Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

Bottom half of the Western Conference

Posted: 10/18/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I wrote about the teams I expect to finish in playoff positions in the Western Conference yesterday. Today, I’m going to hit the rest of the Western Conference.

9. Utah Jazz (42-40): I was very, very close to picking the Jazz to finish ahead of the Blazers. You have to love the defense. This team was very stingy defensively last season, allowing the third-fewest points per possession. They used that to power them to a 51-31 season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Believe it or not, their defense may be even better this year. They replaced point guard George Hill, an average defender, with Ricky Rubio, one of the best (and peskiest) point guard defenders in the league. They also drafted athletic Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell in the first round. Mitchell was one of the best defenders in college basketball last season and has the length and talent to immediately be a solid NBA defender. And really, any team with Rudy Gobert anchoring a defense is going to be just fine. Gobert may not be the best defender in the league, but he’s right up there with Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Utah’s defense is going to be a force. The problem: how are they going to score? They were a pretty good offense last year — 12th in offensive efficiency — but lost their two leading scorers. It’s asking a lot to expect the talented but injury prone Rodney Hood to seamlessly replace Gordon Hayward’s (by the way, poor Gordon Hayward) scoring. And even if Hood does become a 20 point per game scorer, which is unlikely, who will be the secondary scorers that George Hill and Hood were last year? It’s not going to be Rubio. Gobert is who he is, which is not a tremendously refined offensive player. Joe Johnson still has his moments, but he won’t be a consistent scorer at his age. Everyone loves Joe Ingles now, because he hit 44% from three last year and because he’s going to replace Hayward in the starting lineup. But Ingles almost exclusively shoots from beyond the arc, and he’s never going to be a guy who can get a bucket himself. Mitchell? He’s impressed so far, but he’s a rookie who’s going to have a lot of rough patches. This is why I think Derrick Favors, the forgotten man, is so important. He’s one of the only players on the team — heck, besides the 36-year-old Johnson he may be the only one — who has shown the ability to score consistently. He averaged 16 points per game twice in a row before falling off a cliff in an injury-marred 2016-17 season. The problem is that Favors and Gobert may not be able to play effectively together on either end of the court. There’s a reason that Favors has been the subject of trade talk. Plus, Favors, like Hood, is coming off a season in which he played fewer than 60 games (50 for Favors, 59 for Hood). It’s just tough to consider a team with such offensive weakness as a playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. I do love coach Quin Snyder and the defense, though.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (39-43): As long as the Grizzlies have a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they’re going to be pretty good. They’ve had a positive net rating with those two on the court together forever. And it makes sense. Both of those players are really good! But there are a few holes in the “Conley and Gasol are going to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs for the eighth straight year” argument. First of all, being “pretty good” has been enough to get the Grizzlies 42-43 wins and a seven seed twice in a row. That may not be enough in the brutal 2017-18 Western Conference, which has not just elite teams but also much improved middle-of-the-pack teams. Second of all, Gasol has missed 40 games and Conley 39 over the past two seasons. They’re now both on the wrong side of 30-years-old. For a team with little margin of error, it’s not a good sign that those two have missed a substantial amount of time over these last few years. Third of all, any margin of error the Grizz had over the last few years is now gone, because their supporting cast just got a whole lot worse. Memphis lost Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, the two guys who encapsulated the Grizzlies’ grit-and-grind mantra. They lost Vince Carter, who at 40 is still remarkably effective. They also just cut 2016 first round pick Wade Baldwin, which, well, that’s not good. They lost Troy Daniels, a role player who was one of their best three point shooters. And their only major addition was Tyreke Evans, who has quickly transitioned from “empty stats guy” to “injury prone no stats guy.” The Grizzlies now have both Evans and Chandler Parsons, two players with a lot of talent who haven’t been good or healthy in a long time. And look at the starting lineup outside of Conley and Gasol: James Ennis, JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright. Not good. 39 wins may be high, but I have a lot of respect for Conley and Gasol.

11. New Orleans Pelicans (37-45): I’m granting the Pelicans 37 wins because they have Anthony Davis, one of the best players in the NBA. But this lineup makes zero sense. I don’t think it’s impossible to build a good team around Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But I know that the Pelicans did about as bad a job as possible to put the right pieces around Boogie and Brow. They have almost no shooting! They were forced to give injury prone point guard Jrue Holiday a huge extension largely because he’s one of the only players on the team who can shoot. This team finished 19th in the NBA in three point percentage last year, then added Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen, two guys who can’t shoot. Solomon Hill, one of the only players on the team who can shoot, tore his hamstring and may miss the whole season. And the few players — outside of Holiday — who can shoot (I’m talking about Jordan Crawford and E’Twuan Moore and maybe Ian Clark) can’t play a lick of defense. Davis and Cousins could work together, but you have to put the right pieces around them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cousins is dealt again at the deadline. The Pelicans have to do something to make their generational talent happy.

12. Sacramento Kings (32-50)
13. Dallas Mavericks (30-52)
14. Los Angeles Lakers (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

I’m sorry, but none of these teams is particularly interesting. I don’t think any of them are Bulls or Pacers level terrible, but none of them are anywhere near good enough to compete in the Western Conference. I expect these four to be pretty close together at the bottom of the conference for most of the season. The Lakers are getting the most hype of these four teams, because of course they are. But guess what? They kind of stink! Lonzo Ball might be good, but he’s not Magic Johnson! Kentavius Caldwell-Pope is meh, and only is in LA because he shares an agent with LeBron and the Lakers are already courting LeBron (shoot me now). I still think Brandon Ingram’s going to be good, but he’s not a plus player yet. Julius Randle is a classic empty stats guy. When’s the last time Brook Lopez has been a big contributor for a good team? Jordan Clarkson… please. If Kyle Kuzma leads this team to a playoff spot… I don’t even know what I’d do. It’s not going to happen. Same story for Sac-town, Dallas, and Phoenix. I think Sacramento may be the most fun team of the bunch. They signed George Hill and Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. All of those guys are fun veterans. They have Buddy Hield, a fun young player, and drafted De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson, both of whom have huge “fun young player” potential. I always forget which of their young Kentucky big men — Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein — is good, but I swear one of them might be good. It’s a nice mix of youth and experience. It’d be nicer if their young players and/or experienced players were better at basketball, but they’re good enough to be better than these other three teams. Dallas will be interesting to watch purely because they have Dennis Smith Jr., and Dennis Smith has the potential to shatter rookie usage rate records. They’re going to hand him the keys to the offense right away and let him lead them to a high pick. Phoenix is going to make a few trades, as I expect them to shop Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, and any other veteran another team may want. I think Devin Booker’s good, but I’m not as high on him as an all-around basketball player as some people are. On the other hand, I really like Josh Jackson, so that’s a reason to watch this team. By the way, Brandon Knight’s ACL tear sends the Suns back into a tie with the Kings for most active Kentucky players (3). Phoenix’s UK players are guards — Booker, Tyler Ulis, Bledsoe, Knight — while Sacramento replaced Cousins, who they traded, with Fox, their first round pick.

