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Remembering Kobe Bryant

Basketball Insiders looks back at Kobe Bryant, an NBA legend.

Basketball Insiders

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On Sunday, the world lost Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash – and everybody, basketball and beyond, began to mourn. Bryant, 41, and his win-at-all-costs mindset changed the course of professional basketball through his five championships, one MVP and over 20 incredible seasons.

In a year, Bryant will undoubtedly become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, forever enshrined in Springfield, MA. But until then, and as we all to struggle to find words for an imperfect man and athlete, everyone has considered their relationship to Bryant over the last few days.

His lasting legacy is complicated, but the impact Bryant had on the game – and the current generation of players and fans – is unquestionable.

Below, the Basketball Insiders team shares their thoughts and feelings on the loss of Kobe Bryant.

***

Growing up, Kobe Bryant was everywhere – even in my tiny corner of the country. And way up in Portland, Maine, one of my closest classmates throughout grade school idolized Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. As his team grew stronger at every turn, Dillon had plenty of ready-made ammunition to toss in the faces of his friends – who were New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves supporters, sadly. But that only served as motivation to give it back to him all the same, often teasing with mawkishly-yelled Kobe! calls when our buddy missed an easy bucket or dunked on the Nerf hoop in his purple and yellow-painted bedroom.

Bryant seemed to infiltrate every moment of my young basketball fandom – and not only because I lived deep in Celtics territory.

But beyond that, and despite his objectionable off-the-court issues that linger after all these years, losing Bryant is another sad reminder to love people while you still can.

Not later, not in a few months, not even the next time you make it home – but right now. Make that call, send that text, keep trying to mend once-burned bridges. Build from the bottom-up and be better than you were before. Say I miss you and I love you and talk to you soon as much as possible because tragedies never seem to make an appointment. As you undoubtedly know already, it is never the right time to say goodbye to somebody important – whether that’s an old pal or a former superstar – but Kobe’s sudden departure should come as a warning to everyone.

Hardly anything in this life is permanent but the memories of the ones you love come pretty darn close.

I haven’t stayed in touch with Dillon as much as I would’ve liked since we graduated from high school almost a decade ago – but I think I owe it to myself to try again.

– Ben Nadeau

***

I’ll never forget how hard I was kicking myself. As I sat there a few cars behind waiting to get into the parking garage, Kobe Bryant’s pregame presser began before his final game in Cleveland as his retirement tour rolled along. I failed to realize how packed Quicken Loans Arena would be at that time to send No. 24 off.

Maybe I should’ve expected it. After all, if I had an emotional connection to this larger-than-life being that kept my eyes on the television, so did others just like me. It’s funny: Kobe was a major favorite of mine growing up, but Tracy McGrady and Ray Allen were my Nos. 1 and 2. That’s no disrespect to the Los Angeles Laker legend, of course, but rather me straying away from the mainstream. In fact, I hardly even used Kobe in video games because I wanted to beat him, whether it was against the computer or a friend.

Looking back at memories, there’s too many to name. Obviously, the Kobe-Shaq dynamic and their unique relationship was always an interest of mine. I actually like to make a game out of naming the teammates he had over his years. The more obscure, the better — Smush Parker, Slava Medvedenko, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Metta World Peace — or those times in which he played with Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Regardless of who he played alongside and how good of a team the Lakers had, there’s one fluid motion that will always make me think of Kobe.

Backdown on the baseline. Shoulder fake towards the basket. Spin back towards the baseline. Right leg kicks out. Turnaround fadeaway from 15 feet. Bucket. 

The basketball world is shell-shocked. I’ll admit I still have no idea how to process this. At 27 years old, I barely remember seeing Michael Jordan growing up. But I watched Kobe Bryant. And I often did it with my eyes wide open and jaw dropped to my chest. This was “the guy.” For me, for so many of us ’90s kids.

