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NBA PM: Has a Prudent, Patient Phil Jackson Righted the Knicks Ship?

Despite not making a splashy signing, it appears the Knicks are finally heading in the right direction…

Tommy Beer

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Phil Jackson’s first year captaining the Knicks’ ship was far from pleasant. Choppy waters worsened into a perfect storm of inefficiency, injuries and ineptitude.

However, based on what we have seen over the last few weeks, spanning from the draft on June 25th through the first day free agents can officially sign with their new teams on July 9th, has Jackson successfully navigated the Knicks out of harm’s way? Is there now smoother sailing ahead?

******

Last summer, making his first franchise-defining decision as team president, Jackson decided to offer a $124 million contract to Carmelo Anthony, which included a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season, and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Even before Anthony underwent season-ending surgery in February, it was a questionable choice, considering no other NBA team could offer ‘Melo more than $96 million.

In addition, just a day before the 2014 Draft last June, Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler (and his expiring contract) and Raymond Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and two second-round selections.

Calderon had three years and $22.2 million left on his deal at the time. The trade was made before Jackson knew the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign would go up in flames. However, Calderon struggled mightily, as injuries and inefficiency greatly limited his effectiveness.

As we know, the Knicks would go on to lose 65 games, completing the single worst season in the franchise’s history.

However, the upshot was the Knicks would be rewarded with a high lottery pick. They would also have upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this summer.

Phil would have a great opportunity to right the ship after it that had drifted way off course.

The question was: Would Jackson feel pressure to immediately restore respectability to an embarrassed organization?

Phil will be 70 years old by the time next season rolls around. His reputation as an executive was on the line, according to the tabloids in Gotham. Would he be willing to be practice patience and attempt to slowly but surely rebuild the franchise the right way? Or might he be tempted to take short cuts in hopes of instantly putting a presentable (if ultimately unsuccessful) product on the floor.

In other words, after investing in Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon last summer, would Jackson be willing to reverse course and build towards the future, as opposed to searching for quick fixes in an attempt to sneak into playoffs as 7th or 8th seed?

At the start of the offseason, the answer was still a mystery. Despite a spate of interviews to print outlets and radio programs, the cryptic Jackson wasn’t tipping his hand.

Jackson and the Knicks caught a bad break in the draft lottery when they dropped to No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the top tier of talent in this draft was only three deep, according to most analysts. After Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor went off the board in succession, the Knicks were forced to choose from a handful of promising players with a mix of enticing upside and worrisome question marks.

The Knicks ended up selecting largely unknown but highly-touted Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis. While the pick is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player – the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. He needs to improve his low-block ability, but has the foundations of a solid post-up game. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at seven feet, three inches. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential.

The selection of Porzingis was also encouraging because it seemed to indicate that Jackson was thinking long-term. He wasn’t dead set on selecting a less risky, more established player (such as Justise Winslow), who was a safer bet and would provide immediate returns, but did not have the same upside as Porzingis. In addition, Phil decided not to trade the pick to move down in the draft while also acquiring a young veteran that would help the Knicks next season. Phil only has four years left on his contract. There’s a very good chance that he won’t even be in New York if and when Porzingis develops into the player Phil and Knicks fans hope he will be.

However, the Knicks draft did not end there. An hour or so after selecting Porzingis, Jackson did a masterful job getting back into the first round by trading the one-dimensional Tim Hardaway Jr. for the No. 19 overall selection, which he used to select point guard Jerian Grant from Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4″ with a 6’7.5” wingspan) and athletic (exhibit A) guard that should be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a superb scorer, he is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. In college, Grant dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined.

Phil’s final move on draft night was acquiring the draft rights of the 35th overall pick, Guillermo Hernangomez, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hernangomez is a smart, aggressive 6’11” center from Spain (and a teammate of Porzingis). Heading into the 2015 draft, there were rumors that several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, were considering selecting him towards the end of the first round. The Knicks will likely stash Hernangomez overseas for a season or two, in order for him to gain some seasoning and keep his salary off the books until he is ready to contribute on the NBA level.

Based on the draft, it appeared Phil was content eschew a quick fix, and instead look farther down the road.

Still, free agency would begin the very next week, and would obviously have a major impact on both the Knicks short and long-term future.

*****

Some Knicks fans will complain that Phil wasn’t able to land a big fish such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, or LaMarcus Aldridge. But those expectations were unreasonable. Simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure the cream of the free agent crop. Fans in both New York and Los Angeles can attest to this fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals. Kevin Durant plays for a team in Oklahoma. LeBron James is based out of Ohio. Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, David West, Greg Monroe and Aldridge being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which team gave them the greatest chance to win big.

Some frustrated Knicks fans were upset because the Knicks didn’t hit a grand slam this summer. However, this Knicks also didn’t strike out. Better yet, they avoided grounding into a double play.