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The NBA season is starting tonight, which is a few weeks earlier than usual. The games tonight are Boston-Cleveland and Houston-Golden State, which also happen to be the most likely Eastern Conference Finals and Western Conference Finals. I’m going to start my season preview by going over the stacked Western Conference. The biggest quibble that I have with conventional narrative this season is that I think the notion of the West having a “Big Four” is very misleading. Are the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder the four best teams in the conference? Probably. But should those four teams be grouped together? No way. The Warriors are obviously in a class of their own, and the other three are much, much closer to the rest of the conference than they are to Golden State. Let me put it this way: assuming health, I think it’s more likely that the Spurs miss the playoffs than that they finish ahead of Golden State. Quite obviously, this conference is a lot deeper and more talented than the Eastern Conference. I think there are 10 legitimately good teams in the conference, and that doesn’t even include the Pelicans, who have Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The fight for the bottom few playoff seeds is going to be brutal. Here’s how I see things playing out, starting today with my projected playoff teams:

1. Golden State Warriors (72-10): It’s hard to say much about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said. They won 67 games last year, and that was while Kevin Durant was still ironing out the kinks (and then missing months due to injury). Now, KD is coming off of an incredible Finals performance, and he should have an added chip on his shoulder after the burner account saga (no, I don’t actually think that’ll have an impact, but it has to be in any conversation about KD at this point). To make matters worse for the rest of the conference, the Warriors actually got better this offseason. Not only did they hang onto Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but they also added Nick Young and Omri Casspi in free agency and stole Jordan Bell in the draft with a pick they bought from the Bulls. The scariest thing about this team is that, in addition to their four stars, the Warriors also have a ton of depth. Iguodala, Young, Casspi, Kawhi-slayer Zaza Pachulia, an improved Pat McCaw in his second season (the guy showed some real glimpses in the Finals), wily veteran David West, sparkplug Bell, etc… This team has no flaws. 72-10 may be pessimistic assuming relative health.

2. Houston Rockets (55-27): I’ve surprised myself by picking the Rockets to finish second, because I’m genuinely not sure if the Chris Paul-James Harden dynamic is going to work. Plus, I think it’s important to realize that Houston’s formula to win last season was unique and successful due almost entirely to Harden’s unbelievable season as the chief playmaker and ball-handler. If they had just rolled things back again, I would have predicted more wins. But the Paul move was the right one in terms of championship potential, which is all Kevin McHale cares about. Now, the Rockets can keep either Paul or Harden on the court at all times, and each playmaker should make the other’s life easier. Harden will obviously have to play off the ball more often, but he’s proven to be a terrific spot-up shooter in the past. And Paul is surprisingly one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA; he just hasn’t had a lot of those opportunities in the past. That should change this year. I’m interested to see whether the Rockets will change Paul’s game more or vice versa. Paul shoots from midrange more often and better than almost any NBA player; he finished 11th in the NBA in shots per game from 15-19 feet (3.8 per game) and was one of only three players out of 33 who hit more than one shot per game from that range who shot better than 50% from 15-19. As a team, the Rockets shot fewer than six shots from 15-19 feet per game, led by Harden at 1.1 (for those keeping score at home, that’s about 3.5 times fewer shots from that range than Paul). Houston’s 2016-17 strategy was to take a boatload of threes and as many shots at the rim as possible. While analytically sound, it arguably came back to bite them in the playoffs, when they went cold against a team that shot the most midrange shots in the NBA (the Spurs). I think adding Paul is a calculated attempt by the Rockets to vary not just their offensive weapons but also their strategy in close games. I think Paul and the Rockets can mesh, but it will take time. The reason I have Houston at #2 in the Western Conference is that they have more depth than the Thunder. Eric Gordon was the Sixth Man of the Year last year and can erupt for 30+ on any given night. Trevor Ariza remains a suitable small forward. Clint Capela should take a step forward this season, while P.J. Tucker should give the Rockets a 3-and-D guy off the bench. The team’s lack of a backup point guard, which was such a glaring weakness last year, has now been rendered moot because Harden or Paul will be the point guard for all 48 minutes. It’s definitely a very good team, but if forced to choose, I’d take the under on their over/under win total (56, per Bovada).

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (53-29): I really, really like OKC’s potential crunch-time five of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams. I wrote about the Thunder after the Carmelo Anthony trade, and everything I wrote there remains true now. I want to underline again that I think the new Big 3 will actually function very well together, largely because Westbrook will be happy to cut his usage rate down following his unprecedented MVP season. His usage rate was 40.8% last year, easily a career high. He can cut that down to 30-ish% — more in line with his career averages — and open up a ton of extra shots. That’s what I think people are missing: Westbrook’s usage was so astronomical last season that he doesn’t really have to take a backseat in order to get George and Anthony involved; he just needs to fall back from out of control to normal shoot-first point guard. George, I think, is the perfect yang to Westbrook’s yin. He’s a tremendous all-around player who shoots well off the catch, can defend the opponent’s best player, and doesn’t need too much of the ball. Anthony is the clear #3 option, but I think he’ll accept that, and he’s such a gifted scorer that he’ll still score plenty of points. I actually think this team probably has a rosier playoff outlook than Houston does, but because of their lack of depth (only six true reliable rotation players), I’m going to pick them to win fewer games.

4. San Antonio Spurs (51-31): I know people have been saying this for years, but I haven’t, and I’m saying it now: this could be the year that the Spurs really fall off. I’m predicting a significant drop-off from the 61 games they won last year to 50. It’s not a significantly different team than the one that won 61 games last season, which is kind of the problem. As the teams below them improved, they swung and missed in free agency. They thought they had a chance at Chris Paul, only to see him go to their chief competition in their division. They tried to trade LaMarcus Aldridge for players who would better fit their team, only to be forced to keep him and reluctantly give him an extension because he’s their second most talented player. They lost Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon, two effective and important role players. The only important player they added was Rudy Gay, who is the king of the empty stat-lines and is coming off of a torn Achilles’. In Aldridge and Gay, the Spurs now have two very un-Spurs players. Plus, Tony Parker is still rehabbing from a quad injury and is now 35. Manu Ginobili is 40. Danny Green has had two straight sub-40% shooting seasons from three after clearing 40% four straight times. Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray are both exciting guards, but neither has the potential to be a good starter, at least not yet in the case of Murray. And Pau Gasol is borderline unplayable against good teams who spread the floor. More and more, it looks like the Spurs are more reliant on Kawhi Leonard than any other team is on a single player. Kawhi Leonard is a heck of a player and a leading MVP candidate, but there are already some injury concerns. The Spurs absolutely cannot afford to lose Leonard for any significant period of time. With a healthy Kawhi, this is still a very good team and in the conversation for second-best in the conference. They also are the only team in the Western Conference who have caused problems for the Warriors over the past few years. With Kawhi, the floor is still high-40s and the ceiling is mid-50s. I’m going to assume some missed games from Leonard because he’s already banged up.