That’s why my heart hurts. I’m sick about him. I’m sick about his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. I’m sick about Gianna’s teammates — Alyssa Altobelli and her parents, John and Karen; Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah. I’m sick about Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan. It just doesn’t make sense…

I wasn’t able to speak with Kobe at his farewell performance in Northeast Ohio, but I do remember watching him dazzle as he tried to lead one of his infamous comebacks against LeBron James’ eventual championship-winning team. Feb. 6, 2016 ended with him greeting friends and fans in the player garage before he left. Knowing I hadn’t documented any type of memory from the occasion, I snapped a quick photo walking out as best as I could get.

It’s blurry. It’s grainy. It’s low resolution. And I’ll cherish it forever.

Spencer Davies

***

Days later, and I remain in disbelief. Kobe Bryant, dead at 41, is not something I ever thought I would have to type. On that tragic Sunday morning, the NBA lost a legend, one woven into the fabric of the Association as much as he was Los Angeles, the city that took him in as an 18-year-old and made him their own.

But, more importantly, the world lost a loving father and a man whose passion for and exuberance in life permeated everything he did and extended to everyone he met.

Of course, my connection to Bryant isn’t exactly unique. I grew up in Massachusetts, a fan of the Boston Celtics – and, for the better part of my life, it was my business to hate him more than anything else. Of course, I respected him; it was hard not to, given his ability and approach to the game. But, in hindsight, he played a far greater role than I ever gave him credit for in the development of my own love for the game.

Yes, Bryant was the enemy. Yet, he embodied everything there is to love about competition and the game of basketball; an insatiable hunger and uncompromising drive to win at the highest level; a zeal for the game unequaled, neither then nor today; the desire to break down his opponent and bend the game to his will. Kobe was the ultimate competitor and made the game that much more enjoyable.

My appreciation for Bryant only grew in his post-NBA career. A man that was once so isolated and cold warmed to the world and tried to further the game in any way he could. Bryant not only served as a friend and mentor to a number of current players, but was a major advocate for the WNBA as well.

It would be disingenuous of me were I not to address the more unsavory aspects of Bryant’s life. To some, the Colorado-based case that culminated in Bryant’s admission of having non-consensual sex with a young woman was just a bump in Bryant’s road to superstardom. To others, it tarnished his character and still does to this day. Either way, it’s made his lasting legacy a complicated one to address.

That said, Bryant’s growth as a person beyond that incident was evident. And, while it may be difficult to parse through, Bryant can and should be celebrated for the good that he did as long as we can acknowledge the bad that preceded it.

Bryant certainly had an impact on me, both in sport and in life. And, for that, I’ll be forever thankful.

– Shane Rhodes

***

Each morning since the accident, I have woken up hoping it was all a nightmare that has finally ended. Each morning, I have woken up saddened to realize again that it was not. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up with Kobe Bryant as the premiere sports icon in Southern California. Kobe was one of my favorite athletes and I, like many kids, tried to emulate parts of his game when I was young and played on youth basketball teams. As I grew older, I became more critical of issues like his inability to maintain his shaky relationship with Shaquille O’Neal and other, more serious matters, such as his well-documented off-court legal issues.

But I always appreciated Kobe’s drive and unshakable belief in his own abilities. He wasn’t as lethal of a shooter as Ray Allen or as physically gifted as LeBron James but he turned all of his weaknesses into strengths and worked relentlessly to become the most complete player he could be. I have tried to apply that same approach in all aspects of my life, though I have fallen well short of that goal more times than I care to admit. But most importantly, since his retirement, I came to respect the well-rounded family man that Kobe became. He was always with his family, supporting them in their own endeavors. Kobe seemed to be more balanced, at peace and happier than ever. His death, and that of his daughter, Gianna, is a tragedy that has impacted me more than I would have imagined.

I’m saddened that this nightmare won’t end, that we won’t get to see Gianna go to UConn and eventually take over the WNBA with Kobe supporting her every step of the way.

– Jesse Blancarte

***

Kobe Bryant was the first player I can remember watching when I was younger. He was my generation’s Michael Jordan, of course. I certainly wasn’t a Lakers fan growing up, but I loved watching Bryant compete. As fun as he was to see on the court, the biggest impression Kobe ever left on me was this quote he said after he retired:

“Fast-forward 20 years from now,” Bryant said. “If basketball is the best thing I’ve done in my life, then I’ve failed.”

