Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 24 – 30

The 2018 Big Board (as of 5/14/18) can be found here. We posted it pre-combine, so there’s no doubt outcomes (like Keita Bates-Diop‘s length or Donte DiVincenzo‘s athleticism) that will impact our big board. That said, we’re committed to writing player profiles on the top-30 guys from the initial board. This is the first of those posts, focusing on players ranked 24th to 30th.

 

All artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

Hamilton: Keita Bates-Diop was the 2018 Big 10 Player of the Year but was nowhere near the conference’s best player. He was essentially the best player on an Ohio State that exceeded most expectations. He can shoot with range and in college was able to post up and get by people on the drive. The post game and dribble drive may not translate to NBA as they’re pretty basic involving few actual moves. Instead he oftentimes ends up going through a defender’s chest or over the top of his head. The NBA is obviously populated with big, strong guys who can also move their feet. It will likely be a few years, if ever, before KBD’s skills in these areas make him much of a threat. That said, if he can get the right switches, the physicality is there to score on smaller players. He looks like a pick-and-pop shooter with the range on his shot which could help him get onto the floor early in his career. And while he’s not exactly tall he did measure 1.5” taller at the combine (6’8.5”) than he was listed at Ohio State and has wingspan of 7’3”. The length coupled with solid effort and intelligence could be his meal ticket. At this point he projects as 2nd unit/small-ball forward/center that can stretch the floor. Not super exciting, but a lot of teams need this player type. The skills he does have come at a premium in positionless NBA and that’s why I ranked him higher on my Big Board than my fellow draft heads at Dancing with Noah. After his favorable combine measurements, a few good workouts could have him move out of the 20s and into the post-lottery teens.

 

Bug: It’s always hard to get a good read on young European players in comparison to the guys we get to see in the NCAA numerous times before entering the draft. Whether it be competition level or the Euro style of play, the stats and video clips can be deceiving. One thing when you watch Dzanan Musa play is that this guy has brass balls on the court. Musa is equipped with a lightning-quick release and range well beyond the three-point line. He also has a nice handle for a 6’9” wing, and changes speeds well to free himself up for shots. The Bosnian product seems to carry himself with a Westbrook-like confidence as if he believes he is the best player on the court at all times. Musa only shot 32% from three this past season, which is a red flag for a player with such an exciting highlight reel of deep balls. That means there were a lot of bricks that came along with the exciting highlights. Musa will need to continue to expand his dribble drive game and get stronger as NBA defenders will look to run him off the line and make him put the ball on the floor. He won’t have the free reign to have the ball at all times and shoot whenever he wants in the NBA, so he’ll have to become more efficient to see the floor. A lack of strength on his 195-pound frame will also make him a defensive liability in his early years. The team that drafts him will need to be patient with his adjustment in that aspect. Musa is one of the youngest players in the draft, just turning 19 years old in May, so he has a lot of room to grow, both in terms of physical size and skill. Dzanan is shaping up to be a mid-to-late first round pick which will help him learn from some veterans on an established team. I believe he’s probably two-to-three years away from contributing, but looks like a strong prospect to take a chance on in the 20-30 range.

 

Bug: Most draft pundits have the reigning College Player of the Year ranked as a late first, early second round pick in this year’s draft. On our initial big board, I had Jalen Brunson ranked 15 spots higher than anyone else in our crew at 14th overall. The combination of a weak point guard class and the positional importance of having a quality starting and backup point guard in today’s NBA boost Brunson’s value. The draft is loaded with average wings this year, so I ranked Bruson higher based on the supply and demand of quality point guards. There are some obvious physical limitations to his game. He’s a below-the-rim player that doesn’t overwhelm opponents with athletic dominance or size. Brunson may find it to be tough sledding at times on both ends against top-level point guards, but you can say the same about every point guard in this year’s class. Despite those limitations, he’s always found a way to overcome and win games. Dating back to his senior year in high school, Brunson has won three titles in his last four years of competitive basketball, compiling a 133-16 record in that span. Winning is definitely a skill when assessing point guards.  In addition to winning big at each level he has played, he grew up around the NBA as the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson. Having a father that played in the NBA teach you the game is a huge advantage coming up in your developmental years. Brunson has a nice handle, and always plays within himself on the court. He knows exactly what his strengths are and doesn’t try to do more than he is capable of doing. He has a sturdy 6’2”, 200-lb frame, a high basketball IQ, and uses his body well to play the angles to get to his spots. The Villanova product also sports a smooth lefty stroke from deep at a 40% clip on more than 200 attempts. Brunson is somewhat of a throwback that gets compared to Mark Jackson quite a bit due to his highly advanced post game (for a PG), but he doesn’t have the elite vision of Jackson as a playmaker. There were many Villanova games this past season where Brunson was the best post player on the floor for either team, but there won’t be many nights in the NBA where he’s going to have the size or strength to utilize that skill very often. On the defensive end, Brunson has a Chris Paul-like competitiveness to him. He plays physical defense and is somewhat of a pest. I believe Brunson ends up being a steal if he goes where he is slotted late in the first round. He’ll most likely settle in as a high-end backup/fringe starting point guard that ends up having a lengthy pro career. The flashy highlights and freakish combine measurables are great, but wins are what keeps coaches and GMs from getting fired.

 

Fenrich: Jacob Evans’s Cincinnati team ranked 323rd in the NCAA in pace this past season and he was the team’s leading scorer and top in assists at 13-points and just over three assists. He shot 47% on twos and 37% on 4.5 threes-per-game. His tape shows a player with good burst and a solid build (6’5.5”, 199lbs) who looks stronger than his 199 pounds. Offensively, he’s more comfortable stepping into a catch and shoot than he is pulling up off the dribble. Like most of his offense, his handle is competent; his vision is decent. He was likely asked to do a bit too much playmaking for the Bearcats as he averaged nearly two turnovers to every three assists and didn’t always look comfortable in the role of creator. Defensively is where he pops out. In the clips and games I watched, he seemed to drift into a free safety type role at times; reading the floor and making calculated risks. Against Wichita State, he preyed on weak ball handlers. If the handle wasn’t strong, Evans dialed up the intensity which is the kind of cut throat approach the NBA excels at (Houston relentlessly targeting Steph Curry’s defense is a good example). With his strength, he was able to hold his ground against a bigger, beefier post player and perfectly time his jump hook for an easy block. These were isolated scenarios, but serve as good examples of his defensive range and mindset. On the ball, he gets his butt low and slides his feet well laterally. Whether he picked up these habits in Cincinnati or before, it’s clear he’s committed on the defensive end. The liberties he took on defense seem like they could be a blessing and a curse. At times, he would wander defensively and if his read was off, he’d be out of position. He’s good enough athletically to recover more often than not, but it will be interesting to see how his defense develops playing in a much faster NBA game. Equally interesting will be his offensive adjustment as he’ll go from a team that averaged less than 70 possessions-per-game to a league that averages 97 possessions-per-game.

 

Fenrich: I see all kinds of NBAers in Milton’s unhurried, pendulous movements. He has shades of Dejounte Murray’s length and floater. His handle and lithe collegiate frame call to mind a less pizzazzy Jamal Crawford. With his height (6’5.5”) and ability to see and make the pass (4.4 assists), I think of Jalen Rose. And the son of the “Milk Man” is probably a better shooter than all of them – he definitely was in college. His 43% from three on 445 attempts is an excellent number and his range extends to the NBA distance. He shoots it from deep with a form that remains consistent. In the clips I’ve watched, SMU ran multiple pick-and-rolls and he regularly saw the roll man and executed the pass. Skill-wise, he appears to be NBA ready. Athletically, he falls short. Watching his tape, it’s clear there’s a lack of explosiveness off the dribble. It doesn’t prevent him from getting into the paint as the combination of his handle and ability to use the jumper to set up the drive are enough to beat defenders, but at the next level, this will be more difficult. His max vertical at the combine (33”) landed him in the bottom 25th percentile of participants. Defensively, I didn’t see as much of Milton. The little I did see showed a player more prone to bending at the waist instead of the knees. For a player lacking athleticism, his defensive technique needs to improve. Rose and Crawford are perfect examples of good, but not great athletes who leveraged their high skill levels and unique physical compositions into lengthy and successful NBA careers. Kyle Anderson comes to mind as someone who, while possessing an exceptional feel for the game, has struggled due to lackluster athleticism. It’s a broad range from Rose to Anderson, but somewhere in there is likely where Milton’s NBA destiny lies.

