The endeavor is as old as the game itself.
“Who’s the best player?”
It’s a question that is as difficult to answer as it is to best Stephen Curry in a three-point shootout. For me, the question of ranking players is most difficult because there is no specific metric or criteria to determine which player is “better” than another. Some would look at advanced statistics to determine how efficient a player is and compare them to others. But me? I think doing that unfairly penalizes a player who simply doesn’t have much around him. While efficiency certainly does play a role in how “good” a particular player is, I more determine a player’s value based on his ability to impact multiple facets of the game.
The difficult part about ranking players, generally, is the inability to easily compare players across positions. A center won’t be a dominant assist-maker, just as a point guard won’t usually provide superb rim protection.
Is Stephen Curry “better” than Chris Paul because of what Curry accomplished last season? Or is Paul better because he has been arguably the top point guard in the league for a sustained period? Are we sure that Anthony Davis is “better” than DeMarcus Cousins? Or should Davis have to continue his dominance for at least another year or two before he is anointed?
And finally, we must ask ourselves the age old question: What have you done for me lately? Or, more appropriately, perhaps, “What have you done for me lately, and does it matter?” In short, for our purposes, it does not. Our top 25 is based on what we expect from the ranked players this upcoming season, paying very little attention to what they have contributed in years past. Tim Duncan, based on this, deserves somewhat of a benefit of the doubt. As does Paul George… But does Derrick Rose? Probably not.
Tough to say…
But not as tough as ranking the NBA’s top 25 players for the 2015-16 season was.
Just Missed The Cut…
There are some that would consider Draymond Green to be a top 15 player in the NBA, so omitting him from our top 25 may seem asinine to some. While there is no denying that he was an integral cog in the Golden State Warriors becoming the 2015 NBA champions, we still can’t quite figure out whether he is a bonafide superstar in hiding like James Harden proved himself to be, or whether he is simply a player who has found the perfect situation for himself and his talents, perhaps the way Kawhi Leonard has in San Antonio or even the way Lamar Odom did while playing for Phil Jackson.
Derrick Rose, we hope, will eventually return to form and revert to the player that we saw become the league’s youngest Most Valuable Player in history back in 2011, but the simple truth is that it has been nearly five years since we saw the dominance of which we know he is capable.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are among the greatest players in history, but each has been on a slow descent over the past few years. And although we were thoroughly impressed with Paul Millsap’s production and poise over his years with the Atlanta Hawks, we’re not sure he’s even the best player on his own team.
Tier Six: Still Something to Prove
In some ways, it may be unfair to declare that Al Horford still has something to prove after helping to lead the Atlanta Hawks to the East’s top seed last season, but we expected more than 14.4 points per game over the course of their playoff run. Can he truly be the number one option on a contender? We don’t know, just like we don’t know that for Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love.
Unfortunately for Love, after recommitting to the Cleveland Cavaliers, we may never find out. Anthony, on the other hand, will have no such issue. One of the league’s most polarizing players, he can easily return to or near the top 10 if he manages to lead his New York Knicks back to the playoffs this season.
Tier Five: Legitimate Championship Pieces
Combined, there is a whopping 14 NBA Finals appearances among this group and nine championship rings. It then becomes rather obvious to anoint the group as “legitimate championship pieces,” but the title becomes more appropriate when we let it be known that we emphasize that they are pieces. Clearly, Tim Duncan is capable of carrying a team, even on his 39-year-old knees. But at this point, is he more than a supplementary piece? Will the other four ever be more than complementary pieces? We’re simply not sure, and that certainly makes a difference.
Tier Four: Still Plenty Left in the Tank
This past season, Marc Gasol joined rare company in putting together his most statistically productive season after turning 30 years old. Especially as it relates to centers, this is not often indicative of a wise financial commitment on the part of the signing team. In Gasol’s case, however, we tend to think that he will continue to be an exception, due mainly to the fact that he did not begin his NBA career until he was 24 years old. Aside from that, his usage and effectiveness have steadily increased over the course of his seven-year career.
Dwyane Wade, on the other hand, is seemingly on the downside of his career, but last season, he proved that he still has plenty left in the tank. Despite his Miami HEAT missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Wade scored 40 points multiple times last season after failing to do so a single time during the four years when he called LeBron James a teammate. As the HEAT’s odds of qualifying for the playoffs diminished, Wade’s effort increased. It was both admirable and eye-opening.
As for LaMarcus Aldridge, whether this is a fair standard or not, he was not able to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to being anything more than a team that made a cameo in the playoffs. At 30 years old, Aldridge opted to take his talents to San Antonio to attempt to re-open the championship window that seemed to close this past spring.
