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Porzingis Alters Knicks’ Free Agency Focus

The emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has altered the New York Knicks’ approach to free agency.

Tommy Beer

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Back in June of 2015, before New York Knicks fans were forced to come to terms with a harsh reality, hopes in New York were sky high. For the first time in a very long time, the Knicks were well under the salary cap, allowing them to be major players in the 2015 free agency bonanza.

Coming off their worst season in franchise history, New Yorkers were optimistically hoping that nearly $30 million in cap space would enable the Knicks to rapidly rebuild their crumbling franchise. With Phil Jackson doing the recruiting, and the allure of the bright lights of Broadway beckoning, surely New York would be extremely appealing to the the majority of top-tier free agents, right?

Wrong.

The Knicks’ most pressing need heading into last offseason was adding a quality big man to a dangerously depleted frontline. Fortunately for New York, there was a plethora of top-tier, unrestricted power forwards and centers up for grabs. Yet, the cream of the crop never seriously considered taking the Knicks’ money. The best center available, Marc Gasol, re-signed with the Memphis Grizzlies without even meeting with Jackson. LaMarcus Aldridge landed with the San Antonio Spurs. Kevin Love re-upped with the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeAndre Jordan (after a brief detour to Dallas) ended up back with the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Millsap decided to stay with the Atlanta Hawks. Greg Monroe, whom many had prognosticated was highly likely to sign with the Knicks, ended up choosing the Milwaukee Bucks instead.

The Knicks eventually rounded out their frontcourt by adding Robin Lopez (four-year, $54 million contract), Kyle O’Quinn (four-year, $16 million contract), Derrick Williams (two-year, $10 million contract) and Kevin Seraphin (one-year, $2.8 million contract). O’Quinn has been a bit of disappointment thus far. Williams has been a relatively pleasant surprise, exceeding expectations of many who thought New York overpaid. Seraphin has been buried on the bench. Lopez, to the surprise of nobody, has been impressively solid.

Still, Knicks fans were disheartened by the fact that Jackson was forced to “settle” for a solid veteran such as Lopez after the elite stars rejected the Knicks advances, seemingly without even giving the Knicks so much as a second thought.

It was a harsh way to learn a valuable lesson.

At one point in the not so distant past, having the good fortunate of being located in a city such as New York often tilted the playing field when it came to attracting superstars. Nowadays, simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure in the most sought after targets. Knicks and Lakers fans can attest to this proven 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.

Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, Aldridge, Monroe and David West being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which organization has the most attractive foundation in place, thus giving them the greatest chance to win big.

The Knicks, coming off a season in which they were arguably the worst team in the entire league, were anything but alluring.

The good news for Knicks fans is that (due to the enormous pending spike in the salary cap) Jackson and company will once again have cap space to spend this summer. Depending on whether current Knicks Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo decide to opt out of their current current contracts, New York will be looking at somewhere between approximately $20 million and $30 million to spend on free agents.

Still, based on the somber situation New York found itself in last July, Knicks fans should anticipate another discouraging and anticlimactic offseason, right?

Wrong.

Things have changed in NYC. The future of the Knicks has been altered dramatically, in large part because of one person.

The arrival and emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has resulted in a monumental directional shift in the present and future of the organization.

Knicks executives no longer have to rely on futilely attempting to sell players solely on the virtues of living in New York City and playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Future free agents will now be enticed to consider the Knicks because they would then be able to play alongside the world’s most famous and uniquely talented 7’3 forward/center.

We know about the consternation that consumed New York once the Knicks lost the draft lottery last May and dropped to fourth overall, which meant they would lose out on the opportunity to draft one of the only three “sure-fire” future stars available in the 2015 draft (Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor). We know all too well about the boos that greeted Porzingis after Commissioner Adam Silver called his name. Yet this pessimistic prologue only makes Porzingis’ rapid rise to fan-favorite status all the more remarkable.

To say that the rookie big man has simply exceeded expectations is obviously an understatement. Porzingis hasn’t just been good, or “good for a rookie.” Not only do his teammates sing his praises on a daily basis, but rival coaches, players and executives across the country rave about the kid at each stop the Knicks make on the road.

Porzingis currently ranks third among all rookies in points (13.9), second in rebounds (8.0), first in blocks (2.0), first in free-throw percentage (86 percent) and second in double-doubles (15).

His versatile skill set is remarkably unique, even in a league chock full of freakish athletes. Consider this: There is currently only one player in the league this season who has blocked more than 80 shots and knocked down more than 40 three-pointers. That player is Kristaps Porzingis.

There are plenty of other extraordinary stats that could be used to highlight his early-season success; however, it’s not simply the mind-boggling numbers that stand out when discussing Porzingis. It could be argued that the most amazing aspect of his first three months as an NBA player is the way he’s handled the sudden flood of fame and adulation. Considering he’s a 20-year-old kid from Latvia, it’s almost inconceivable how well he’s dealt with the crush from local and national media alike. Somehow, he carries himself with incredible confidence on the court, yet remains remarkably humble once he steps off the floor.

And he’s only getting better, and bigger. Both his game and his frame are still growing.

The scary reality is that if Porzingis was playing this well two years from now, when he was just 22 years old, he’d still be considered way ahead of schedule. The phrase “the sky’s the limit” is an overused cliche, but in this case it actually rings true. His upside is not simply All-Star level, it’s All-NBA level.

And, tangentially, because of Porzingis, the Knicks’ future is brighter than it’s been in a very, very long time.