5. Denver Nuggets (47-35): I’m very bullish on this Nuggets team. I just think they have a chance to have a really efficient offense. Remember, this team finished fifth in offensive efficiency last season, thanks in large part to a breakout season from Nikola Jokic. They’re going to be even better this year. Offensively, Paul Millsap is a perfect fit next to Jokic. He’s another extremely skilled big, and the Nuggets now own the best ball-handling and passing 4-5 combination in the league (except when the Warriors go small, of course). Millsap can also stretch the floor. He’s not a particularly good three point shooter, but he’s a competent one, and he’s better from midrange. The best way to build around Millsap and Jokic is to have a team full of shooters and cutters. There’s a reason the Nuggets just gave underrated shooting guard Gary Harris a huge extension; he’s a tremendous three point shooter (42% last year) and one of the best cutters in the league. He and Jokic have tremendous chemistry. Will Barton, the sixth man, is another good shooter who can also create for himself. Jamal Murray hasn’t yet found his three point stroke (33%), but it’s only a matter of time before he establishes himself as a good shooter from range. And Wilson Chandler should capably fill the void left by the departure of the oft-injured and very skilled Danilo Gallinari. I even like the team’s backups. Mason Plumlee, an athletic big who can play above the rim, is the perfect backup behind the less athletic Millsap and Jokic. Malik Beasley, a first round pick last year, has looked good. Kenneth Faried is a great role player and is also good trade bait should the Nuggets look to solve their hole at point guard. That, really, is the biggest complaint people have about this team: Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay are their only pure point guards, and that’s, well, not good. But I’m not freaked out about that, because the offense can run through the bigs and because Murray should be able to grow into more of a ball-handling role. The defense is going to be a real problem, one that keeps them a tier below the three teams above them (and many tiers below the Warriors). But this is a bet on continued improvement from Jokic, who at 22 is already a marquee player. It’s a bet on Millsap being a seamless fit at the four. And it’s a bet on the shooting of the guards.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (45-37): Even after losing Chris Paul, this team has legitimate 50-win potential. There’s a chance it’s going to be a really fun team, perhaps partly because they’ll be freed of the stress of playing with the Point God. The offense got stagnant over the last few years of the CP3 era, which is largely the fault of the coaching staff. Doc Rivers is still there, and I still don’t have much confidence in him, but I do think this roster will be able to move the ball better than any recent Clipper team. This team has a lot of depth — Paul’s gone, but Pat Beverley, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Sam Dekker, and Milos Teodosic, perhaps the best point guard in Europe over the last few seasons, have really strengthened the team. The team is build around Blake Griffin, which I’m really excited about. Blake has showed flashes of his potential as a focal point in the half-court, but what can he do as a full-time point forward? Remember down the stretch in the 2014-15 season, when he averaged 7.4 assists in the first round of the playoffs after averaging 5+ dimes in each of the final five months of the regular season? At that point, Blake was considered a top-10 player in the league, and those playoffs were supposed to be his springboard into the top-5. That obviously never happened, partly due to injury and partly because Chris Paul always had the keys to the offense. But Blake is healthy now (for now), and the keys to the offense are his. This team has the potential to be very, very fun offensively. Gallinari and Griffin are two guys who could score 20+ per game, DeAndre Jordan is a great rim-runner, Lou Williams is one of the best sixth men in recent memory, and Beverley is quietly a 38% shooter from three for his career. And any team with Pat Bev and Austin Rivers harassing ball-handlers and Jordan protecting the rim has the potential to be good defensively. This team has better all-around potential than the Nuggets. The only question is: can they stay healthy? The answer, unfortunately, may well be no. Their two best offensive players, Griffin and Gallinari, have well documented injury histories. Griffin’s season ended early last year due to a toe injury in the playoffs against the Jazz, and he’s missed 83 regular season games over the last three seasons. We know some of his athleticism has been sapped, but we also know that he’s plenty skilled to make up for that. He has to stay on the court, though. Gallinari, meanwhile, is already banged up with a foot injury of his own. He should be good to go in the season opener, but his 63 games last year were the second most in his career. All told, he’s missed an average of 23.5 games per year over the last six seasons. That’s no bueno. I’m hoping that Gallo and Griffin stay healthy, because this team could be really fun if they do. I think they’re a surefire playoff team if they get even 65 games from both, but the bottom could quickly fall out if they suffer serious injuries.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves (44-38): I’m obviously a lot lower on Minnesota than a lot of people and projection models are. Bovada has set Minny’s over/under total at 48.5. I just think that’s asking for too much from a team that went 31-51 last year. There’s no question that the Twolves were a better team than their record indicated last year, and there’s also no question that they got better this year. It’s also very likely that their young players will be markedly better defensively this season than they were last, largely because it would be hard for them to be worse. I’m taking all of that into account in forecasting a 13 win jump. Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the best bigs in the NBA. He averaged 25 and 12 last year on 54/37/83 shooting. Post All-Star break, he put up 28 and 13 on 60/43/84 shooting. That’s absolutely ridiculous, and KAT is already an offensive linchpin. The T-Wolves went from averaging 109.9 points per 100 possessions with KAT on the court to 102.2 without him. The problem was — and these splits are similar to those of Andrew Wiggins — that the defensive numbers nearly mirrored the offensive ones — 110.8 points per 100 with KAT on the court, 103.6 without him. The Wolves were a net negative team with Towns on the court, just as they were with Wiggins. That shouldn’t be the case this year, but it takes more than one offseason to cure all of those defensive struggles. Jimmy Butler will obviously help with that. Much like George (because those two haven’t been compared enough already, right?), he’s a good defensive fit for his new team. Hopefully, he’ll take Wiggins under his wing and transform Minny’s defense. I’m somewhat worried about Butler’s offensive fit, because he’s a ball-dominant wing who joins another ball-dominant wing on a team that has a center who should always be involved. But they should figure it out offensively and be better defensively than they were last year, both because of personnel (see: Butler, Jimmy and Gibson, Taj) and because Tom Thibodeau has had more time to imprint his defensive mindset on his young stars. Remember, though, that this team was 26th in defensive efficiency last year, so there’s a long way to go (it’s worth noting that the Nuggets were 29th, but I think their offense is better than Minnesota’s). Another concern I have about this team: the depth, or lack thereof. When you overpay Jeff Teague, an average starting point guard who’s making $19 million per year, and Taj Gibson, a fine power forward who’s banking $14 million this year, you don’t have much money to address the rest of the roster. If there’s something later in your career than over the hill, that’s where Jamal Crawford is (sorry, Jamal). I don’t really see a suitable backup point guard unless Dukie Tyus Jones takes a big step forward. The wing depth is very sparse — Shabazz Muhammad is the only backup on the roster, so Wiggins and Butler had better be ready to play big minutes. Remember when Butler played 40+ minutes per game under Thibodeau in Chicago? That might be coming again. That’s the real difference between the T-Wolves and the Nuggets in my mind. Denver has a bunch of intriguing players they can throw into games in order to give their star players a spell. The Timberwolves, well, don’t, and it’s hard to be consistently good throughout an 82 game season without that depth. Still, 44 wins should be considered a success for a team that’s been bad for so long.