 

All artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

Hamilton: Chandler Hutchison looks all the part of today’s NBA wing. He’s 6’7 with a 7’1 wingspan that helps him appear bigger at times, as evident when he’s tipping or pulling down one of his 7.7 defensive rebounds per game. Some of those rebounds come from a high effort level that also led to 1.6 steals per 40 minutes over his four years at Boise State. The steal stats themselves could be a bit misleading as a real measure of his defense as he does appear to get lost pretty easily while off the ball. At times he makes indecisive or incorrect reads and rotations. But he has a real skill for staying with plays that can be matched with good NBA coaching to turn him into a plus defender. On offense he’s decisive and moves the ball quickly either with the pass, or more likely, on the dribble. It’s probably not fair to label it “iso ball” because he’s so deliberate on the attack that his teammates don’t end up standing and watching too much. His handle has a nice little hesitation to it that could suit him well running pick and roll. Hutchison pulled out of the combine on May 16 prompting many to assume he was offered a draft guarantee from a team. While it’s unlikely a lottery team would reach for Hutchison, several teams selecting in the 20s could be good fits for him. Playoff teams like Indiana at 23, Portland at 24 or Philly at 26 could all use an effort/energy wing who is physically mature and used to making plays.

2018 Dancing with Noah NBA Draft Big Board; alternately: We are all Avery Bradley

236 basketball players are testing the NBA waters this spring. This doesn’t include seniors like Keita Bates-Diop, Grayson Allen, Jevon Carter, Devonte Graham, Kenrich Williams, or Kevin Hervey. There are just 60 picks in the draft, but during the 2016-17 season, 88 players made rookie appearances. In 2017-18, that number jumped up to 120, thanks, in part, to two-way contracts between the G-League and NBA. Through the G-League and global scouting, the league has created a talent pool that is deeper and wider than ever. As more players present themselves as NBA-caliber, the basketball world gets both bigger and smaller. Bigger in the sense that not being drafted is no longer a death knell to a player’s NBA aspirations. Smaller in the sense that the league continues to evolve in how it keeps tabs on players – from teenagers entering the USA Basketball system to a G-League that’s on its way to every NBA team having its own minor league affiliate. There are very few Neon Boudeaux’s these days.

Despite this growing population of NBA newcomers, the most impactful players are still being found in the draft. Of those 120 rookies that appeared in NBA games this season, just 26 of them appeared in at least 1,000 minutes. Of those, just three (12%) players were second-round picks (Sindarius Thornwell, Semi Ojeleye, and Wesley Iwundu), and three (12%) were undrafted (Max Kleber, Royce O’Neal, and Milos Teodosic). Among starters of the four conference finalists, three (15%) were second-round picks (Draymond Green, Trevor Ariza, and PJ Tucker) while one part-time starter wasn’t drafted (Aron Baynes).

Of course, 1,000 minutes and starters on conference finalists are completely arbitrary in terms of their selection and statistical significance, but directionally they help to remind us that the top 80-some-odd-percent of the league’s primary contributors still come from the first round.* I expect that this percentage gets smaller over time, but at present, Draymond Green (35th overall, not big enough), Isaiah Thomas (60th overall, too small), Paul Millsap (47th overall, small school, too small), Manu Ginobili (57th overall, too European/Argentine), Kyle Korver (51st overall, can he get his shot at this level?) are still outliers, players who serve as reminders to guard against physical, racial, or geographic bias or conventional stubbornness. *(This was sticking in my craw or something so I looked at the total minutes played by drafted players beginning with the 2003 draft and ending with the 2017 draft. Among all drafted players in that sample, lottery picks make up 44.8% of total minutes (2,270,126 out of 5,069,530), rest of first round makes up 32.7%, and second rounders make up 22.6%. First rounders (lottery included) make up 77.4% of total minutes. This doesn’t include any undrafted players.)

It is under this guise of an ever-expanding universe of potential draftees that my friends joined me to pull together a 55-player big board for the 2018 draft cycle. I’ll caveat and hopefully not lose you by admitting we haven’t seen or scouted all 236 of the players who put their name in the draft. Most concerning for me is probably Elie Okobo; a favorite among some draftniks whose perspectives I respect. I didn’t see Tyus Battle either, but that’s maybe because I have a semi-conscious bias towards Syracuse. It’s hard to say. I would’ve liked to see and understand Jarred Vanderbilt better, but sometimes the universe, injuries, and the loss of Draft Express’s Youtube clips conspires against us.

Leading up to the draft, we’ll post deeper scouting profiles and projections on the top 30 players appearing on our big board. And if time and inspiration allow for it, we may go deeper on guys who felt outside of the top-30, but who one of us may be high on.

In the big board below, you’ll see a few basic values such as the rankings from me and my Dancing with Noah (DWN) friends and colleagues: Bug, Hamilton, and Maahs. You’ll see our DWN average ranking and the DWN standard deviation. The standard deviation is maybe more intriguing to me than the rankings on their own as the greater the deviation, the greater the difference in what our eyes see. There’s the Season-long aggregate rank (YR AVG) which includes big boards from Draft Express, NBADraft.net, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, and The Stepien which offer up a longer, consensus view. And finally, there’s a comparison of the DWN average versus the consensus (DIFF). Again, I’m a lot less interested in players like Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton who have a difference in aggregate of less than one. The differences are where learning lies.

The other piece of context that’s worth including is that, between me and the other guys ranking players, we haven’t discussed our criteria for ranking. There isn’t any component of the following posts that has to do with mock drafting, but that doesn’t discount the role of team and scheme in how we discuss these players, scout them, or how I’ve ranked them. I encountered a bit of the Allen Iverson conundrum while ranking some of these players in that I believe Collin Sexton and Michael Porter to be players with higher ceilings than Mikal Bridges, but consider Bridges to be a more adaptable player who may offer a greater contribution to winning. But none of these concepts (ceiling, adaptability, or winning contribution) are absolutes. It’s not that Bridges has reached his ceiling or that Sexton or Porter must be lead dogs in order produce. If we dealt in these absolutes, then perhaps player rankings would be easier. We don’t deal in absolutes though and perhaps, in the right role, with the right coaching, Sexton could become a perfect fourth man on a contending team. Another example is the role evolution of Andre Iguodala who’s found his greatest success as a role player. With a highly adaptable game and the mindset of accepting a diminished role, Iguodala has achieved wild success, but few will suggest he was better than Iverson who required massive usage to achieve optimal effectiveness and who struggled in less usage-heavy roles. Did my colleagues think about this the same way? I doubt it, but do all 30 teams use the same criteria when ranking their players? I have my doubts. (Looking at you David Kahn.)

nba draft, deandre ayton, big board, luka doncic

Artwork by Andrew Maahs. His portfolio can be found here: basemintdesign.com

Random Stats before the Home Stretch (75% of the way there); Alternately: Straddling the Nine with James Harden

Having a child and moving across the country has pushed basketball writing down on my list of priorities, but in these pockets of corporate and domestic living, I’m trying to scratch and claw my way into the word documents and share with you the weird, the strange, the awesome, the historical. We’re some odd three fourths of the way into the season, and as is always the case, the world’s greatest basketball players are venturing into unchartered places where no men (or very few men) have walked, run, jumped or dunked before. And in honor of the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who led the league in scoring and assists 50 years ago, and wore number 14, I have 14* random ass stats for you to consume at your own leisure. As always, shouts to Basketball Reference, a site and group of humans truly doing the lord’s work.

Note: all stats are as of 2/28/18. By the time you click a link, a player’s average or percentages may have moved by a tenth of a point and thus negated the achievement. Such is the fickle nature of records.

*Some of the list items have more than one stat included.

  • Steven Adams, 5.1 offensive rebounds, 17% offensive rebound percentage: Steven Adams isn’t the GOAT offensive rebounder (that’s probably Moses Malone), and he’s not even the best right now (probably Andre Drummond), but he is one of just six players in league history (Malone, Drummond, Dennis Rodman, Larry Smith, Jayson Williams) to average as many o-rebs and as high of an o-reb percentage as he is this season. Beyond his devil-may-care attitude to crashing the glass, no player on this list has a greater percentage of his total rebounds come on the offensive end. 56% of Adams’s total rebounds are occurring on the offensive end. That’s 5.1 offensive boards/game to 3.9 defensive. A portion of the reading audience will point to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as the sole reason for Adams’s lack of defensive rebounds, but regardless of snarling causes and effects, Adams’s inverted rebounding ratio is rare and probably historical.