Basketball was his life. He was a five-time champion, an MVP and an 18-time All-Star. And yet he truly believed he could still achieve more. It’s an absolute tragedy we won’t get to witness what those 20 years would have held.

But if Kobe taught us anything, it’s that hard work and determination – not circumstance – truly define who one can become.

– Jordan Hicks

***

As a writer, I covered Kobe Bryant constantly while toggling the focus on his flaws. There’s no excusing or sugarcoating the incident that culminated in him admitting to having non-consensual sex with a 19-year-old. His maniacal competitiveness and unrelenting zeal for the spotlight made him a less effective player and teammate than his rings, medals, trophies, game-winners and place in the game’s all-time hierarchy suggest.

But on Sunday, I suddenly remembered how much I used to revere him. How Bryant was once my favorite player growing up or how without him I wouldn’t love basketball quite as I do. Then I almost started crying, and have tried to watch every game since with the same sense of joy I felt as a kid.

– Jack Winter

***

I never had the privilege of meeting Kobe. I don’t have a unique perspective or a memorable story to tell. I grew up thousands of miles from Los Angeles and never had a desire to visit the city. That is why the last 48 hours have been so bizarre to me. The emotional devastation felt throughout the day and the sleepless nights have had such an impact on me in a way that I would never have imagined.

Growing up during the Michael Jordan era, I viewed Kobe as an imposter. But this was a guy that would just rip your heart out, play after play, after play, after play. Still, his second act after retirement as a father figure and a creative mastermind has always struck me. His passion for life and the inspiration that he offered so many people is something that we will all miss dearly. The stories have been heartwarming, while the sadness has been felt across the globe. We should all aspire to attack each day as Kobe Bryant would because we’ve seen the much-needed positivity and success that it can bring.

– Chad Smith

***

I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t the biggest Kobe Bryant fan growing up. Michael Jordan was my childhood hero. Worse, Kobe always came across as an imitation. To me, he was never as good and it always irked me how his fans tried to put him on the same pedestal as Jordan. My mindset began to change in recent years, however.

Most people remember their first love and, well, my first love was basketball. It’s the one love that’s never left me, never abandoned me, never walked out on me. It’s always been there for me. I cried when I first read Kobe’s poem, “Dear Basketball.” That was me.

Everything he wrote, all the emotion he put into that poem, that was me. Basketball was Kobe’s love. He ate, slept and breathed the game. How could I not appreciate someone who had a love that burned brighter for the sport than mine did? How could I not respect someone whose passion and dedication for the game was so strong? I was rooting hard for him to win an Oscar for that piece. When he did, I wanted to cry, shout and smile all at once. That poem has become the epitome of a love letter to me.

I penned an actual love letter not too long after his Oscar win. I tried to channel the same energy and emotion that Kobe used. When you love something/someone, the words just flow from the heart. They did for me, as I imagine they once did for Kobe too. I finished it, but I never delivered it as things went south before I had the opportunity.

By now, the age-old cliche of time-is-short has been beaten to death –but there is some truth in that. As I was listening to Shaquille O’Neal and watching him tear up, his words kept echoing in my mind. It had been a while since he’d last spoken with Kobe and he wished he had the opportunity to say something to him one more time.

And as I sit here and finish these words, I think of my undelivered letter, my version of “Dear Basketball.” I owe it to myself, to Shaq and to Kobe to make that attempt to see it delivered. While Kobe certainly loved basketball, his love for his family and the people who meant something to him was even greater. Years from now, I don’t want to be sitting here wishing that I should’ve reached out. I don’t want to be kicking myself for not even attempting to re-light the red flame. And so, I’ll channel my inner Mamba and try to win my own Oscar.

Kobe and Gigi, the basketball world will miss you and we’ll keep you in our hearts forever.

-David Yapkowitz

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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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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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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