8. Portland Trailblazers (43-39): So I have to pick between Portland, Utah and Memphis for the eighth seed. That’s really, really tough. And in a nail-biter, I’m going to go with the Blazers over the Jazz. Portland’s obviously a very flawed team. They spent way too much on Evan Turner, who’s a terrible fit for the team. They have a bunch of young big men, many of whom have potential but only one of whom is a proven NBA player. That’s Jusuf Nurkic, who the Blazers got via trade with the Nuggets. Just 23-years-old, Nurkic is a perfect fit. In 20 games with Portland, he averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. He had a +9.6 net rating, which would have ranked second in the NBA behind the Warriors. Maurice Harkless had the second-best net rating on the team had +3.4. Portland needs one of the other big men to pan out. They have three who are 22 or younger and are former first round picks: Noah Vonleh, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan. The latter two were drafted in the first round this past season, and the Blazers actually traded up to #10 to select Collins. Both looked raw this preseason, and Swanigan’s never going to be more than a role player. Collins has potential, but he’s unlikely to play all that much this season. Anyway, I’ve really buried the lede here. As long as the Blazers have a healthy Nurkic and a healthy backcourt, they’ll be fine. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are also known as one of the only backcourts in the NBA who can score as much as Golden State’s. They combined to average 50 points per game last year, and they both did it efficiently. Dame averaged 27 points per game on just 19.8 shots, as he hit 6.5 free throws per game (hitting at a 90% clip) and shot 37% on 7.7 threes per game. McCollum has become my favorite shooting guard to watch in the NBA. He has a crafty and old-school game and can always find his spots. He shot 48% from the field, 42% from three, and 91% from the line. That’s unbelievable efficiency. These are two elite offensive players, and it’s both a crime and a testament to the West’s supremacy that neither has made the All-Star team over the last two years. I have a lot of confidence in Lillard, McCollum, and now Nurkic. Throw in some solid minutes from Harkless and perhaps a bounce-back shooting season from Al Farouq Aminu along with some contribution from rookie big Collins and you get an eighth seed in the loaded Western Conference.

This is why it’s dangerous to underestimate Sam Presti. Today, the Oklahoma City Thunder mercifully ended the multi-year long Carmelo Anthony saga. They got him for almost nothing. The Knicks, having dangled Anthony in the trade market for two years, had zero leverage. In the midst of a rebuild, they threatened to buy Anthony out this offseason, another clear sign that he was no longer in their plans. To make matters worse, ‘Melo has a full no trade clause and, although he clearly wanted out, limited his list of new teams to Houston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and perhaps Portland. So it’s no surprise that it took just Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second round pick to get Anthony. But it’s worth reiterating how bad that return is. Kanter is a skilled center who can’t play defense and who gets played off the court by good teams. He played nine minutes per game in the playoffs last season and 18 in the year before. He’s also guaranteed nearly $37 million over the next two years and was included in the trade to make it work salary-wise. McDermott is a one-dimensional player. That dimension — three point shooting — is the most sought-after skill in basketball, and McBuckets will have a niche in the NBA as long as he shoots nearly 40% from beyond the arc. But he’s no more than a role player. And a second round pick is a second round pick.

This is clearly a win for the Thunder, and it wasn’t their first of the offseason. They came out of nowhere to win the Paul George sweepstakes, and had to give up just Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to do so. It was another example of Presti taking advantage of the depressed value of a star player — the price was so low because George is expected to sign with the Lakers when he hits free agency after this year. George is a better player than Anthony, but the premise is the same. Sam Presti has rolled the dice, going all in this season. I assume part of that is an attempt to convince Russell Westbrook to re-up longterm, but the fact is that a lot of teams with more assets than OKC wanted Anthony and especially George, and the Thunder somehow ended up with both.

The third big addition Presti made this offseason has garnered much less attention. The Thunder signed Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract. It was one of the steals of free agency. Patterson has been one of the kings of net rating over the past few years. Last season, the Raptors were +10.9 points per 100 possessions when Patterson was on the floor, six points better than their +4.9 overall. The year before, his +9.3 was five points better than their overall +4.3. Before that, his +5.3 was significantly better than the team’s +3.1. Patterson doesn’t put up gaudy stats, and he doesn’t have any elite skills, but there’s a reason he consistently plays about 25 minutes per game. He’s just a solid and versatile all-around player, and one who will be needed with bigs Sabonis and Kanter gone. His minutes may tick down a few notches this season, but make no mistake about it: Patterson is an important piece for a team with clear championship aspirations.

The Thunder went 47-35 last year because Russell Westbrook had an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime type season. They just managed to turn four role players — two with albatross contracts — into one of the NBA’s best two-way players and one of its best bucket-getters. Then they added a cheap role player who is arguably better than any of the four they just moved. How good are they going to be? I’m going to go out on a limb and say very good. I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible to win consistently with a player with Westbrook’s 2016-17 usage rate, but I also believe that Westbrook played the way he did last year not because he wanted to but because he had to. He no longer has to. I heard someone describe George as the very best second option in the league, and I think that’s the perfect way to describe him. He’s never been the best or most efficient isolation player, and I think it would be very difficult to win a championship with him as your first offensive option. But he’s a great defender, a 37% career three point shooter and shot 43.6% off the catch last season while finishing third in catch-and-shoot points per game. And he’s a good enough playmaker and passer to be a suitable floor general for short stretches of time. That last part is important, because last season the Thunder completely fell apart when Westbrook was off the court. In the regular season, they were +3.3 per 100 possessions when he was on the court, -8.9 when he was off of it. In the playoffs, the Thunder were +4.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court… and still lost in five games. That’s because they were a stunning -51.3 points per 100 possessions in the 46 minutes he rested. It’s clear that Westbrook needed help, and boy did he get it.

Anthony, like George, is labeled a small forward, but that means next to nothing in today’s NBA. The important thing is that both players are wings and will be able to fit nicely side by side. If George is a perfect complement to Westbrook, it may take longer for Anthony to adjust. He’s been his team’s primary option for his entire career, and he’s averaged upwards of 20 points per game in each season in his 14-year career. But there are a few reasons I’m not that worried about Anthony’s fit with OKC. First of all, you need at least two guys who can get their own bucket on the court at all times in order to compete at the highest level. Now, the Thunder have three. Second of all, Billy Donovan should be able to stagger Anthony’s minutes during the regular season so that he has plenty of opportunities to be the focal point of the offense. Third of all, Anthony has showed time and time again during his stints with Team USA that he thrives when he’s playing with other star players. Even if his scoring drops into the high teens (which it may not, by the way), Anthony should be more efficient than he’s been in years. The bottom line is that Carmelo Anthony is still an exceptionally talented offensive player who will add a lot to this team. He’s a defensive liability, but that won’t matter as much on a team with Paul George, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention Roberson, who re-upped with a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason. That seems like a lot of money for one of the biggest offensive liabilities in the NBA — yes, I know that Roberson averaged 11.6 points per game in five playoff games and shot 41.6% from three, but I’ll side with four seasons worth of 26% shooting from three and 49% from the line — but the additions of George and Anthony will also help Roberson. Last year, Andre was just one of many useless offensive players playing with Russell Westbrook. Now, the team is well-suited to let Roberson do what he does best, which is completely shut down the opponent’s best player. That’s why the Thunder had to re-sign Roberson and why their roster looks even scarier.