  • James Harden 31-8.9: When I first pulled these stats together a few days ago, Harden was sitting at 31 points and nine assists-per-game. Since then, he’s dropped down to 8.9 and will likely straddle the nine (not a term I ever expected to write) for the rest of the season. As it stands, his 31-8.9 places him in cahoots with former Thunder teammate and Steven Adams rebound stealer, Westbrook, Tiny Archibald, and the Big O. I’ve never considered parallels between Robertson’s and Harden’s games, but the physical characteristics and positions are somewhat applicable. Robertson was a physically overpowering guard, much like Harden is; a pair of players who physically defy the flying Jordan paradigm in exchange for blunt force delivered with equal grace.
  • Joel Embiid’s turnovers: 12 times in NBA history has a player 6’10” or taller averaged 3.8 turnovers or higher. Embiid is threatening to make it 13 times and join the ranks of Boogie Cousins (a three-timer), Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Mickey Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Jeff Ruland and Ralph Sampson. But let’s not stop at just single seasons. In his short, injury-ravaged career, Embiid has played just 78 games and averaged over six turnovers-per-100 possessions which puts him in much more dubious company. Of the five other players included on this list, I’ve only ever heard of one of them: Mark Radford, Dean Tolson, Ernie DiGregorio (he’s the one I heard of), Steve Kuberski, and Dale Schlueter. Who are these people, these friends of Joel’s?

Note that the back of the card tells us that “Steve trades elbows with opposing forwards.” Card found here: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_665119

  • Ben Simmons 16-7-7: Counting this season, Ben Simmons makes the 36th occurrence of the well-rounded 16-7-7 line. He’s also joining fellow big guards, Magic Johnson and the Big O, as the only rookies to post the line. As we’ll see with the next few stats, the league as a whole is becoming more skilled and that includes our taller players who benefit from copious amounts of shooters, spread floors, and an advanced understanding of how to pick out open teammates. They also just happen to be have more broadly developed games than many of their back-to-the-basket predecessors. If Simmons came along in 1977, I have my doubts that he would’ve wound up as a point guard.
  • 6’7” and taller, +7 assists/game, +5 assists/game: Assists are a somewhat arbitrary stat. If you’ve ever done any assist tracking, what score keepers constitute an assist can vary massively. Additionally, being surrounded by better shooters can rack up high assist counts for an otherwise average passer. Nitpicking aside, tall players are tallying assists in ways we’ve never seen. Three players at least 6’7” (LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Simmons) are averaging over seven assists/game which was last done 31 years ago by Magic, Larry, and Reggie Theus. If we expand our assist thresholds to five-per-game, the current season has eight guys qualifying; the aforementioned Bron/Draymo/Simmons trio in addition to Nic Batum, Boogie, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are both sitting at 4.9. The previous record for players of this height picking up this many assists was six in 1986-87. No popping champagne this year, guys.
  • 6’10” and taller, over one 3pa/gm: If we continue exploring the intersection of height and skill, we presently have 21 players at least 6’10” averaging over one three made/game. The list I linked to doesn’t even include the giant, Kevin Durant, who could be as tall as 7’2” after a good stretch but is insultingly listed as 6’9”. We know the game is spacing out further and further. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson bombing from the hash marks or the massive Embiid (a 7’2”, nearly 300lb mountain of a human flesh, bones, polysynthetic fibers, and rubber bands developed in labs) with his almost-set shot, we’re seeing the boundaries pushed out further by our biggest and tallest players which is fundamentally altering the style of play and rewriting the record books.
  • Stephen Curry, efficient shooter: Curry’s the best shooter to play in NBA history. It’s hard to dispute this and somehow, at age 29, he’s having his best season yet in terms of true shooting percentage. At a ridiculous 67.2%, better than his 2016 second MVP season (66.9%), he’s entered into a domain occupied by only big men – and Cedric Maxwell. Not to discount what Maxwell, Artis Gilmore, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, James Donaldson, and Wilt Chamberlain achieved, but none of these ultra-efficient big men attempted more than 11 shots per-game. Curry’s crossed the 67% TS threshold on over 17 attempts/game; the bulk of which come outside the paint. If we push outside of the single season, Curry becomes one of just five players (all bigs and again, Maxwell), to have appeared in over 600 games with a TS 62% or higher. This is a somewhat inverse of the previous stats where we’ve seen big men encroaching on the turf of wings and guards. Curry, with his Predator-like accuracy (47-43-90 for his career), deep shooting, and scorer’s volume, has barged his way into efficiency conversations previously limited to dunking big men.

  • Anthony Davis, 28-10-2: If we’re rounding up, this is Davis’s second 28-10-2 season as he was a 27.9ppg scorer last season. If we’re not rounding up, Davis is the first player since Shaq in 2000-01 to have this impact on the game in terms of points, blocks, and rebounds, and just the sixth to achieve it (David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Kareem, Bob McAdoo thrice, and Shaq). He’s also doing it in less minutes-per-game than anyone on the list except 97-98 Shaq. With the rise of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis, and Embiid, combined with Davis’s constant missed games and injuries, it has seemed, at times, like his star has dimmed. Since Boogie went down, the Brow has elevated his everything and reminded us of his place in the present and historic lens of the Association. Pray to the new gods and the old that his health continues.
  • Andre Drummond, rebounder: Are rebounds valuable? Are they an indicator of team success? Should anyone crash offensive boards? Is this a new market inefficiency? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you that Drummy gets more rebounds than anyone in today’s NBA. Looking all the way back through Basketball Reference’s database, only three times has a player appeared in at least 30 minutes per-game and grabbed at least 26% of the available rebounds: Dennis “the Worm” Rodman did it in 91-92 and 95-96. And now, after having surgery to repair a deviated septum in the off-season, Drummond is doing it. Detroit’s not winning as much as they should, but who cares when their big man is rebounding at Rodmanesque levels? Someone cares, it’s just not me.
  • 42% assists in 700+ games, Russell Westbrook: As stated above, assists are not necessarily indicative of great passing, playmaking, or even of unselfishness. In some cases, maybe they’re just indicative of control. Three players in NBA history have assisted on over 42% of their team’s scored field goals: John Stockton (did it on 19% usage), Chris Paul (24% usage), and now Westbrook on a whopping 33% usage. For context, for players who have appeared in over 700 games, Westbrook is second all-time on usage rate (Michael Jordan is first). I made an assumption that as players get older, their usage would decrease, but looking across Kobe, Jordan, and Wade (all close to Russ on career usage), they each had big usage numbers late in their careers so I have no idea where Westbrook’s goes from here. None of this is to say that Westbrook isn’t an excellent passer, but rather to articulate that his gaudy assist rates are a by-product of a ball-dominant style combined with high level passing.
  • >36 minutes, <1.8 assists, >23% usage, Andrew Wiggins: What an oddball stat I dug up here. Counting Wiggins this season, it’s been achieved 34 times; most recently by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. I don’t know what to make of this list. It includes guys like Moses Malone (an eight-time inductee), Dwight, Antawn Jamison, Elvin Hayes, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Keith Van Horn (all twice), Rudy Gay, Dominique Wilkins, and Rashard Lewis (all once). And then there are a bunch of oddballs. The combination of high volume minutes and usage with virtually nil playmaking is something I want to attribute to low basketball IQ or perhaps a myopic perspective on the attacking side of the ball; but it’s not that simple as Jamison, Malone, Zo, Nique, Rashard were all dynamic players who were maybe just less-than-average passers. The player has opportunity, but it’s either outside of their skillset or not something the player is willing to do.

If so much of these outlier stats serve as examples of an expanding skill set in the modern player, Wiggins, and Westbrook to a different degree, serve as sore thumbs of stagnation, of stasis. What is interesting in both players is their overwhelming athleticism and the potential opportunity to speculate how dependence on a certain skill can impede development of other skills. The need to evolve or die isn’t applicable because, in these scenarios, the player is already so developed physically, that other weaknesses can be hidden or overlooked. This isn’t to imply that Westbrook or Wiggins are not very good or even great at what they do. Rather, to differentiate their styles through statistical outliers.

Spring is in the air which means the playoffs will be here soon … soon

 

Trae Young and the Long Arm of Steph Curry

I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.

Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.

