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Washington Wizards 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Washington Wizards.

Basketball Insiders

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After flirting with 50 wins and coming within two victories of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2015, the Washington Wizards surprisingly crashed back to earth last season. They struggled to post a .500 record and missed the playoffs entirely.

The disappointing results led to the ouster of head coach Randy Wittman, who had three .500 campaigns in four full seasons with Washington. As they try to right the ship, the Wizards turn to former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, who sports an impressive coaching resume that includes a trip to the NBA Finals in 2012.

But adding Brooks wasn’t the Wizards’ only offseason move. This summer, shooting guard Bradley Beal inked a five-year, $128 million deal that makes him the highest-paid player on the roster. There’s no denying that Beal has an impressive skill set, but the move was risky since he has missed the equivalent of a full NBA season over his four campaigns as a pro due to an assortment of injuries.

Still, any hope of the Wizards bouncing back this season starts with All-Star guard John Wall, who posted career highs in scoring (19.9) and assists (10.2) in 2016.

There’s no doubt that the Wizards have the necessary talent to return to the playoffs, but they must stay healthy and adjust to Coach Brooks’ new system.

Basketball Insiders previews the Washington Wizards’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It made all the sense in the world when it was revealed, over the summer, that John Wall and Bradley Beal don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. Last season, the Wizards were right up there with the New Orleans Pelicans among the most disappointing teams in the entire league. On paper, it appeared that, even without the departed Paul Pierce, the Wizards would have enough talent to compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they failed to even qualify for the playoffs. Not surprisingly, Randy Wittman was shown the door and now Scott Brooks will attempt to recapture the success he experienced with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with Beal and Wall.

I absolutely love the acquisition of Trey Burke. He should immediately solve the Wizards’ backup point guard problem and also provide some insurance should Beal get hurt. Marcus Thornton will provide some firepower off the bench and Ian Mahinmi will deservedly get rotation minutes with the opportunity of being a plus. Despite what transpired last season with the Wizards, I’m still a big believer in their talent and am picking them to win the Southeast. Every other team in the division has experienced substantial loss, while they seem to have had some nice gains.

1st Place – Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

Not everybody is a believer in the Wizards, but the Southeast is wide open this season and it’s hard to bet against the best individual player in that division in John Wall. A lot of Washington’s success this year will depend not just on how well Wall plays, but on how healthy Brad Beal can be and how much progress Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Trey Burke can make. The frontcourt is a little hard to believe in with Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris, Andrew Nicholson and Marcin Gortat likely to hold down the biggest minutes, but Wall and Beal are enough in a weak Southeast to give the Wizards a tremendous opportunity to finish near the top of the standings. While not elite, the Wizards could be one of the East’s top five or six teams, though as always with this group health is everything.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

The Wizards’ biggest move of the offseason was hiring new head coach Scott Brooks and he should be a good fit with this talented up-and-coming group. Brooks had so much success in Oklahoma City because he was good at developing emerging stars, instilled a winning culture and built strong relationships with his team as a players’ coach. Washington is looking for him to do those exact same things, and I think John Wall and Bradley Beal will benefit from his arrival. As others have mentioned, health is always the big question mark when it comes to this group (particularly with Beal), but the potential is there for Washington to turn things around and return to the postseason.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The 2015-16 campaign marked the third-straight season point guard John Wall was selected to the All-Star game. But the difference between last season and the previous two was the fact that the Wizards slid out of playoff contention. Part of the reason for Washington’s fall from grace was Bradley Beal’s injuries, which limited him to just 55 games. For the Wizards to right the ship, they’ll need Beal to produce in this upcoming bounce-back campaign. The Wizards didn’t pull off any headline-grabbing deals in free agency or trade this past summer, so they’re looking to organically improve. To do so, they’ll need the Beal-Wall backcourt to play at an elite level, together, for at least 70 games.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

