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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division

Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Anything can happen in the NBA.

Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.

But, if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.

Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.

Basketball Insiders has already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest — but which players could step into those shoes from the Pacific Division?

Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers

After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.

In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.

Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.

Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles; although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.

The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.

If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.

Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.

Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.

What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.

While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.

If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.

Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings

Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.

That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.

That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.

Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.

With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.

And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?

Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.

In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.

That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.

Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.

He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.

There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.

In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought

Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.

If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.

Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.

But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.

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NBA

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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