At the start of the process, the worst case scenario for the Knicks during this free agency period was not failing to sign a single big name free agent. No, the worst case scenario would have been overpaying for marginal talent and locking up their cap space for years to come.

The understandable fear from some forward-thinking Knicks fans was that Phil would compound last summer’s mistake by going “all in” and attempting to skips steps in the rebuilding process. A focus on an immediately return to relevancy, while it may have added a few more wins to their 2015-16 record, would have likely (ultimately) ended in disaster.

NBA history lessons have taught us that it’s nearly impossible to cheat the rebuilding process. The least desirable place to be in this league is on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the 8th seed with an aging “win now” roster.

The Knicks weren’t able to land a true difference-maker this summer, but they were able to add solid rotation pieces, while also maintaining cap space and roster flexibility going forward.

*****

Last month, there were published reports that Arron Afflalo was looking to get between $36 and $38 million over three years. That would have been too much to pay for Afflalo, who was coming off an awful season. However, it appears the Knicks will sign him to a two-year deal for $16 million, with a player option on that second season. (It is important to note that no contracts have been signed and that no deal can become official until the league-wide moratorium is lifted on July 9th). Taken in context of the market, when DeMarre Carroll and Wes Matthews will ink deals for approximately four years and $60 million, the Afflalo contract certainly seems reasonable considering his previously exhibited production and skill set.

In addition, Afflalo may become a valuable trade chip for the Knicks at the 2016 trade deadline, especially if he proves he is healthy and shows he can still produce. Remember, just four months ago (February, 19th 2015), he was traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers in exchange for a future first rounder.

The Knicks big ticket item was Robin Lopez, who will reportedly sign a four-year, $54 million contract later this week. Some fans were disappointed NY didn’t land Greg Monroe, but Lopez might actually be a better fit along the Knicks frontline. $13 million per year is a lot to pay for a player who has averaged 10 points and seven rebounds over the last three seasons, but, again, the market for starting-caliber centers had already been established.

The other positive to take away from the Lopez signing is that it’s an indication Phil Jackson and company will put an emphasis on defense. The Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency basically since the day Jeff Van Gundy skipped town back in December of 2001. Year after year, the NBA’s elite teams and championship contenders are those teams that defend well on a consistent basis. The proof is in the pudding: The last 14 (and 19 of the last 20) NBA champions have all finished in the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency.

The Knicks pursuit of Derrick Williams seems odd because Williams has been a major disappointment since being selected second overall in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s an impressive athlete with great physical tools, but has been relatively ineffective and inefficient on both ends of the floor at the pro level. Jackson and company must have seen something special in him and believe they can rejuvenate his career, considering they offered him $10 million over two seasons.

The Knicks best value signing of the summer will likely end up being Kyle O’Quinn. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-36 minutes thus far in his NBA career. The Knicks lack depth on the frontline, so he’ll see time backing up both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.

It sounds like O’Quinn will sign a four year deal for a total of $16 million. This is a smart gamble by Phil, as there is potentially a solid payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2016-17 season, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.

The offseason isn’t over, as the Knicks still have their $2.8 million room exception to spend, but the lion’s share of the cap space has been invested in the four players detailed above.

At this early stage, it would be a leap to heap praise on Phil for his work this summer. Just as it would be unfair to claim the Knicks offseason was a failure. The fact of the matter is that these were just the first few steps in a long and arduous rebuilding process.

Yet, it seems these baby steps have the Knicks heading in the right direction, which in and of itself, is encouraging.

Completing out baseball analogy from earlier, Phil hit a solid double this summer. He set the table for future acquisitions and improvements. This summer will generate some much needed momentum, which gives the organization an opportunity to build on that going forward.

Phil will also have flexibility, an incredibly valuable commodity. The Knicks will have only 5 players with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond the 2016-17 season (Anthony, Lopez, O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Grant). New York is also suddenly now flush with young, athletic players with varying levels of intriguing potential (Porzingis, Grant, Hernangomez, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Langston Galloway, Louis Labeyrie…).

*****

We will only be able to fairly and accurately grade the moves the Knicks made in the summer of 2015 once we see who they sign next July and the following summer. By that time, we should have a much better idea of exactly what kind of players Jerian Grant and Kristaps Porzingis will be. Might future free agents be impressed by the nucleus Jackson has assembled and be convinced the Knicks are on the verge of taking that next step?

Still, based on what we’ve seen from Phil Jackson and New York hierarchy these past few weeks, Knicks fans have reason to be slightly optimistic for the first time in a long time.

For 15 straight seasons, the Knicks organization has gone broke year after year chasing “get rich quick” schemes. Fortunately, it appears as though Phil Jackson is willing to patiently and prudently make sound investments that may allow the Knicks to eventually build a team capable of sustaining success.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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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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