The Wizards will only go as far as their star backcourt will take them, which may be an issue considering John Wall and Bradley Beal have openly admitted to not seeing eye-to-eye on the court. Even more problematic is that Beal has been injury prone each season of his young career. Don’t get me wrong, I think very highly of Wall and Beal despite the noted concerns, but there isn’t a ton of talent behind them either. The Wizards lost a lot of experienced veterans this offseason, such as Jared Dudley, Nenê, Ramon Sessions and Garrett Temple – though they did bring in some quality players like Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith. At the end of the day, this looks like a roster that was banking on adding a superstar (Kevin Durant) in free agency and had to go to Plan B once that didn’t happen. The best thing going for the Wizards this offseason is the hiring of new head coach Scott Brooks. Brooks proved he can lead a young squad from his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, so perhaps he can work some of that same magic in Washington. Still, even a masterful coaching job by Brooks only takes this team so far this upcoming season considering they simply don’t have the same level of talent as teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or several of the Western Conference teams.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Wall is the Wizards’ best overall player and he’s capable of scoring 20-plus points on any given night, but Beal has all of the tools to become the Wizards’ leading scorer – if he can stay healthy. In Beal’s first 17 games last season, he averaged 19.8 points in 37 minutes per contest before being limited by a minute restriction in January and February. Overall, Beal set career-highs in points (17.4) and field goal percentage (44.9 percent) last season and flashed the potential to take on a larger load in the team’s offensive duties. In order for Washington to take the next step forward, the team will need its highest-paid player to take some of the offensive pressure off Wall.

Top Defensive Player: John Wall

While you can make a case for forward Otto Porter or newly signed center Ian Mahinmi in this space, the Wizards’ best defender is Wall. The veteran point guard earned a Second Team All-Defensive nod back in 2015. Porter is developing into a decent 3-and-D guy, but he was often overpowered by opposing wings last season and at times wildly inconsistent defensively. Mahinmi, on the other hand, has earned a reputation as a solid paint protector, but he figures to serve as a backup to center Marcin Gortat so his minutes and opportunity may be limited. In many ways, the Wizards’ success depends on Wall’s production on both ends of the floor. Last season, Wall ranked 15th among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The Wizards have earned their chops the past few seasons playing solid team defense and this year will be no different.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Wall has averaged double digits in assists in back to back seasons and there’s no reason why that won’t continue for a third straight year in the 2016-17 campaign. Outside of his injury-plagued 2014 season, Wall has finished in the top 10 in total assists in each of his pro seasons. If Beal can stay healthy and reduce some of the offensive pressure facing Wall on a nightly basis, the All-Star guard might be ready to make a run at the league’s assist title (he finished third in 2016).

Top Clutch Player: John Wall

Yes, Wall has dominated this list, but the All-Star is simply the heart and soul of the Wizards’ organization. In order for the franchise to join the upper echelon of the league, Wall must continue strapping the team to his back. This is especially true in clutch situations, where the talented guard is entrusted to deliver on a nightly basis. There are players, such as Beal, who could emerge in this capacity, but until those pieces are ready to take the jump, the clutch role is Wall’s and Wall’s alone.

The Unheralded Player: Marcin Gortat

Gortat routinely throws a wrench into the narrative that there are no reliable “true” centers left in today’s game. Over the past six seasons, Gortat has been a walking double-double during stints with Phoenix and Washington, averaging at least 10 points and eight rebounds in every campaign during this span. The Wizards have been decimated by injuries in years past, but since arriving to the team three seasons ago, Gortat has missed just eight games. The veteran center has produced steady production for a franchise that has been plagued by inconsistency and he rarely, if ever, enters in the All-Star discussion.

Top New Addition: Tomas Satoransky

By bringing in role players such as Trey Burke, Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith, the Wizards didn’t exactly go out and make any splashy moves that generated headlines this summer. But there is a bit of buzz surrounding the arrival of Tomas Satoransky, the team’s 2012 second-round pick who has been developing his game overseas. Satoransky, 24, has been playing professionally since 2007 in Liga ACB and Euroleague. The 6’7 “rookie” has spent time at both guard positions overseas and should provide immediate depth behind Beal and Wall in the backcourt, with a slightly shorter learning curve than most rookies.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Markieff Morris

If the last five games of the 2016 campaign are any indication of things to come from Morris, then the Wizards are going to experience significant internal growth next season. Morris averaged 17.6 points and 6.6 rebounds on 47 percent shooting from the floor during this span and demonstrated all of the reasons why Phoenix was a bit hesitant to deal him at last season’s trade deadline. Remember, Morris is just one season removed from averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds with the Suns, who viewed him as an integral part of their retooling efforts. However, friction developed between the two parties, leading to the deal that brought the veteran to the nation’s capital. The Wizards have a roster full of role players behind Beal and Wall, but Morris could legitimately make a run at being the team’s third-leading scorer this season.