My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”

However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”

LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.

With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.

Steph, Tyreke Locure, LaMelo Ball

Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.

In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”

Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”

I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”

It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.

The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)

14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.

The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.

I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.

An Ignominious Induction: Dwight Howard from the line

About every 15-to-20 years, the free throw gods look down on NBA giants and anoint one of their biggest, bulkiest personalities as a goat; an inept, pretzel-minded, musclebound brute of a free throw shooter. Of course, our NBA giants are more than just poor free throw shooters. They’re humans with dunktastic ferocity, superior sizes, unstoppable phyiscalities, and yet afflicted by some cruel combination of stage fright and giant-hand-small-ball syndrome. But (oh the big ol’ but!), they are at times truly incapable as free throw shooters as we saw from Dwight Howard on the night of October 24th, 2017 when the Charlotte Hornets center shot 0-9 from the free throw line, thus becoming the fourth player since the 1963-64 season* to attempt at least nine free throws and miss all of them.

50 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain delivered one of the more bizarre stat lines in league history, one that highlighted both his transcendent dominance with his neutralizing weaknesses, when he scored 26 points on 11-11 shooting with an inexplicable 0-9 from the line. For good measure, the Big Dipper added 24 rebounds and five assists. Chamberlain, a career 51% free-throw shooter who dropped down to 44% in 1967, had 36 career games where he missed all of his free-throw attempts. Of those 36, he had 15 games with three or more attempts so it wasn’t an aberration the same way it would be if say Rick Barry underhand shot his way to 0-9. But Wilt claimed to not be responsible on this February night. As Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “He (Chamberlain) complained early and often about the use of ‘stickum’ by the Hawks, but he wasn’t about to expound on his complaints afterwards.” This isn’t completely accurate as Chamberlain did expound:

“I said I wasn’t going to say anything about it because when I do everybody says ‘Wilt is a crybaby who is looking for an excuse for his lousy foul shooting.’ If you want to know how much stickum there was on the ball out there today, why don’t you ask some of the other guys?”

Teammate Chet Walker, who must’ve been in earshot, responded, “So much it was ridiculous. The ball was really loaded. They ought to outlaw that stuff.” For whatever it’s worth, Walker, a career 80% free-throw shooter, shot 4-5 that night.

“Stickum” Chamberlain

13 years later in 1980, a 6’7”, 225-pound brute of a rebounder named Truck Robinson led his 19-4 Phoenix Suns against the Bulls of Chicago. Robinson was a former rebounding champion with a career 66% free throw average. On this night he was described by Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune as someone “who does a lot of things well but can’t shoot free throws. Against the Bulls, he descended into the pits of ineptitude previously inhabited alone by “Stickum” Chamberlain. It was a close game against the Bulls and even a sub-standard night of free throw shooting, like 30 or 40%, from Truck could’ve alleviated the stress. As Norm Frauenheim of the Arizona Republic wrote, “Phoenix had a chance to stretch its now-precarious lead to six points nine seconds later. (Ricky) Sobers had fouled Robinson. It didn’t matter. Robinson’s long night of futility from the free-throw line continued. He missed his eighth and ninth attempts – the ninth never even touched the rim.”

At this point, my pop-culture, meme-saturated mind immediately hears Homer Simpson’s “D’Oh!” followed by the massive splat of a facepalm. Let’s give the last word on Truck’s forgettable night to Dozer from the Tribune who tells us what happened after Robinson’s final air ball, “Now Coach John MacLeod got smart and took out the Suns’ free-throw patsy.” A night so bad we’re resorting to name calling? Oh, the shame.

“Free-throw patsy,” Truck Robinson

December of 2000, “Stickum” Chamberlain’s cultural offspring, Shaquille “Chamberneezy” O’Neal, in the ultimate show of anything you can do, I can do better, one-upped Wilt and Truck with the worst of the worst, the stinkiest of the stink, a rotten egg of putridity the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen before or since: 0-11 from the line. In what would borderline as trolling in today’s vernacular, Tim Brown of The Los Angeles Times led off his recap painting an image of utter helplessness, “His right arm draped over his new free-throw coach, Shaquille O’Neal walked stiffly from Staples Center on Friday night. It didn’t work again. He missed all 11 free throws—an NBA record.” It seems some of us, no matter how hard we try or how badly we seek to rectify the errors in our ways, are incapable of salvation, doomed to recurring cycles of relative failure.

And finally, after wandering the halls of bricks, air balls, stickums, and free-throw shooting coaches, we arrive at the Chamberlain-O’Neal torch bearer: Dwight Howard. Seeing Wilt and Shaq on this list, there’s a sense of inevitability to Dwight joining them. For his career, he’s been a better free-throw shooter than his forbears, but there’s the same combination of absurd hulking size coupled with fragile, blot-out-the-sun ego. Dwight had to join this list, but somewhere along the line, we lost our collective desire to examine, through humor or (over)-analysis, the suck. In Rick Bonnell’s recap from the Charlotte Observer, there’s nothing more than reference to the 0-9 shooting. SB Nation’s At The Hive team blog referred to Dwight’s night as “dismal,” but nothing more.

I wanted quotes, acknowledgement, acceptance, something. Maybe this is more my problem than the media’s, but traveling back in time and consuming the colorful quotes, excuses, and descriptions puts the relative inattention to Howard’s crapfest in strange, apathetic context. It’s not just possible, but rather likely that somewhere on these internets or across the airwaves of local Charlotte radio these abysmal attempts at shooting free throws were rightly excoriated and that I’ve just overlooked them. If that is the case, I hope you found those criticisms and enjoyed them. If not, we can only hope that our struggling athletes re-learn the arts of excuse making and our scribes explore negative anomaly with the zeal of positive.

**Bonus: While Basketball-Reference’s database goes back to the 1963-64 season for game logs that include free throw attempts, my research referenced a game on November 4th, 1960 when Chamberlain shot 0-10 from the stripe. In true Chamberlain fashion, he countered the poor night of shooting with 44 points, 39 rebounds, and 22 blocks – this according to Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. Chamberlain was comfortable owning his struggles as he said, “That kills me. Missing all those foul shots like that, I know I’m not a good foul line.” Then there’s some references to “the underhand sweep” which is apparently a free throw form Chamberlain toyed around with along with some of the most colorful sports writing. Kiser refers to Detroit’s center Walter Dukes as someone “who sometimes resembles a wrestling octopus in action,” frequently writes his name as “Waltah,” quotes Dukes as claiming, “I could score as many points as Wilt if I took as many shots,” and gets Wilt on the record saying, “Do I play harder against Walter than the average guy? Well, maybe I do … That boy just gets me mad with that rough stuff of his. He throws elbows at you when there’s no need to throw them. He’s just naturally mean.”

Melo & Bron: A Diverging Examination of Player Decisions & Player Power

Maybe it all started back in 2006, 11 years ago when Barack Obama hadn’t even taken office and the future was about as clear as Phil Jackson in room with sage, incense, and other clouds of organic nature. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James signed extensions with their teams: Bron three years with a player option for the Cavs. Melo, four years with a player option for Denver, and thus began a gradual resetting of courses that at one time appeared maybe, kinda parallel. The ensuing years have revealed not just a gap in on-court skill sets, but a gap in decision making and how these megawatt star players leverage their power to achieve both on and off-court goals.

Artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

 

Fast forward to 2010 when James (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) declined his player option and infamously took his talents to South Beach. In that fell swoop, the Miami super friends seized power from teams, owners, and front offices. (It’s fair to question how much power was seized as each player took less money to join forces.)

By contrast, Melo was stuck in his remaining year in Denver where the core of the roster was set to enter free agency and watching his friends and fellow 2003 draftees must’ve felt like missing out on the biggest basketball party in the world. That Nuggets core included Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups who had a team option remaining. Combine roster uncertainty with what was an almost guaranteed lockout in the following season and Melo had motivating factors for leaving that went beyond New York and his wife’s (La La Anthony) professional ambitions.

Where Bron and friends went for the off-season, long-term approach, Melo took a new tact and forced a trade in-season. Because he was set to become a free agent, he held the power as prospective buyers were rightly reluctant to give up assets in exchange for a player who wouldn’t commit to re-signing. This has become a blueprint of sorts which we’ve seen most recently with the Paul George-to-Lakers posturing and if George ends up staying in Oklahoma City, there will no doubt be second guessing in Lakerland over their decision to not pay up for the multi-time all-star when they had the chance.