I expect the Thunder to start Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony, and Adams, a tremendous rim-runner and defensive center who is the perfect 5 for this team. That’s a balanced, talented, and potentially dominant lineup. Then they have Patterson, who has terrific sixth man bonafides. Jerami Grant is an athletic wing who has improved his three point shot. Raymond Felton is a better backup point guard than anyone they had last year. But really, it’s all about the first six.

Of course, in today’s NBA everything goes back to one essential question: can this team beat the Warriors? And the answer is: probably not, unless something goes wrong with the Warriors. But a lot of things can go wrong, from injuries to chemistry issues. And at the very least, the Thunder are better than any competition the Warriors had in the Western Conference last year. Of course, the Rockets probably are too, and the Spurs are still the Spurs. That’s what makes the Western Conference so tough. But Oklahoma City’s tremendous offseason should make them as strong a candidate as any to knock off Golden State. Will it be enough to convince Westbrook and George to re-sign? That’s another question altogether.

It seems that there now really is no basketball offseason. Weeks after the hectic part of the offseason — the draft, trades of star players, free agent signings, firings of GMs — ended, the only thing that seemingly still had to happen for the offseason to be complete was a trade of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ divisive superstar. And while a trade of Melo will be a big deal whenever it happens, the fact that it’s been expected for so long will lessen the talk and excitement around it. But just as the offseason was winding down, down came the bombshell from Cleveland whisperer Brian Windhorst of ESPN: Kyrie Irving wants to be traded.

Originally, everyone assumed that Kyrie’s request was the final nail in the coffin for LeBron in Cleveland. Surely Kyrie knew that James was going to leave and wanted to escape too, right? Why else would Irving want to leave the Cavaliers? But those initial assumptions were wrong. The truth, in fact, is the opposite: shockingly enough, Kyrie Irving wants to leave Cleveland in order to get away from LeBron James. The reactions to this were mixed, but a lot of people immediately panned the decision as stupid. LeBron is the perfect player for Kyrie to play with, they said. Where does he have a better chance to win than in Cleveland?

While I initially didn’t really understand this take, I realized that this response is indicative of the shift in the NBA landscape this decade. Ever since LeBron’s move to the Heat, it seems like everything has been about gravitating toward a few teams and winning for star players. We saw that most obviously with Kevin Durant. We just saw it with Chris Paul, who chose to take a one year qualifying offer instead of a boatload of money so he could play for Houston, a team with much better prospects than the Clippers. We saw it with Pau Gasol, who put up 19 and 17 points per game in the two seasons before sacrificing money and playing time to sign with the Spurs. Likewise with Gordon Hayward, who left money behind in Utah partially because Boston gives him a better chance to win. Ten years ago, players like Anthony and Paul George may have been content making more money for their average teams. Now, George asked for a trade (and was granted one to a better OKC team), while Anthony wants to be traded to either the Cavs or the Rockets, par for the course for the modern NBA star. It seems like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the next guys to spurn their average teams for something bigger and better. Everyone seems to want to move to the handful teams — Cleveland, Boston, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston — with legitimate chances of making and winning the Finals (although I’d argue that, providing health, only one team has a real chance of winning the Finals next year). And fans and analysts alike have been conditioned to expect players to care first and foremost about winning championships. That’s what happens when the very best players in the league — LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry — seem to care first and foremost about winning championships. So when Kyrie Irving, the second best player on the Cavs and obviously an irreplaceable player for the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champs, asks to leave, people are surprised. When’s the last time a superstar player left or asked to be traded from a team with a clear path to a championship (Durant doesn’t count, considering where he moved)? I can’t even remember. But it’s ok — in the longterm, probably even beneficial — for guys like Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to care about things other than putting themselves in a position where they can quickly win.

According to Windhorst’s reporting, Irving “wants to be in a position where he can be more of a focal point.” And guess what?? That makes sense!! He didn’t choose to play with James, after all. He signed a five-year extension 10 days before James decided to come home. He’s a 25-year-old at the height of his powers, and he’s overshadowed. Heck, I didn’t even know how good he was last year until the last few days. He averaged 25 points and six assists per game on 47/40/91 shooting! I had no idea! It’s telling that, when ranking the best point guards, people get six or seven (seventh was most common among the rankings I looked at) or eight names deep before mentioning Kyrie Irving. I know it’s a deep position, and I don’t even know where I’d rank Kyrie (it might be sixth or seventh), but that’s kind of the point. Kyrie Irving is a famously confident guy. Think about it from his perspective — if I’m Kyrie, I’m wondering what the heck I can do to get the respect I deserve. Win a championship? Check. Play exceptionally well in the playoffs? Check. Put up 25 points per game? Check. Wow people with my finishing ability? Check. Become one of the most efficient scorers in the league? Check. And after all that, I’m still not a top-five point guard??? Yeah, maybe I’d want to leave, too.

According to reports, Kyrie mentioned four specific teams that he’d like to play for: San Antonio, Minnesota, New York, and Miami. I believe that the T-Wolves are on there because Irving is good friends with Jimmy Butler and would like to play with his buddy. If Butler were still on the Bulls, Minnesota would be off the list and Chicago would be on it. The Knicks and Heat make a whole lot of sense, too, because both places would give Irving the chance to shine as the unquestioned superstar in a big media market and a great place for a 25-year-old to live. I must say that the addition of the Spurs puzzles me a little bit, but I can see the argument. Because Kawhi Leonard is so quiet and wary of the media, Irving would immediately become the leader of the team, if not in the locker room than certainly outside of it. He’d get the chance to take over from Tony Parker as the next great Spurs point guard.

Of course, that list of four teams means diddly squat. Unlike Melo, Irving doesn’t have a no-trade clause, so the Cavs can trade him to whichever team gives them the best package. But Irving’s list of teams certainly clues us in to the type of atmosphere and situation he wants.

Coming from someone who is far from a Warriors hater and who hasn’t said one critical word about Kevin Durant’s decision, it’s not good for the league to have all of its talent concentrated on two or three teams. Yes, the Warriors play beautiful basketball, but there are a good 20 fanbases who go into every season knowing they can’t win a title and another five or six who are probably just delusional. And guess what? Golden State kept everyone and got even better this offseason. That trend has to reverse at some point, and I think Kyrie might help make that happen. I didn’t criticize KD because I think that guys who work as hard as NBA stars do to get into the positions that they do have earned the right to play for whomever they want, wherever they want. I’m sure as heck not going to criticize Kyrie Irving for wanting to take on a bigger role as a franchise player in a city other than Cleveland. Instead, I’m going to praise him, because I think it’s a decision that makes sense career-wise and one that could help the NBA in the long run.

