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NBA PM: Best-Ever D-League Players

Hassan Whiteside is the most recent D-League breakout, but there have been many others to come before him.

Joel Brigham

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Before the Indiana Pacers officially called “dibs” on the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League earlier this week, they were the only one of the NBDL’s 19 teams not to have had a one-to-one relationship with an NBA franchise. As more and more teams hitch themselves to what clearly is eventually going to be a full-on minor league for professional American basketball, it’s evident that the league really does see this as an opportunity to develop young talent.

And why shouldn’t they? Over the course of the last dozen years, the NBDL has sent plenty of talented players to the bigs, and while none of them have necessarily transformed into All-Star-level talents, there definitely have been D-League standouts who have played their way into big roles, sometimes with championship teams.

All that said, here’s a look at the best players ever to have spent time developing in the D-League:

#5 – Matt Barnes – As good as Barnes is, it’s kind of amazing that he’s been such a journeyman over the course of his NBA career, and that journey started with the Fayetteville Patriots of the D-League all the way back in 2002, the first year that the NBDL was a thing. He played the entire season there, then another season with the ABA’s Long Beach Jam before getting a shot with the L.A. Clippers. But once he found his way onto an NBA court, there was no going back. A dozen years later he’s still one of the most respected role players in the league.

#4 – Shaun Livingston – Once the #4 pick in the NBA Draft, Livingston had a long journey back to the league following his gruesome knee injury in 2007 that had some doctors considering whether it would be best to amputate his leg. He worked his rear end off to get back into playing shape and got a few games in with the Miami HEAT in 2008 before being traded to Memphis and almost immediately waived. His only choice at that point was to sign with the Tulsa 66ers, for whom he played three weeks. The OKC Thunder called him up at that point and he has worked himself back to credibility in the years since. He even earned himself a ring this past year in Golden State.

#3 – Hassan Whiteside – The most recent D-League standout, Whiteside had a fantastic season with the Miami HEAT in 2014-15 and has emerged as one of the better defensive big men in the league, which is saying a lot considering he hadn’t previously played an NBA game since being waived by Sacramento in 2012. During his time under Sacramento’s rule, he spent a lot of time with the Reno Bighorns, but he also played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce Grande Valley Vipers and Iowa Energy before finally making his mark in an NBA starting lineup.

#2 – Marcin Gortat – Before setting foot onto an NBA court, Gortat was assigned to the Anaheim Arsenal of the D-League back in 2007, but he only played there for a couple of weeks before earning his call-up to the Orlando Magic. He had only played in Europe prior to that NBDL experience, so test-driving the new model against inferior competition seemed like a safe bet before an NBA debut. Obviously Gortat passed with flying colors, and now he’s a $60 million man.

#1 – Danny Green – Easily one of the best players ever to have come out of the D-League, Green had a rough start to his NBA career, getting released by the Cavaliers in 2010 and then waived by San Antonio after having played in only two games. He then hopped around the NBDL for a good chunk of the next two seasons, playing for the Reno Bighorns and Austin Toros before finally getting his first real opportunity following the lockout in 2012. He started 38 games that year, earned a three-year, $36 million contract and has been a major cog for that team ever since. Best known for the 2013 NBA Finals, where he broke the record for most three-pointers in a championship series, Green obviously has come a long way from Reno.

Honorable Mention:

Jeremy Lin – While Lin’s success hasn’t necessarily been sustained since getting called up from the Erie Bayhawks just a single game into the 2011-12 NBDL season, he was at the time a national sensation the likes of which the NBA hasn’t since duplicated. Lin played 20 games in Erie the season before, but it was his unbelievable stretch with the Knicks the following year that earned him the biggest paycheck of his career: a three-year, $25 million contract that came less than a year from his time on a D-League roster.

Rafer Alston – Anybody who used to watch And1 mix tapes back in the ‘90s knew all about Skip 2 My Lou long before he turned legitimate after a legendary stint as one of streeball’s most revered icons, but it took a little time (six games) playing for the Mobile Revelers in 2002-03 for him to convince NBA teams that he was ready for a real opportunity to play against the best players in the world. Alston had himself a strong NBA career, even earning time as a starter for some really good Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets teams. Interestingly enough, he bookended his career by finishing it as a member of the D-League’s L.A. D-Fenders, though by then he had nothing left to prove.

Chuck Hayes – It wasn’t an easy to start to an NBA career for Chuck Hayes, who owned the Portsmouth Invitation back in 2005 but still wasn’t drafted, and though Houston did agree to give him an opportunity they did so by immediately sending him to the D-League, where he got quite a bit of experience as a member of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds. Eventually, Hayes got his shot with the Rockets and has remained a contributing member of NBA rosters ever since.

Gerald Green – Everybody knows Gerald Green for his dunking, but later in his career he proved that he was more than just a springy athlete. Following a brief stint in Russia between 2009 and 2011, Green returned to the States to take a job with the L.A. Lakers, who promptly cut him days before the season was to begin. So Green signed on with the L.A. D-Fenders to stay sharp while he gave the NBA another try, and the 2012 season in New Jersey that followed was pretty easily the most promising and entertaining of his career. He turned that lone D-League season into the best paycheck of his life, and he hasn’t been back to the D-League since.

Chris Andersen – As a member of the Fayetteville Patriots for three games during the D-League’s inaugural season, Birdman wasn’t exactly an NBDL mainstay who spent years toiling for his opportunity to play in the NBA. He got his shot pretty quickly, but that doesn’t change the fact that it took a showcasing on that level to earn an opportunity on the next one.

C.J. Watson – As a career backup NBA point guard, Watson has made himself a pretty nice living, even though the Orlando Magic will be his fifth team in eight seasons. He got his start with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2007, however, where he averaged 26.3 PPG and 5.8 APG in 16 appearances.

J.J. Barea – While he hasn’t quite been able to match the magic he mustered in the 2011 NBA Finals in the few years since earning his championship ring, Barea has proven to be a heady little spark plug of an NBA point guard for going on a decade. Once upon a time, however, he started as a member of the Fort Worth Flyers, for whom he played only eight games. In those eight games he topped 40 points scoring twice, which shows why his stay in the NBDL wasn’t a long one.

Ramon Sessions – Now that Sessions is a regularly-contributing member of a burgeoning NBA team, it’s hard to remember the time when pundits weren’t sure if he’d ever make it as a pro. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, sent him to the D-League for seasoning almost immediately after drafting him, but Sessions put on a show in the NBDL, averaging 30.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 5.0 APG in his first full week playing for the Tulsa 66ers. He of course was named D-League Performer of the Week, a feat which he’d repeat later in the season before getting the call to move back up to the Bucks.

There are, of course, many other respectable NBA players that have spent time in the D-League, but these are the best of those that earned their first real crack at NBA success following a strong showing in the NBDL. Whiteside is the most recent burgeoning stud from developmental pedigree, but it’s only a matter of time before one even better than him comes forth and makes it so those 11 teams without a one-to-one D-League team feel obliged to have the same minor league convenience that the other 19 have.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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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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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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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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