The Lakers differ from the Knicks trading for Melo in that they weren’t willing to give up certain assets (Brandon Ingram, the second pick) for a player they have a chance at signing in 2018. The Celtics took a similar tact in their George conversations. The Knicks gave up a handful of low spades (h/t Bomani Jones) to acquire Melo including three picks; one of which turned into Dario Saric in 2014 and a pick-swap in 2016 that turned into Jamal Murray.

Let’s pause here and look at where James’ and Anthony’s decisions had landed them heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season:

  • The 2006 decision to re-sign for an extra fourth season pushed Melo closer to financial uncertainty heading into the 2011 lockout whereas James had signed for a highly-flexible six-year deal with Miami in 2010 with years five and six as player options.
  • The 2010 decision by James to join Miami landed him with a proven-winner in Pat Riley, an NBA champ in Wade, and a third all-star in Bosh. It was the ultimate in player agency and self-determination.
  • Melo’s 2011 forced trade didn’t leave the cupboard bare in New York, but placed him alongside a 25-point-scoring Amare Stoudemire, an aging Billups, and a Marcus Camby-type figure in Tyson Chandler. In addition, he agreed to a three-year extension.
  • At this point, neither player had won a title.

While it’s fair to look at how the Knicks have devolved since 2011, at the time, it wasn’t the worst assortment of talent. In December of 2011, using the playbook Melo put together, Chris Paul was reportedly trying to force his way to New York to join Melo and Stoudemire. As NBA players and agents quickly learned from each other how to gain and use leverage, the attempts of Melo, Stoudemire, and Paul to converge in New York was a combination of the Melo leverage play and the Bron/Heat super friends approach. I don’t know if it was quite unprecedented, but it did signal what the future of player movement and team building would look like.

The Paul deal never panned out, Stoudemire was crushed by injuries, Billups fell off and the Knicks didn’t take up his option. Competent executive Donnie Walsh left prior to the 2011-12 season as well, stripping the team of probably its sanest and smartest decision maker.

Melo isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Knicks front office any more than he’s responsible for Stoudemire’s injuries. But positioning yourself as a power player creates a natural, fair or not, over-analysis of your decisions. And the Knicks with James Dolan as owner had a long history of bumbling. That they teased fans with a successful 2012-13 season before spiraling into sub-optimal mediocrity under Phil Jackson is hardly a surprise.

Heading into the summer of 2014, the chasm between James and Melo, which had once been moderate back in 2010, had grown massively and not just because James was the better player, but because he played the decision-making game better. By aligning himself with healthy, in-prime all-stars, and a stable front office, he was fully empowered to excel on-the-court.

In June of 2014, Melo declined his player option with the Knicks and went on a free agency tour that included visits with the Bulls, Lakers, Mavs, and Rockets. Except for the Lakers, the other teams Melo met with offered a combination of proven stars and teams flirting with 50-win seasons – so of course two of the final three teams on Melo’s list were non-playoff teams: the Lakers and Knicks.

In hindsight, bypassing the soon-to-be-ravaged-by-injury Bulls was a stroke of luck and besides, Melo would get his chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York a couple seasons later. But at the time, opting back in to New York was interesting if unsurprising. In what should have foreshadowed future acrimony, there was strain between Jackson and Melo even during the free agency process as Jackson publicly needled Melo to take less money. For Jackson, the notion of courting a star has always run counter to convention or common sense, but when you have two hands worth of rings as your resumé, leeway is granted.

Meanwhile, after getting smoked in the 2014 finals by the Spurs, James returned to the Cavs, but not without assurances; namely Kevin Love. At the same time, Melo either bought into Jackson’s vision of the future or he went with the creature comforts of home. It’s funny to read immediate reactions from Melo’s signing and see where the focus was so heavily directed at title contention – not in 2014-15, but sometime during the Phil/Melo regime. Sweet hindsight provides a clarity inaccessible to the intoxication of a $122M reunion and a future envisioned by a man referred as the Zen Master. Not everyone was on board with Melo’s choice though as GQ’s Bethlehem Shoals was scraping away at the same Melo issues that have reared their head three years later.

By gaining assurances on landing Love and pairing him with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs didn’t offer James a glimpse of the future. They offered him a concrete present where the path to the finals was visible for the most nearsighted of eyes. Owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to competing, regardless of cost, made it possible to build a complementary team of shooters and cheap veteran talent to land a championship roster. (This looks a little different three years into the James return as Gilbert has fired championship GM, David Griffin and as of this writing, the front office remains somewhat in limbo and the Kyrie Irving trade demands cast a shadow on the whole of the Cavs [including Bron’s] management.)

By contrast, Jackson continued to insist on the triangle in New York; continued to insist on the team playing his way, not tapping into the skills of its $122M superstar. It’s not that Griffin’s or Jackson’s approaches to team building are right or wrong. They’re different philosophies with different degrees of flexibility and rigidity depending on personnel. That James chose the more complementary team or managed to gain influence over that team is a testament to either his foresight or power or a combination of both. Melo re-upping with New York without an obvious road to future success speaks either what was most important to him (financial security, New York family) or an inability to assess the NBA’s competitive landscape and how that Knicks team fit into it. Ten to 14 years into the Melo/Bron journey, we’ve seen James continually make decisions that align with his off-court interests and his on-court aspirations while Melo awkwardly fights with his GM and soaks in life as one of the most popular athletes in New York.

The big wrinkle in Melo’s 2014 contract was the inclusion of the no-trade clause which gave him the power to veto a deal to any team in the association. For all of Anthony’s questionable decision making over the years, this was one of his shrewder and smarter demands and is the kind that only a few players can make. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest tool in his belt to fend off Jackson’s repeated attempts to banish him from the Knicks forever.

Alas, even Melo’s better decisions create potential stumbling blocks. Reportedly, Melo refused Phil’s attempts to move him out of New York. For much of the 2016-17 season, an updated Melodrama (Melodrama III if we’re counting, but there’s a minimum amount of relevance required to have your foibles named and Melo’s relevance is nowhere near its peak of 2011) played out across the headlines of New York publications with Jackson doing everything in his power to sink his star’s value while simultaneously trying to trade him. Throughout it all, Melo steadfastly refused to be dealt until Jackson was finally fired in late June. Less than a week after Jackson was dumped, it was reported that Anthony was now willing to waive the no-trade if he was dealt to Houston or Cleveland. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Given that Anthony largely controls the process, it will be difficult for New York to demand significant assets in any trade.” Which makes one wonder what Melo’s true motivations are or were. Did he just want to outlast Phil or did he truly want to remain a Knick? Does winning matter or does it just matter once Melo has everything else Melo wants?

There’s no small amount of irony comparing James to Melo in terms of decision making. After all, Bron is the player who set up an entire televised special to announce he was leaving his hometown Cavs to play for the Miami Heat. His decision and the manner he delivered it exhibited tone deafness and a lack foresight. He’s exhibited passive aggressive behavior towards teammates and front offices, sub-tweeted teammates on social media, taken a shit on fans after losing to the Mavs in 2011. In short, the follies of maturation and shortcomings in interpersonal communication styles have been on loop for all of us to watch for the past 15 years. While his platforms and message have sometimes lacked a broad view, his choices in terms of teams and teammates have been masterful. If you believe him to be a shadow GM, well, his player personnel decisions are much more impeachable.

So we land here in July of 2017 and Melo, after long stating he wants to stick it out in New York hasn’t just lifted the no-trade clause for a couple of teams. Rather, according to Woj, “he’s made it clear to them (the Knicks) that I want to go to Houston. I’m not interested in talking to you about being reincorporated back into this New York roster.” He may have outlasted Phil and resumed his role as controller of his own destiny, dictating his next destination to Steve Mills and Scott Perry. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that he’s managed to land in three separate times in his career. It’s no small thing for a worker to seize the reins of power from management and ownership, but Melo’s done it. And for once, his desire to join a pre-made roster instead of sitting at the center of a future-facing plan looks to be real. Was it all as simple as a power struggle with the ancient Phil Jackson? Or is Melo’s basketball biological clock ticking as sneaks glimpses of pro basketball mortality? We’ll never know. Assuming Melo lands in Houston, without the weight of a franchise on his New York-born shoulders, one only can hope he finds a peace and satisfaction that was always out of grasp at home.