I’m going to be away for the next month, so I thought it would be fun to predict the headlines that I’ll be unable to write about. Hopefully sports aren’t as hard to predict as everybody thinks…

After All That, Fultz-Ball-Jackson go 1-2-3: It’s NBA Draft rumor season, which means that all kinds of rumors are being leaked by teams and bandied about by the media. Are the Celtics going to take Josh Jackson #1? Have the Lakers cooled on Lonzo Ball? Will the Kings trade up to draft De’Aaron Fox? Do the Sixers love Malik Monk’s fit enough to draft him #3? In the end, I think the top of the draft will go just as most thought it would a month ago. Fultz should be the slam dunk #1 pick, Ball should go #2, and Jackson should go #3.

Mike Trout Returns Ahead of Schedule: Trout underwent surgery on May 31st to repair a torn UCL in his left thumb and was given a 6-8 week timetable that all but guaranteed that he’d be out through the All-Star break. But because he’s Mike Trout, he’ll return before the break and reinsert himself into the AL MVP conversation (sorry, Aaron Judge). Maybe I’m just trying to will this into existence, because baseball without Mike Trout is nowhere near as fun as baseball with Mike Trout. The guy was hitting .337/.461/.742 with 16 homers and 10 steals in 206 plate appearances before he went down.

Aaron Judge Slumps: Speaking of AL MVP candidates, this has to happen at some point, doesn’t it? Judge has been nothing short of spectacular in his first full season. He’s hitting .335/.441/.692 with 22 homers and currently is lapping the field (excluding Trout, of course) with a 196 wRC+ (96% better than the average hitter). But he strikes out a ton, and his BABIP is an absurd .425 right now. That number’s going to come way down, and I think Judge will hit around .270 going forward, although he’ll still provide great value through his walks and homers. But I think a slump sometime over the next month is inevitable.

Devils take Nolan Patrick, Flyers take Nico Hischier: There have been reports that the Devils might look past the clear top two prospects in the draft and draft a defenseman instead, but those reports are clearly bogus (sorry in advance if they turn out to be true). It’s between Patrick and Hischier for the Devils, with the Flyers picking the leftover center. I happen to think that the Devils are going to take Patrick first, because he’s the bigger player with more two-way upside. But they can’t go wrong (as long as they take one of those two!).

Vegas takes Marc-Andre Fleury in Expansion Draft, Then Trades Him: The first part is a slam dunk. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins have to protect stud young netminder Matt Murray in the expansion draft, they’ll leave Fleury unprotected. Fleury dropped the no-movement clause that would have prevented the Penguins from protecting him, and since he’ll be the best goalie on the market at a good price, he’ll be going to Vegas. But then I think the Vegas Golden Knights (terrible name, by the way) will trade Fleury to a goalie-needy for picks. In fact, I think we’re going to see a lot of picks flowing to Vegas as they look to build for the future.

Gordon Hayward Returns to the Jazz: Hayward, probably the best player on the market right now, has been linked to Boston for years. It makes sense. The Celtics’ coach is Brad Stevens, who recruited and coached Hayward at Butler. And Boston has the advantage of being in the Eastern Conference, which would give Hayward a better shot at the NBA Finals (no facing the Warriors until the Finals). There’s no doubt that he would fit exceptionally well in Boston. Now there are reports coming out that the Heat will join the Celtics in the pursuit of Hayward, and Miami should always be taken seriously in free agency. But in the end, the Jazz can offer more money to Hayward than anything else, and they also offer continuity and a pretty good young team. Generally, I like to bet on guys re-signing unless there’s clearly a superior alternative.

Red Sox Take AL East Lead: I guess this kind of goes hand-in-hand with my Judge prediction, but I think that the Red Sox will make up their two game deficit and have a better record than the Yankees heading into the All-Star break. With the exceptions of Chris Sale, Mitch Moreland, and Craig Kimbrel, their team has been underperforming. Their studs haven’t been horrible (Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez are all putting up solid stats), but none of them has exploded yet. That should change over the next month as the Red Sox capitalize on a soft schedule (after their three game series in Houston, of course) and enter the break on a hot streak despite closing the first half of the season on a 10-game road trip.

Rafa Knocked Out of Wimbledon Early, While Murray Retains Title: Rafael Nadal will be heading into Wimbledon on a high, having just won his record 10th French Open. And he shouldn’t be counted out at Wimbledon, as he has won it twice. But he hasn’t made it out of the fourth round since 2011, and while he’s playing better tennis now than he has at any point in the last three years, I expect him to be knocked out in the first few rounds. Meanwhile, Andy Murray always excels on the grass, making at least the quarterfinals nine times in a row. I think he’s the clear favorite to win his second consecutive Wimbledon title, although Roger Federer is of course worthy competition on the grass. I’m hoping that we get a Murray-Federer championship. It happened in 2012, when Federer won in four sets.

Raimel Tapia Earns Everyday Role, Helps Rockies Stay Hot: The Colorado Rockies shockingly have the best record in the National League at 43-26. They’ve gotten tremendous performances from Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, but their hitting hasn’t actually been as good as in recent years. The reason they’ve been so good is that they’ve gotten tremendous performances from young pitchers. Jeff Hoffman has a 2.25 ERA through five starts, Antonio Senzatela has a 3.84 ERA in his rookie year (super impressive at Coors Field), and rookie Kyle Freeland has a 3.57 ERA. Given that they’re about to get Jon Gray back from injury, they have to be more bullish about their rotation now than they have been in recent memory. With that being said, they need more production out of their offense. They’re being very careful with top prospect Brendan Rodgers, holding him in high-A ball even though he’s hitting .404 and is clearly ready for AA or even AAA. More likely to get more playing time is Raimel Tapia, who has already gotten the call-up and who has played 15 games for the Rockies and generally impressed. Tapia hit .359 in AAA, and he’s starting to take playing time from Carlos Gonzalez, who’s been one of the worst players in baseball this year. I expect Tapia to continue to earn playing time and to help offset any potential drop-off from the starting pitching.

Chris Paul Courts Other Suitors, Then Stays With LA: Basically the same thing as Hayward. Paul would be leaving a LOT of money on the table if he were to leave LA, and I don’t see that happening, especially since he helped negotiate the CBA that allowed him to receive so much money to stay. I think he’ll court the Spurs and the Rockets but eventually return to the Clippers for a max contract.