MeloKP1Playing alongside one of the most intriguing young big men to come into the league in some time will surely change the way future free agents view the Knicks. He’s a big man who can stretch the floor and create space, finish alley-oops in traffic and erase defensive mistakes at the basket. That’s the kind of individual other great players want to run with.

Furthermore, Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced Porzingis as a “little brother,” is enjoying a renaissance and is currently playing some of the best, most unselfish, well-rounded basketball of his career. Joining the tag-team of Porzingis and Anthony will be an enticing proposition.

The Knicks’ biggest need heading into the 2016 offseason will be upgrading the point guard position. Jose Calderon, while providing valuable veteran leadership, is simply not a starting-caliber NBA point guard. Although Calderon is still relatively effective on the offensive end, he is an absolute sieve defensively. Rookie Jerian Grant has shown flashes here and there, but he’s no where near consistent enough to be relied on as the undisputed point guard of the present or future.

In today’s NBA, having a top-level point guard who can break down defenses by penetrating into the paint to score and creating opportunities for others – as well as being able to defend other quality point guards – is imperative.

If the Knicks are able to add an elite point guard to their current nucleus, they would have a legit chance to push into the postseason and make some noise in the Eastern Conference.

The best point guard on the market in 2016 will be Mike Conley. Currently 28 years old, Conley has spent his entire career with the Grizzlies. He doesn’t get much national attention, likely because he flies under the radar down in Memphis, but he’s widely considered one of the more underrated floor generals in the NBA. He posted his best statistical season in 2013-14, when he finished the year as one of just six players to average at least 17 points and six assists while shooting at least 45 percent from the floor (the other five players in that club were Steph Curry, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and James Harden). And despite a nagging foot injury, Conley has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the last six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons.

When Conley officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, it’s safe to assume the Knicks will have interest. Conley will seek max or at least near-max money, and considering the shifting financial landscape of the NBA (so many teams with excessive cap space and many others needing to spend money to hit the rising salary floor), he’ll get it from someone. From a Knicks perspective, he seems to check all the boxes: a savvy point guard who is both efficient offensively and solid defensively. He has posted a PER north of 18 in four straight seasons. In contrast, the Knicks have had only one point guard with a PER greater than 18 in the last 25 years (Stephon Marbury).

However, here’s where things get interesting.

If the Knicks fork over $90+ million to Conley this summer, they are obviously making a long-term commitment. This is important not only because of the financial investment it entails, but also opportunity cost. It would mean the Knicks wouldn’t be able to shop for a point guard the following summer, when arguably the three best point guards in the NBA will likely all hit the free agent market at the same time.

Russell Westbrook’s contract expires following the 2016-17 season. Ditto for Steph Curry. Chris Paul has a player option in his contract that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, as well.

Obviously, the odds of landing any of those three superstars are low. However, unlike last summer, the Knicks are now holding an ace of their own and will be able to ante up at the big boy table.

Would the uber-talented (yet temperamental) Westbrook contemplate re-locating to NYC? Considering he’s developed his own major clothing line, would he prefer to live and play so close to the 5th Avenue and the Fashion District in Manhattan?

It would certainly be surprising, if not shocking, to see Curry leave a great situation in Golden State to move across the country, but obviously a lot can change over the next 16 months.

Paul would seem to be the most realistic target. It’s common knowledge that he’s very good friends with Anthony. At Carmelo’s wedding in 2010, CP3 toasted to them eventually uniting as teammates.

However, would a 33-year-old Chris Paul be a major upgrade over a 30-year-old Mike Conley?

There is one other All-Star-caliber point guard likely to hit free agency in 2017. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry also has a player option to become a free agent as well. He would be another interesting option to consider at that point.

The summer of 2017 obviously seems like the distant future right now, but the decisions made this summer will have a direct impact on what New York can do going forward.

Furthermore, it’s unknown if Conley would be willing to even entertain signing with the Knicks. However, it’s obviously not just Conley or bust for New York in the summer of 2016. There are a handful of other point guard options (Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings and the restricted Jordan Clarkson to name just a few). And of course the Knicks are not obligated to use the lion’s share of their cap space on a playmaker, especially since Jose Calderon has another year at over $7 million left on his contract.

Still, at some point Jackson and Steve Mills will have to decide what direction they want to take the franchise. What will be their primary focus? Is the goal to maximize Anthony’s dwindling prime? That would mean adopting a win-now approach – zeroing in on players who complement ‘Melo’s game in an attempt to build a team that gives them the best chance of winning next season, even at the possible detriment of the long-term salary cap situation.

Or will Phil and company come to the conclusion that the best chance the Knicks have to eventually become a legitimate contender (as opposed to merely a playoff participant) several years in the future and focus on that? Will they build with several years down the road in mind, when Porzingis eventually inherits the responsibility of being the face of the franchise and the team’s best and most important player? If the Knicks embrace that philosophy, it may necessitate sacrificing in the short-term, in order to build the best possible foundation around Porzingis, which ideally would result in sustained, long-term success.

Or, will the Knicks attempt to somehow find a middle road and try to blend both approaches?

These are important questions Phil Jackson is going to have to answer sooner rather than later.

If Conley is interested, do they make a full-court press? Does New York use all of their cap space in 2016 to round out their roster with players who provide immediate bang for their buck? Or, do the Knicks get greedy and take a risk, holding out hope they can land a franchise-changing point guard the following summer?

Prior to the arrival and emergence of Porzingis, it would have been preposterous to say that New York had even an outside shot at signing a superstar such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul via free agency. But the Knicks no longer have to rely on the bright lights of Broadway and the Big City as their major selling point. Kristaps Porzingis is now the beacon that will hopefully attracts other stars into New York’s orbit.

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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