2017 Pro Basketball MVP: Russell Westbrook

Art from Matt Hollister http://www.matthewhollister.com

Russell has a bad beard, barely a beard
So Harden Schmarden
Russell is broad-shouldered, jumps high, runs fast, shoots imaginary pistols, snarls, is the latest embodiment of a made-up mentality called mamba
Man-made of bones and flesh though sometimes it doesn’t seem so like when he’ll
Snatch a board and explode like the Flash or Usain Bolt with basketball
Passing Steven and Enes, and Victor and Billy, and Steve McQueen and Dutch McQueen
It’s impossible though to keep up the high forever
Acid wears off, paint runs dry, the sun grows cold and dim, and Russell, unlike Wilt,
Can’t play 48.5 minutes a game
Sit, rest, sweat, replenish with electric koolaid Gatorade
And witness and watch a wannabe empire crumble on a
Kevin Durant departure, like a
Prairie twister flinging Clay-B into snarling jaws of PNW throngs
Plus, minus, net, zero
 

Russell has knuckles that bulge, big hands I see during press conferences gripping thin-necked mics
Those same big hands the tools of a furious craftsman shaping a world of leather and wood and glass and steel and nylon
Big heart pumping, big heart probably three times the size of a normal human heart like he’s the human Secretariat
Chasing down Big O, Big Oscar, Big grouchy pants, while the pitched screams of the chorus clash in some unholy demonic din
Love, hate, sober, drunk, we can’t agree on anything
Even numbers lie these days
Over-contextualized
Down to the subdermal layers to the atoms of Russell’s being, scrutinizing
Every
Fucking
Rebound
 

Stack up all the stats like petty biscuits of achievement and gobble it up without milk
Choke on the numbers
Critical and confused in a day where we know everything and yet still believe in what we can’t see
Everything ends and every ending starts with some sprouting in spring or something
 

A car crash in Houston on a
Late night in April
Careening into Patrick
(“Your mom!”)
Beverley Schmeverley
Russell MVP rising so far so fast
Commercialized, commodified to sell product
In funny clothes, clownsuits
Prisoner of a musecage of his own design
(Oh, give it a rest, Kobe)
How though?
Head to head, I mean rim to rim nuclear-propelled missile bullet rocket projectile thundering sonic boom
Bukkake acid rain all over the NBA
 

But fizzle fizzle fizzle
No cupcake, no sadness, no victory
Those big hands crinkling, those knuckles crunching
Pupils big like frisbees
A multi-hued splatter on hardwood canvas
Bill Walton Jackson Pollock basketball
Drunk on a tappable fury reserve,
Futuristic basketball player in Joanie Mitchell hats
Validated in losing, but still
Validated, but still
Losing, but still
Validated …

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 16-20

The fifth and final installment of our 2017 draft coverage. Man, the deeper you go, the more difficult it is to see consistency in these players. It becomes an exercise in possibility and potential which is kind of funny given that most of the top-players in this year’s draft are fresh 19-year-olds with a single season of college basketball under their belts. Attempting to go even semi-deep on scouting some of these mid-range first founders is an eternal balance between flaws (John Collins’s defense), health (Harry Giles’s knees), and upside (Jarrett Allen’s physical gifts). It’s difficult to project with any confidence who will develop and who will stagnate, but that’s what we’ve attempted to do here, just know that we’re fully aware our success rates will likely dwindle into nothingness and that we’ll look back at our player comparisons three seasons from now like “WTF were we thinking?”

Special thanks to my fellow writers, Bug and Hamilton and our awesome designer, Maahs. Additional thanks to Draft Express, The Ringer, Dunc’d On podcast (Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux) and Basketball Reference. Tons of great resources out there that were critical to us being able to put these scouting reports into existence.

With all that said, let’s get into player’s 16-20 on the 2017 Dancing with Noah Big Board.

Hamilton: By some measures, John Collins looks like he belongs near the top of this draft class. He averaged nearly 29 points and 15 rebounds per-40 minutes and had the top PER in college basketball. He gets a lot of those buckets in the paint using an array of quick half hooks and little push shots that remind me of Antawn Jamison. He really uses lower body well to seal for position on post catches, rolls hard and is a good leaper off two feet when he has time to load up his jump. If Collins has any NBA skills that get him on the floor soon it will be his effort on offense, along with his rebounding. Collins’ catch-and-shoot game from 19-feet is solid for a college big. The form on his shot looks smooth enough to develop into a reliable jumper. His willingness to roll hard and fight for rebounds coupled with that shooting give him a chance to become a serviceable offensive player. He hits the glass hard on both ends, as evident in per-40-mpg rebound number. He seems to have a good second jump when battling in traffic for rebounds and tips a lot of balls to keep them alive. Tristan Thompson has made a ton of money with this as a key skill … That’s some of the good stuff.

The not-so-good is mostly on the defensive end. Collins has just OK size for a five-man even in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have enough awareness to guard many fours, frequently getting caught helping uphill against dribblers. He gets lost too often even against basic movement. These things suggest a steep learning curve against pick-and-roll in the NBA. For how physical he is on the glass he doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable with contact while guarding. Oddly (to me at least) is how much better his footwork is offensively compared to his defensive footwork. And therein lies my concern for his career (at least early). He’s likely to be drafted late lottery or by a so-so playoff team. Those teams are more likely to have shorter leashes with guys who get killed on defense (looking at you James Young) than teams picking in the top-5-10. There’s definitely a path to a long productive career for Collins, but we may see very little of him over the next two-to-three years.

Bug: This isn’t Justin Jackson’s first rodeo with the draft process. After his sophomore season, Jackson threw his name in the hat for the 2016 draft without hiring an agent. However, he was not met with the love from the scouts that he was hoping for last year. Jackson saw the writing on the wall, and pulled his name out to head back to school to put in some more work on his game.

Fast forward to 2017: coming off a national title run with North Carolina, Jackson is now getting the positive feedback he was looking for last year. It’s a great success story for him, but there both positives and negatives to his initial failed draft experience. The obvious pros for the UNC product returning to school are that he played his way into a potential lottery slot, won a national championship, and fixed some of the weaknesses in his game (outside shooting jumped from 29% to 37%). That improvement also shows scouts that he is willing to put in the work necessary to succeed at the highest level of basketball in the world. The downside to coming back for another year is that he is now one of the oldest prospects in the draft and loses a lot of his upside appeal. How much more room does he have before he hits his ceiling?

Based on his size and skill set (6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan), I think he projects as a solid “3 and D” guy in the NBA. Guys like Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley come to mind as comparisons, and they have never had a problem finding a team or a spot in the rotation. As long as he keeps improving his jumper and shot selection, while also keeping the same intensity on defense that he brought his junior season at UNC, he should have no problem sticking in the NBA. Jackson may never become an all-star player, but he should have a long, productive career as a solid contributor and possible starter down the road.

Fenrich: Harry Giles of Winston-Salem, North Carolina just turned 19 a couple months ago and yet his basketball career has already been beset by multiple semi-catastrophic knee injuries. In 2013, Giles tore the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee. In 2015, he tore his right ACL. Oy!

Recovery for the second ACL bled over to his freshman season at Duke where he averaged under four-points-per-game and nearly eight-fouls-per-40 minutes. Reading and writing that made my head hurt.

But what didn’t make my head hurt was watching Giles’s highlight tape. He has decent height (6’11”) and length (7’3” wingspan) that are bolstered by fluid athleticism. He runs the floor well without any obvious hitches from his knee injuries. The length and athleticism are further bolstered by what appears to be a solid motor. He understands team defense and doesn’t mind mixing it up on the boards or the defensive end. And where we often opt for the cool, unbiased certainty of stats and measures, seeing a guy give a crap and play hard still counts for something.

He doesn’t seem quite ready to be a contributor on the offensive side. Like a lot of players his position and age, he seems like he’d be wise to watch tape of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan and learn the timing of how and when to roll on the pick-and-roll.

Given that he appeared in just 300 minutes at Duke and has these two knee injuries, it’s challenging to see what he’s truly capable of. In those minutes, he took no threes and shot just 50% from the line on less than an attempt each game. It’s not that his offense is raw, but rather it might just longing for some TLC. I know that’s weird, but there’s a skillset here that’s better than the four-points-per game he showed at Duke.

Maybe it’s just that he plays hard and doesn’t mind doing the dirty work, but I’m a fan of Giles. I have no idea if he can pass or handle the ball or stay out of foul trouble, but agile big men who can switch on the perimeter and don’t mind banging still have a place in the NBA and that means Giles has a home waiting for him in the best basketball league in the world.