2017 NBA Draft Big Board

Posted: 06/16/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Before I get to my big board, here’re links to my posts about each of the prospects I’m ranking:

I wrote about Jonathan Isaac, Justin Jackson, and OG Anunoby here
I wrote about Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum here
I wrote about Markelle Fultz here
I wrote about Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox here
I wrote about Dennis Smith and Frank Ntilikina here
I wrote about Malik Monk, Lauri Markkanen, Luke Kennard, and Tyler Lydon here
I wrote about Justin Patton, Jarrett Allen, and Zach Collins here
I wrote about TJ Leaf, Ivan Rabb, and John Collins here
I wrote about Bam Adebayo, Harry Giles, and Ike Anigbogu here
I wrote about Josh Hart, Derrick White, and Frank Mason here
I wrote about Donovan Mitchell, Jawun Evans, Jonah Bolden, Andejs Pasecniks, and Terrance Ferguson here
I wrote about DJ Wilson, Caleb Swanigan, and Semi Ojeleye here
I wrote about Jordan Bell, Alec Peters, Frank Jackson, and Wes Iwundu here

That’s 38 prospects in all. It obviously isn’t all of the relevant ones, and I might even be missing a few that will go in the first round. But since these are the 38 that I researched and wrote about, they’re the ones that will make up my big board. As I did last year, the players I like more than the consensus are in green while the ones I like less are in red. This year, I’ll also be tiering the players, because I think viewing the players in tiers is the best way to get a sense of the value of the draft. Obviously, these rankings are made in a vacuum and don’t consider fit for any particular team.

— Tier 1: Future Superstar —
1. Markelle Fultz
— 6’4″ PG from Washington
— Tier 2: Sky’s the Limit, but with Risks —
2. Josh Jackson  — 6’8″ SF from Kansas
3. Lonzo Ball — 6’6″ PG from UCLA
4. Dennis Smith Jr— 6’3″ PG from NC State
5. Jonathan Isaac — 6’11” SF/PF from Florida State
6. De’Aaron Fox — 6’4″ PG from Kentucky
— Tier 3: High Floor, Potential All-Stars —
7. Jayson Tatum — 6’8″ SF from Duke
8. Malik Monk — 6’4″ SG from Kentucky
— Tier 4: Future Starters —
9. Donovan Mitchell — 6’3″ PG/SG from Louisville
10. Frank Ntilikina — 6’5″ PG from Strasbourg IG
11. T.J. Leaf — 6’10” PF from UCLA
12. John Collins — 6’10” PF from Wake Forest
13. Lauri Markkanen — 7’0″ PF from Arizona
— Tier 5: Ceiling of Elite Role Players —
14. Justin Patton — 7’0″ C from Creighton
15. Luke Kennard — 6’6″ SG from Duke
16. Josh Hart — 6’6″ SG from Villanova
17. Ike Anigbogu — 6’10” C from UCLA
18. Justin Jackson — 6’8″ SF from UNC
19. Jarrett Allen — 6’11” C from Texas
20. DJ Wilson — 6’10” PF from Michigan
— Tier 6: Low Floor, High Upside —
21. OG Anunoby — 6’8″ SF from Indiana
22. Harry Giles — 6’11” C from Duke
— Tier 7: Role Players With Definite NBA Futures —
23. Zach Collins
— 7’0″ C from Gonzaga
24. Terrance Ferguson — 6’7″ SG from Adelaide 36ers
25. Derrick White  6’5″ PG/SG from Colorado
26. Jawun Evans
— 6’0″ PG from Oklahoma State
27. Jordan Bell — 6’9″ PF from Oregon
— Tier 8: One Plus Skill —
28. Andejs Pasecniks — 7’2″ C from Gran Canaria
29. Tyler Lydon — 6’10” PF from Syracuse
30. Alec Peters 
— 6’9″ PF from Valparaiso
31. Semi Ojeleye —  6’7″ SF/PF from SMU
32. Frank Jackson — 6’4″ PG/SG from Duke
— Tier 9: Clear Second Rounders —
33. Ivan Rabb — 6’10” PF/C from Cal
34. Caleb Swanigan — 6’9″ PF/C from Purdue
35. Bam Adebayo — 6’10” C from Kentucky
36. Jonah Bolden — 6’10” PF from Radnicki Basket
37. Wesley Iwundu — 6’7″ SG/SF from Kansas State
38. Frank Mason
— 5’11” PG from Kansas

This is my last post on 2017 draft prospects. Although I’ve covered every single surefire first round pick (I think there are around 20 of those), there are still plenty of intriguing potential draftees left to discuss. It’d be impossible for me to go deep enough into the weeds to profile every single potential draftees, so today I’m cherrypicking four of the ones I most want to write about, for very different reasons. I want to write about Jordan Bell because he’s a fun player who was incredibly exciting to watch as he dominated the NCAA Tournament. Wes Iwundu intrigues me because of his 3-and-D potential. I’m writing about Frank Jackson because he was a five-star recruit who showed some flashes at Duke. And I’m writing about Alec Peters because nobody ever writes about Alec Peters, who had one heck of a career at Valparaiso. I’ll start with the biggest household name of the four, which is…

Had Chris Boucher not torn his ACL before the NCAA Tournament, I’m pretty sure Jordan Bell would be getting set to return to Oregon for his senior year right now. He had an efficient but quiet regular season, averaging 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.3 blocks per contest while averaging 28.9 minutes per game. But the 6’10” Boucher went down, allowing Bell to showcase his potential as a big surrounded exclusively by perimeter-oriented players. He didn’t disappoint. In five games, he put up 12.6/13.2/3.2 blocks on 73% shooting from the field. He ended his Oregon career on the sourest of notes — he twice was unable to box out Kennedy Meeks after missed free throws — but there’s no doubt that he was one of the rising stars of the tourney. His best game came against Kansas in the Elite 8, when he blocked eight shots and totally destroyed KU’s dominant offense. If anyone ever asks you if rim protection matters, just direct them to that game. In addition to the eight shots he blocked, he altered many others by virtue of his tremendous verticality and countless more because he was inside the heads of Frank Mason (8-20), Devonte Graham (0-7), and Josh Jackson (3-8), three of the most explosive guards in the country. Bell was the backbone of Oregon’s defense, so the fact that the Ducks held Michigan and Kansas, perhaps the two hottest teams in the country at the time, to 68 and 60 points is very impressive and really boosts Bell’s stock.

Bell profiles as an elite defender. He makes up for his lack of size (6’9″) and length (6’11” wingspan) with great defensive instincts and unbelievable athleticism. He blocks shots when he’s on the ball and when he’s the weak side help. His 1.3 steals per game also indicate that he has quick hands. He also has the lateral speed to switch out onto guards on the perimeter and not embarrass himself. And while his lack of size might have kept him from being drafted five years ago, he’s very playable at center nowadays, especially if he puts on a little weight. I could see Bell being one of the best defensive centers in the league, although a few more inches would definitely be nice. It remains to be seen if he can guard big centers, but he can switch out on guards and provide elite rim protection, a very desirable combination. When he adds a little weight, he’ll be an even better rebounder.

Offensively, Bell is obviously more limited. But he makes things happen just by virtue of his effort and instincts. He’s a great offensive rebounder, can dunk over people, and can use his athleticism to finish at the rim fairly efficiently. He also shot 70% from the line this season, which is pretty good for someone with his offensive toolbox. I don’t think Bell will ever be able to stretch defenses out to three point range or provide a threat off the dribble, but he’s a scrappy player who can keep plays alive and contribute without a high usage rate. Pair that with his defense and you have a fringe first round pick. His lack of size and offensive versatility will keep him from going much higher than the late 20s.

