice rolled into the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia was feeling good about its basketball team. The Sixers had just dominated the best team in basketball on Christmas Day, putting the league on notice in regards to how good they could be.
Rather than feed off of the momentum from that win, the Sixers sputtered. At full strength, they could barely muster any offense against the Magic in Orlando. The effort statistics seemed to be there. The rebounding battle was tight, transition defense was not an issue and the Sixers attempted more free throws than the Magic. In this game, some bad shooting and a good Magic defense held them to 97 points in a one-point loss. The game ended with Horford missing an open three to win at the buzzer.
The very next night, the Sixers stayed in Florida to play the HEAT. The team lost another tight one, falling by one point in overtime. Similar to the Magic game, the Sixers rebounded well and attacked the paint, but were unable to seal the deal late. In fact, Tobias Harris missed a dunk late that would’ve put the Sixers up five. Embiid followed that miscue up by allowing himself to get stripped with the Sixers up three with less than 20 seconds left. The ensuing fastbreak led to a Tyler Herro three-pointer to tie the game.
With two winnable games lost, the Sixers marched on to Indiana for a New Year’s Eve Matinee and got roasted by the Pacers. Embiid missed this one, so the Sixers were once again not at full strength, but it was unlikely his presence would have made any difference. The Pacers shot 55 percent deep while the Sixers shot 15 percent. Perhaps the holiday had something to do with it, but this was another laid egg on the road.
After that beatdown, the Sixers headed to Houston where they were handled by the Rockets. They once again shot very poorly from three and had difficulty keeping the rockets out of the paint defensively. It wasn’t a debacle like the Pacers game, but it was the culmination of a four-game road losing streak that dropped the team to 7-12 on the road.
Embiid Injury to Present Day
Record: 2-7, 9-19 overall
After the four-game losing streak, the Sixers regrouped with a win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost their star center to a dislocated finger. The Sixers would go 2-3 in their five road games without Embiid.
The first two of these came against the Mavericks and Pacers. The Mavericks made short work of the Sixers, just as they did in Philadelphia before Christmas. It’s safe to say the effort wasn’t there in this one. The Mavericks outrebounded the Sixers handily and got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate. The Sixers also shot 23 percent from deep compared to the Mavericks 40 percent.
Two days later in Indiana, the Sixers put forth a much better effort, but fell in a tight one to the Pacers. They actually had a lead in the fourth quarter but were unable to generate any offense down the stretch. They did do a solid job of defending and controlling the glass.
Almost a week later, the Sixers went back on the road for three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The Sixers eked one out against the Knicks and then put together one of their best road efforts of the season against the Nets. The Sixers defense’ took over the game in that one, racking up steals down the stretch to seal a victory.
The last road game without Embiid came up in Toronto, where the Sixers ran into a tough Raptors team that controlled the paint. The Sixers took a ton of threes in this game and hit 40 percent of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of scoring around the basket.
The Sixers kept that game close for most of the contest and did a good job of getting out in transition. The Raptors just outplayed them in this one.
After this, the Sixers came home for a big win over the Lakers before heading back out on the road for their most recent four-game trip. The Sixers would be without Richardson for this trip, as he pulled his other hamstring a week earlier. Embiid would also be playing with a heavily taped left hand.
It started in Atlanta, where the Sixers were outrebounded by a very small Hawks team. They were also unable to guard Trae Young all night. This one could be attributed to lack of effort on the defensive end as the Hawks had their way with the Sixers interior.
After letting that one slip, the Sixers embarked on a brutal three-game stretch which just recently concluded against the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks. They lost all three.
In terms of effort, the games against Celtics and HEAT were sorely lacking. Both games were not close. The defense was especially bad in Miami, where the Sixers gave up 138 points per 100 possessions. In both the Celtics and HEAT games, the Sixers allowed those teams to control the paint and get to the free-throw line.
The game against the Bucks saw a much better defensive effort, but one that wasn’t good enough to overthrow the team with the league’s best record. The offense floundered in this one as the Sixers could not get into the paint yet again.
Now that we’re all caught up, here are the key takeaways from the road struggles.
The Sixers have played eight games on the road with their full starting lineup available, in those games, they are 4-4. Three of those losses came on the Disney on Ice road trip, and all of them were within one score late in the game except for the loss to the Rockets.
The road struggles truly became an issue post-Christmas, as the Sixers are 2-11 on the road since then. Before Christmas, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road and 4-1 when the full starting lineup played.
A lack of effort played a large role in at least seven of the losses. The first Magic game, the Wizards game, the first Nets game, the first Pacers game, the Mavericks game and the most recent Celtics and HEAT games. The rest of the games, the effort level was at least high enough to not show up on the stat sheet.
The Sixers as a team are shooting much better at home on the road, as most teams do. The issue is that when the shots are not falling, the defense seems to slip. The Sixers go from a league-best 101.9 defensive rating at home to a middling 110.8 on the road. The key for the Sixers going forward will be bringing their defensive mindset with them to other arenas.
Basketball Insiders asked head coach Brett Brown about this after a recent game at home against the Grizzlies.
“I think it’s human nature, sadly,” Brown said. “It’s the great challenge coaches go through, if teams always let their offense dictate their defense, it means they’re really not that good of a team and they’re not going to be playing that long. The connection is real and it’s a human nature thing. It’s easier to play defense when you’re happy and scoring, and it’s tougher when you’re grinding it out. But grinding things out equals May and June. That’s the miss that I am on as it relates to stuff going on on the road with us.”
Brown is right, the offense will only become more of a grind as the playoffs begin. If this team has any chance of advancing into June, they will need to commit to the defensive end even when the offense isn’t working.
Basketball Insiders asked Horford the same question.
“Coach has talked about that. He’s told us that, regardless of how it’s going, we need to have that defensive mindset and that toughness to stay together,” Horford noted. “At times we haven’t been as consistent as we need to, but earlier in the year, I thought we were really, really good at that. It’s something that we need to continue to do regardless of whether shots are going in or not, we have to defend and rebound.”
Horford’s comment about the Sixers being better at that earlier in the year lines up with the numbers. As mentioned, the road struggles really became jarring after Christmas.
Given the record with the full roster, it may be too early to sound the panic button just yet. If the team continues to lack a defensive edge on the road, though, Philadelphia could be staring down the barrel of a first-round exit.
If this group is able to make the mental changes required to become as good defensively on the road as they are at home, then all the talk of the Sixers being built for the playoffs may come to fruition.
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
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.