Fenrich: The mustache, the little fro, the headband. Jarrett Allen looks like someone straight out of the ABA and for a 19-year-old, he has a mustache that can make grown men envious – at least those longing for mustachioed excellence. Allen is also longer and a better leaper than Giles (his age and positional peer).

And yet, where I find myself excited and hopeful for Giles, I’m unenthused about Allen.

With his length and hops, he can dunk without fear of reprisal. He’s capable of being a plus-rebounder and shot blocker because he’s just so damn long. There’s even a little mid-range set shot that makes me think of Marcus Camby and in his lone season at Texas, he flashed the ability to read double teams.

But there’s a general aversion to mixing it up. In the tape I watched on Allen, he played with finesse (except when he was dunking in someone’s face) and seemed unwilling to bang with opponents. He doesn’t have to be compared to Giles, but where the Duke product went balls to the wall, Allen’s motor is a question mark to me. He’s listed at 235-pounds, but looks just as lean as Giles and without that wiry-type functional strength. It may be there, but he just hasn’t figured out how to leverage it with consistency.

What I worry about with some prospects is that they’re able to get by on talent alone and when faced with equal or better competition, they don’t have the motor or desire to dial up their intensity to match the opponent. Is this the case with Allen or were my expectations just unfair due to his throwback look? Who knows? Is he Trey Lyles or PJ Brown?

Fenrich: If we redid the big board, I think Rabb would likely fall further than anyone else. This kind of bums me out because I followed him over his two seasons at Cal liked what I saw of him around the basket. He’s a plus-rebounder with a good nose for the ball. Like seemingly every other big man in this draft, he’s got NBA height and length, but he’s somewhat limited in how he uses it.

What jumped out to me as a red flag was the decline in his shooting from his freshman to sophomore season where his true shooting dropped from 63% to 54% despite shooting a decent 40% on 8-20 from deep.

As his current skill set is constituted, he doesn’t project as having NBA-level scoring ability. Per The Ringer, he was a below average shooter from nearly every spot on the floor. He likes to play in the post, but at a not-too-strong 220-pounds, he doesn’t have the strength to bang and besides, he’s just not that efficient. Per Draft Express, he shot “a mediocre … 0.75 points per possession” in the post.

He’s a kid who’s willing to work which is best exemplified by his effort on the glass. But the weaknesses are too many and the skill too low to project out as an NBA starter. In a best-case scenario, he’d develop some type of mid-range game-to-three point game, guard fours and fives and mix in some small ball lineups. Absent that, he’s a less athletic Ed Davis or Thomas Robinson.

 

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 11-15

All artwork done by Andrew Maahs basemintdesign.com

Welcome to the third installment of the Dancing with Noah 2017 NBA Draft player analysis featuring players ranked 11 to 15 from our big board. Players one through five and six through ten have been covered already. This round covers Frank Ntilikina, Donovan Mitchell, Luke Kennard, OG Anunoby, and Justin Patton. And as the guy who wrote three of the scouting reports/analyses below, it’s crazy how quickly the quality of prospect shifts from semi-definition to mere outlines and visions based on potential. And it’s not to say none of the top-10 players are “specialists,” but as we shift lower, it seems some of these players have obvious specialty skills offset by weaknesses that lower their ceilings relative to players in the top-10. And as always, special thanks to my fellow writers Hamilton and Bug, and our talented designer, Maahs.

Fenrich: Frank Ntilikina

The only tape I’ve seen of Ntilikina (a difficult name to spell) is against teens in an U-18 European tournament. It’s nigh impossible to comprehend how skills translate from the high school or low-pro level to the NBA or how a 6’5” point guard with monster length translates. In some regards, I imagine this is how scouts felt in the late 1990s and early 2000s watching the likes of Eddy Curry feasting and beasting on 6’4” centers at the high school level.

Enough about Curry though. Ntilikina is super long with a balanced, if slow, catch and shoot jumper. His motion is consistent as he gets square and has strong balance. As that jumper is presently constituted, I don’t see him getting clean looks in the NBA unless he’s able to speed up his release – which he showed on occasion.

In the limited tape I viewed, I didn’t see a ton of footspeed quickness; particularly on the offensive end. However, most scouting reports which point to the defensive end as his greatest strength call out lateral quickness. With an unofficial wingspan near seven-feet, there’s potential to be a damn hellion on that end of the floor. This type of scouting report is applicable to a lot of youngsters as the skill-side hasn’t caught up with their physical gifts. Anunoby, Isaac, and Anigbogu come to mind. Also, there’s no guarantee the skill side does catch up.

I do wonder if he’s really a point guard or if he’ll slot into a combo guard capable of switching onto multiple positions at the NBA level. Bug compared him to a mini version of Thabo Sefolosha and I’m apt to agree with him though I may take it even a step further and extend a high-end comparison to Nicolas Batum. Both players are smart, with defensive versatility and offensive games better-suited as second or third (or further down) options.

Even with that all that defensive potential, I don’t think you draft Ntilikina with the expectation of immediate returns. He’s one of the younger players in this class and while he may be somewhat ready to make plays on the defensive end, the offensive side of the ball is going to take time to develop. If he’s entering his fourth season as a 22-year-old and he hasn’t ascended to starter-level, will a team still be invested? Will he maintain his confidence? These types of variable scenarios are realistic and will shape how adapts to the NBA over time.

Hamilton: Donovan Mitchell

To be quite honest, I didn’t see much Donovan Mitchell during the 2016-17 season. After watching some of his tape, I wish I had paid closer attention because he’s fun to watch. He’s fast (fastest ¾ court combine sprint since 2009), shifty, long-armed, and has incredible leaping ability. Anyone who has played JUCO ball knows this player type … It’s highly unlikely he makes it to Dwyane Wade’s level, but Wade has developed the template for the smallish slash-first scorer with supreme athletic ability in the modern NBA.

Mitchell appears to be a better three-point shooter than Wade was coming out of Marquette and that’s a good thing for him because he isn’t quite as big. He gets his shots off above and around bigger defenders and can make tough ones. His sturdy build along with great two-footed leaping and long arms should help him on drives and finishes in the NBA as well. He protects and hides the ball on drives using long strides and impressive body control to get to his spot. This is where he most reminds me of Wade.

On the downside, he appears to settle for jump shots a lot. Probably won’t ever be much of a PG. Not a great one-foot leaper, which will be somewhat limiting against NBA size. He looks awkward driving to his left and going up off one foot.

Talented enough to be a top player from this class, Mitchell projects as a starter on a bad team or a 2nd unit scorer on a good one. He plays with a flair that reminds of J.R. Smith, Nate Robinson or Nick Young. He’ll do some things that make you cringe and just as easily wow you on the next possession. And that’s what you live with when you have guys like JR, Nate Rob or Swaggy P. He is cut from their cloth. Irrational confidence. Pull-up 3s in transition. Highlight reel shot-making. 20+ points on any given night. Equally likely to be a total no-show.

Bug: Luke Kennard

Going into my analysis of Luke Kennard, I tried to keep an open mind as far as player comparisons go. I didn’t want to take the easy way out and compare him to fellow Duke alum J.J. Redick, but the more I watched Kennard, the more I saw a lot of the tools that make Redick successful in the NBA. The similarities go deeper than them being white guys from Duke that are elite shooters. Both players have wingspans that are shorter than their height, which can make it harder to get shots off in the paint and off-the-dribble.

Looking back at Redick’s Draft Express profile from 2006, they also had a lot of the same weaknesses and concerns coming into the draft. Does he have enough athleticism to be able to guard NBA players? Is he explosive enough to get to the rim, and when he does get in the paint, will the lack of length make it tough on him to score? These are all legitimate concerns, but Redick has given players with Kennard’s skill-set a blueprint to succeed in the NBA. He’s not going to be a franchise guy and #1 scorer for a team, but he can carve out a role on a team to help provide shooting and spacing, which is huge for the giving primary scorers room to operate.