Wesley Iwundu seems like a very familiar prospect. He has two things going for him: his physical tools, and his potential to be a 3-and-D wing. He’s 6’7″ with a 7’1″ wingspan, and he has nice athleticism and leaping ability and is a versatile player. As a senior for Kansas State, he had the ball in his hands a lot more than I would have expected. Only 16% of his usage came from spot-up situations, an absurdly low rate for a wing. More often, Iwundu would initiate a pick-and-roll, try to get his teammates involved, and then penetrate the defense. He played for a really dull and low-octane Kansas State offense, but he still managed to average 13/6.3/3.5 on 48/38/77 shooting as a senior. With that being said, he’s probably going to have to evolve a lot more in order to be an NBA-caliber wing. He’d better get more comfortable shooting off the catch, because he isn’t good enough to be a primary offense initiator in the NBA. In order to reach his potential, he’s going to need to become a good spot-up three point shooter, and he’s not close to being there yet. He shot 38% from three, but his stroke was inconsistent and he didn’t look comfortable with it. It has clearly improved over the last four years, but Iwundu is going to have to be more aggressive off the ball in order to free himself for the open looks that he’s comfortable taking. Given that he’s already 22-years-old, it’s more difficult to imagine him becoming a reliable threat from downtown than it would be to imagine the same of, say, Terrance Ferguson (the guy who played in Australia this past year). We also shouldn’t neglect Iwundu’s playmaking ability — he definitely flashed some of that at K-State, where his teammates weren’t the greatest. His 3.5:2.3 assist:turnover ratio isn’t great, but it’s not bad for a wing.

Iwundu isn’t an elite defender, largely because he looked tentative against the best wings he guarded, but he has the potential to be a versatile one, with the ability to guard small forwards and power forwards. He has length and athleticism, but I wish he were a more intuitive defender. With that being said, he has the size to eat up opposing wings and the athleticism to defend and rebound over bigger wings. I’m concerned that he will struggle with the physicality of the NBA, but he should be a good defender. Overall, I’m not convinced that Iwundu has the ability to be a consistent part of an NBA rotation. I like him, but I’ve seen a lot of similar prospects who have failed to make a difference in the NBA. The fact that he’s already 22 doesn’t help. His physical profile and versatility should ensure that he gets drafted, though.

Frank Jackson’s lone season at Duke can only be described as a disappointment. It was never going to be easy for him to seize the starting point guard role, but Jackson was actually given opportunities to seize the job when Allen was suspended. He never really impressed, and Duke was without a true pass-first point guard all season, one of the reasons they were knocked out by South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That’s not to say that Jackson didn’t play a lot, because he did. He was part of what was basically a six and a half man rotation (Harry Giles being the half), and he averaged 24.9 minutes per game. Jackson’s biggest strength is his overall scoring ability. He put up 11 points per game and was one of the most efficient freshmen guards in the country. He shot 47% from the floor, 40% from three, and 76% from the line. He’s a strong slasher and shot 57% around the rim, using his strength (he’s just 6’3″ but weighs in at 205 pounds) and athleticism to finish over and around bigger defenders. And he’s a great shooter, especially when he’s given time to set up and shoot. Athleticism, finishing ability, and shooting is a pretty good place to start.

My concern is that Jackson is more of a pure shooting guard than a combo guard or certainly a point guard. He hasn’t showcased any real ability to make plays for others, as he only averaged 1.7 assists per game for a Duke team that was overflowing with talent. He barely had an AST:TO ratio above one, and that makes him less versatile than I would like. Still, his shooting and athleticism give him the opportunity to eventually be a nice scoring option off the bench.

Defensively, Jackson’s helped by his 6’7″ wingspan and the effort he always gives when he’s on the floor. He’s definitely not a bad defender, but his defensive upside is limited by his lack of lateral quickness and his poor rebounding (2.5 per game). He’ll compete and scrap, but he won’t add much value defensively. All of this means that he’s a one-dimensional prospect. He can score, but he can’t really do anything else at the next level. He’ll have to become a better distributor in order to become a valuable role player, but he definitely has the potential to be a nice scorer off the bench.

Alec Peters is Valparaiso’s career leading scorer and rebounder. He set both records in January, about a month before he suffered a stress fracture in his leg, which robbed us of the likely pleasure of watching him play in the NCAA Tournament again. After starting the Horizon League slate 13-2 with Peters, Valpo closed out the season 1-2 without him, including a 43-41 loss in the first round of the conference tournament. Then, they bowed out in the first round of the NIT, losing to Illinois by 25. It was a disappointing end to what was a brilliant college career for Peters.

He wasn’t on my radar when I posted about the best three point shooters in the draft, but now I think he should have been. Peters’s average shooting this season (36% from three) masks what is an aesthetically pleasing (and productive) shot. Just watch his release:

Peters shot 44% from three as a junior and 47% as a sophomore. He shot 89% from the line this year. He has tremendous range, and profiles as an elite NBA shooter. That’s his calling card, and will continue to be at the next level. The question is whether Peters can find other ways to contribute. He certainly did at Valpo, where he averaged 23 points per game as a senior. He averaged 6.7 free throw attempts per game, and 44% of his shots came on post-ups or shots around the basket (per DraftExpress). He converted those shots at a 56% rate. Of course, that came against lackluster Horizon League defense, and I don’t think it’ll translate particularly smoothly to the NBA. I think he’ll end up being a pretty good post player, which gives him versatility that some other gunners don’t have. Another thing I like about Peters is his high basketball IQ and terrific instincts. He’s not just out there to gun three pointers. He can fit in well to any type of offense, and he developed into a good passer at his time at Valpo. If he can find a way to stay on the court defensively, I’m confident that he’ll be a good offensive player.

The defense is a different story. Peters holds his own on the boards and can play physically, but I don’t think there’s any question that he’s going to struggle defensively. He’s just 6’9″ with a 6’11” wingspan, hardly ideal size for a power forward. And he’s not really an NBA-level athlete. As an on-ball defender, he’s really going to struggle. I have confidence that he’ll able to play team defense pretty well thanks to his basketball IQ and competitiveness, but teams are going to attack him relentlessly, putting him in pick-and-rolls and forcing him to guard both bigger players and more explosive ones. It’s the Ryan Anderson conundrum. Anderson is a tremendous three point shooter and a horrific on-ball defensive player. The Rockets thought the offense he provided was worth the defensive sacrifice, playing him 31 minutes per game in the playoffs (29 in the regular season). Of course, that didn’t work out well for them, as Anderson was bad on both sides of the ball. But if Peters can become an Anderson-level player, someone who’s such a valuable offensive player that he can play in the playoffs, we’ll know that he’ll have been a steal in the 30-40 range or wherever he ends up going.

Here’s how I’d rank these four:
Bell
Peters
Jackson
Iwundu

Full big board coming tomorrow.