  1. Kelly Oubre

There aren’t many 20-year-olds coming off a season averaging just 3.7 points in less than 11 minutes of action per night that will make these kinds of lists, but Oubre is intriguing. In nine games as a starter last season, Oubre averaged 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting from three-point range. Not impressed yet? In the 12 games in which the youngster received at least 20 minutes of action as a rookie, he averaged an impressive 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds on 47 percent from three-point land. With fellow forward Otto Porter set to hit free agency next summer, you better believe the franchise is taking a long and hard look at Oubre’s development before shelling out top dollar for someone occupying the same position.

 

  1. Scott Brooks

Where do you stand on Brooks’ effectiveness as a head coach? Chances are your views will be firmly entrenched on the far side of either spectrum – positive or negative. Just by reviewing the results, Brooks amassed a whopping 62 percent win percentage in roughly seven seasons as a head coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During this time period, Brook led the Thunder to five playoff trips (39-34 record) and an NBA Finals appearance in 2012. Sounds good, right? Well, those on the other side of the spectrum believe Brooks’ success is slightly overstated because of the presence of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – two generational talents. The team also had James Harden, but he was traded following their Finals trip. There’s obviously a gift and a curse to leading elite talent, and the most celebrated coaches in NBA history have had the benefit of coaching star-studded teams. But in Washington, where talent is clearly abundant, Brooks will have a chance to turn around a highly inconsistent group. This is a very good opportunity for Brooks to emerge from the shadows cast by Durant and Westbrook, creating a new narrative for his own career.

  1. Trey Burke

The ongoing narrative is that the former lottery pick flamed out in Utah, transitioning a role as the team’s floor general of the future to an expendable asset this past summer. In Washington, Burke will get another chance to prove he belongs, but barring any major injuries, it will be in a limited backup role to Wall. But here’s the deal: Burke is headed to free agency next summer, so naturally there will be an added level of motivation to play well in order to become an attractive option on the market. Considering the Wizards were able to secure a guy with career averages of 12.1 points and 4.2 assists through three seasons as a pro for a 2021 second-round pick, we like the odds that this could potentially prove to be a highly rewarding trade off.

– Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards went below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, acquiring players like Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, Trey Burke and Tomas Satoransky.  After re-signing Bradley Beal, Washington has locked in at least $101.9 million in salary in 12 guaranteed players.  The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, and three roster spots – with four players fighting to make the team (Jarell Eddie, Daniel Ochefu, Danuel House and Sheldon McClellan).

The Wizards do not project to have room next summer, even with the cap expected to jump to $102 million.  The team has until the end of October to decide on the rookie-scale option for Kelly Oubre.  Both Otto Porter and Burke are eligible for extensions, with an Oct. 31 deadline.  While John Wall’s contract is eligible to be restructured and extended, the Wizards do not have the necessary cap room.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Talent wise, the Wizards arguably have a top five backcourt with Beal and Wall leading the charge. Beal has a sweet perimeter game, while the beauty in Wall’s skill set involves driving the lane and creating havoc for opposing defenses. Both guys are more than capable of putting up 20-plus points on any given night and neither player has reached his physical prime. As stated previously, Beal’s health over the years has limited the amount of court time the two have been able to share. But even with Beal’s extended absences, Wall is routinely near the top of the leaderboard in assists. Imagine if the two can play at least 70 games in the same lineup in 2016-17?

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Quick, name the offensive or defensive style you associate with the Wizards? One of the biggest weaknesses the Wizards have headed into training camp is their lack of a true team identity. The team won some games employing a small-ball approach last season, while in others they went big in order to grind out victories. Yes, the best teams are able to switch styles as needed to win, but there’s a difference between making in-game adjustments and not having a true calling card. This is an area that must be addressed.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Bradley Beal and John Wall co-exist? Is there legitimate friction between the duo?

Wall caused a bit of a stir in late August when he unleashed the following quote.

“I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right … as long as you come to each other and talk. If I start arguing with somebody I’m cool. I’m just playing basketball.

“Now that you have your money, you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star.  If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it’s going to be his night, one night it’s going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

The public acknowledgement from Wall about friction with Beal, his leading co-star, raised more than a few eyebrows. Athletes typically guard these type of relationship issues close so the revelation was stunning. But if you look at it from the flip side, it also shows maturity and a keen sense of awareness by Wall since he’s working toward improving the situation. How many times have we seen stars battling with each other and then after parting ways acknowledge that they should have stayed and worked things out?

What was missed by most in Wall’s quote was his stated desire to see Beal develop into an All-Star performer. Wall understands to win at a high level in today’s league, a co-star is needed so maybe – just maybe – his quote was to inspire change. It’s always risky taking things to the court of public opinion, but we’ll see if Wall’s calculated gamble ultimately pays off.

– Lang Greene

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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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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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