Tier Three: Sky Is The Limit
14. Jimmy Butler (SG, Chicago Bulls)
13. Paul George (SF, Indiana Pacers)
12. Damian Lillard (PG, Portland Trail Blazers)
11. John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards)
10. Kyrie Irving (PG, Cleveland Cavaliers)
9. DeMarcus Cousins (C, Sacramento Kings)
Jimmy Butler became a household name over the course of last season after proving himself to be a plus-contributor capable of impacting both ends of the floor on a day-to-day basis. John Wall, to his credit, has made the questions about his work ethic and his desire to be great a distant memory. Wall can legitimately claim to be the second best facilitator in the league behind Chris Paul, especially now that he has mastered playing the game at multiple speeds and operating either at a breakneck pace or from a half court set.
Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving, quite simply, have shown so much, so quickly that both have been deemed “untouchable” by their respective franchises. Especially as it relates to Irving, when he is at full strength, he is capable of the dominance that was on full display during Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
For Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins, though, the injuries are slightly different.
George is just one year removed from being anointed as the next great player, but after missing the balance of the 2014-15 season with a horrific leg injury, the hope for him is that his reversion occurs at a faster clip than Derrick Rose’s. The primary reason for the discrepancy in their rankings is that, almost five years later, we are still waiting for Rose. George, on the other hand, still gets the benefit of the doubt, especially since he would likely be a top six player if he were 100 percent healthy.
Cousins, on the other hand, is probably a top five talent. As far as his game goes, he has no discernible weakness and is one of the few centers capable of a points, rebounds, assists triple-double. The mental aspect of his game, however, leaves something to be desired.
Regardless, with the third tier, the potential—even for those that have a little more wear on their tires—is too great to look past. That is true both for their teams and for the purposes of our rankings.
Tier Two: The Untouchables
8. Chris Paul (PG, Los Angeles Clippers)
7. James Harden (SG, Houston Rockets)
6. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers)
5. Russell Westbrook (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder)
4. Stephen Curry (PG, Golden State Warriors)
Without question, this past season we saw tremendous growth on the part of everyone in this tier not named Chris Paul. What James Harden helped the Houston Rockets do, despite missing Dwight Howard for 41 games was tremendous. He has easily become one of those players whose flaws are well known and well documented but almost ignored because he makes up for it. Think Allen Iverson and, at a time, Dirk Nowitzki.
In helping to oust the San Antonio Spurs this past spring, Blake Griffin became the dominant low-post player and assertive superstar that everyone around him has known he could be. If that was a sign of what lies in store for the 26-year-old, with their added firepower, the Los Angeles Clippers may surprise the entire Western Conference this coming season. That is, of course, so long as Chris Paul continues to hang on. For my money, Paul is still the best floor general in the NBA, and despite his mistakes and shortcomings, Doc Rivers is fully married and committed to him, and for good reason.
We originally ranked Russell Westbrook ahead of Stephen Curry. Westbrook turned in 11 triple doubles during the 2014-15 season and had another five games where he missed a triple-double by one assist and/or rebound. That type of dominance is seldom seen in today’s NBA, but more importantly, it is indicative of Westbrook understanding how to control a game and use his gifts to benefit his teammates. Still, it was too difficult to overlook the fact that Curry capably led his Warriors to the championship and rightfully proved himself to be the greatest shooter in NBA history. Flip a coin if you must, but there’s no question that these two round out the top five.
Tier One: The Trans-Generationals
There are All-Stars, there are perennial All-Stars and there are All-NBA players. Every so often, though, we are blessed with the good fortune to witness the players that future generations will talk about the same way that this generation discusses the previous feats accomplished by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
While it does seem a bit premature to put Davis in such a category, we would again remind the masses that there is a certain amount of projecting that goes into these rankings. Davis’ ascent to superstardom is especially scary considering that he is only 22 years old and managed to score 24.4 points per game last season on 53 percent shooting from the field. Without even mentioning his 10.2 rebounds per game, 2.9 blocks per game or his ability to create plays of the dribble the way Kevin Garnett once did, we’ll simply ask you if you knew that he added 12 pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason and improved his three-point shot. Scary.
Davis’ bulking up, while scary, is not as scary as Kevin Durant’s right foot woes. While there is a certain amount of uncertainty revolving around his long-term health, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and look forward to him joining Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players in NBA history to average 35 points per game over the course of an entire season. And here’s the thing: you know he can do it if his health permits. That is a major part of why he still has all of his upside and luster.
As for LeBron James, at this point, what more do you want? A few more championship rings would be nice, sure. Still, even without them, James has already solidified a place as being one of the, at worst, top 15 players in NBA history.
* * * * *
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Is Kobe Bryant still a top 25 player?
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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