He made a huge leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons. He went from 12-points on 32% three-point shooting to the second-leading scorer in the ACC at 19.5 points with 53-44-86 shooting percentages. The thing that jumps out to me when I watch Kennard’s tape from Duke is his basketball IQ and an extremely advanced triple threat, face up game. As noted earlier, Kennard doesn’t have overwhelming athleticism, but he makes up for it with crafty moves off shot fakes, step backs and pull-ups. His deadly jumper sets up his offense because the defense is forced to respect his shot. He plays within himself most of the time, and doesn’t try to make plays outside of his capabilities. His 1.6 turnovers-per-game is outstanding for a player that was asked to carry a lot of the offensive load for his team.

Overall, I think Kennard is a very good late lottery prospect that can help out a team that needs shooting. In today’s NBA with smaller lineups and less low post banging, a team can never have enough shooting. Not only will the team drafting him be getting a great shooter, they will also be getting a good basketball player that knows how to play the game with great pace and intelligence.

Fenrich: OG Anunoby

No one seems higher on OG Anunoby than The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks who lists him fourth on his big board. I’m nowhere near that high, but I’m also not as low as my guy Bug who sees him as an “offensive train wreck.”

I’m probably somewhere between those extremes, but closer to Bug than Tjarks. What stood out to me seeing Anunoby’s clips from Indiana were his tree trunk legs. I envision those quads being able to power him to success in a strong man competition pulling a semi-truck in neutral, but a more practical application would be defending both forward positions in the NBA. In addition to the that powerful lower body, Anunoby has a 7’2” wingspan on a 6’8” frame. (I’ve also seen this wingspan listed at 7’5”.)

While he appeared in just 16 games as a sophomore at Indiana due to what was reported as an ACL tear, Anunoby averaged over two blocks and two steals per-40 minutes. I don’t see him as some kind of Andrei Kirilenko defensive wunderkind, but the ceiling for his defensive impact is significant. Not to take away from his work ethic, but it helps to be built like a long pterodactyl-like wings.

Now to the bad: OG can’t shoot. He shot just 52% from the line for his college career and after nearly 45% from three as a freshman on just under one attempt-per-game, that number dropped to 31% on nearly three attempts as a sophomore. It’s not just that the percentages are bad, but his form and release are awful. His footwork is poor and even when the shot goes in, I find myself cringing. I saw no evidence of playmaking.

I tend to downplay the 45% he shot from three as a freshman because the mechanics are so poor. His shooting has scared me into seeing his offensive floor maybe a level above Dennis Rodman’s – which is just horrendous. He can absolutely evolve offensively, but he doesn’t look like he’ll ever be even a top-four option on offense. Coupled with the lack of playmaking and it’s enough to land him in the specialist category which isn’t the worst place to be as a 6’8” combo-forward who can potentially defend all five positions.

Fenrich: Justin Patton

Justin Patton, Harry Giles, Jonathan Isaac, Zach Collins, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Ike Anigbogu. Who are these young, athletic giants roaming college and high school campuses across the United States? I watched their tapes, read their scouting reports and they’re all unique as snowflakes, complete with their own bags of strengths and weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and TBD-futures.

Patton lands right in the middle of this batch; a nearly seven-foot red-shirt freshman from Creighton where he shot a ridiculous 67% from the field on 13 attempts-per-game. Per Draft Express and Synergy, that number kicked up to 75% around the rim. Those shots around the basket accounted for 77% of his total field goal attempts. 174 of his 200 makes came at the rim. This is on some DeAndre Jordan distribution.

But Patton is no Jordan; in both good and bad ways. He can hit the jumper as he was able to make eight threes on just 15 attempts. His mechanics are funky though and he shot just 52% from the line. In short, there are no guarantees. And that’s the good on the Jordan comparison.

The bad is that he doesn’t rebound anything like DeAndre; not even Texas A&M, raw, unpolished DJ. Where DJ averaged nearly 12-rebounds-per-40 as a freshman, Patton averaged less-than-ten. His per-40 rebounding average is lower than any of the bigs included on this big board. His rebounding rate (under 14%) was 81st in the country – for freshmen.

If he’s not ready to be a reliable jump shooter, with his current defensive ability (good lateral movement, but questionable technique), he’s a five-man in the NBA. And if he’s a center, then he has to be better as a rebounder.

Patton doesn’t have to be DJ anymore than Isaac has to be Kevin Garnett. But unless he’s able to maintain his efficiency from three at the NBA level or proves he can sharpen his defensive technique, then he’ll be a rotation player.

Or, if his copious physical gifts (7’3” wingspan, nearly 31” vertical at just a hair under seven-feet) and skills reach their potential, then he’s a guy who can impact the game on both sides of the ball. The same can be said of most of these big guys. The art for scouts and front offices is figuring out who has the desire and will to be better and then putting them in a position where they can grow at a pace that’s both natural and challenging. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 6-10

All art designed and created by Andrew Maahs twitter.com/BaseMintDesign

This is the third post in our 2017 NBA draft coverage. The previous two posts can be found here: Big Board, Players 1-5 deep dive. While there continues to be some consensus here (we’re all skeptical, but also kind of optimistic on Dennis Smith as we see his middle ground as Eric Bledsoe; which is pretty damn good), our comparisons for Jonathan Isaac against NBA players runs an intriguingly wide range. As always, special thanks to my fellow writers/scouts (Bug, Hamilton) and our super talented artist (Maahs).

Hamilton: De’Aaron Fox emerged as high lottery pick during a solid freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 16.7 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists. His head-to-head dominance of consensus top-two prospect Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 propelled him to 2nd tier of the 2017 draft.

Fox has been compared to John Wall for his speed, and it’s possible he’s faster. He changes direction effortlessly without slowing down. While this is a tremendous asset, it can also be a problem. He has a tendency to get sped up in transition and half-court drives, ending up in no-man’s-land without a good shot, or a pass that sets up a shot for a teammate.

Many of Fox’s dimes come from relatively simple drop-off passes and dishes once he has gotten by his own man. His vision isn’t doesn’t appear to be on the level of other top PGs in this class. Playmaking PGs keep a probing dribble alive and change pace while doing so. I would like to see him change pace more than he does both in transition and in the half-court; against NBA level athletes, this is a must. Another problem for Fox as a PG in the NBA will be his well-documented poor shooting. It’s one thing to have a visually unappealing jumper if it goes in. That’s not the case here. Fox’s jump shot is broke and not always for the same reason. As Draft Express notes, sometimes he shoots on the way down, sometimes on the way up. He relies too much on upper body in his shot. Sometimes he floats to his left, sometimes his balance is pretty good. The angle of his elbow is always too narrow, which makes his release more of sling, or flick, than a jump shot. The good news is he’s well-aware of this fact and answered virtually every question in his DX interview in Los Angeles talking about improving his shooting. As it stands, his unreliable shot means defenders can go under on screens and his speed is somewhat nullified at the NBA level.

He also didn’t show much of a right hand at Kentucky and that’s another point of emphasis in his development. For me these factors call his position into question. I can see him developing into a slashing score-first combo guard. Defensively, he should have the ability to guard 1s and smaller 2s. If he can put on weight without compromising his speed, it could translate nicely on the defensive end of the floor for him. He’s not as polished as Markelle Fultz or Ball at this moment but his ceiling is high, and he gets great marks for his work ethic, intelligence, and character. Those things matter. When weaknesses are clear and fixable, a hard-working smart player can overcome. De’Aaron Fox may end up being a top-three player from this draft class, but what the finished product looks like is definitely to be determined.

Fenrich: Jonathan Isaac of Naples, Florida, late of Tallahassee, has a bit of that Anthony Davis thing going on where he played ball in high school as a combo forward before hitting a growth spurt and jumping up to his present height, 6’11”. Like Davis, there’s a natural fluidity in his athleticism. He doesn’t move like a lot of guys near seven feet tall though it seems like young people like Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, are becoming bigger and more athletic. Evolution indeed. When I look at Isaac’s tape though, I don’t see the same transcendent skill so prevalent in those other players I listed (to be fair, I didn’t see it in Towns either). That’s not really a knock on a player though.

Isaac moves great, he has unteachable length, appears comfortable without being the center of attention, has lateral mobility and quickness, can guard multiple positions. In short, he has a combination of physical ability and basketball skills that are ideal for today’s NBA where the ability to guard multiple positions and hit from deep are coveted. That latter piece is my curiosity with Isaac. In his one season at Florida State, Isaac took nearly three threes-per-game and hit close to 35% of them. For a guy who took just eight shots each night, to have nearly 40% of them come from deep is a curious stat.

That said, his three-ball and perimeter game come naturally. He has a nice jab step, but if he’s not an outside threat at the NBA level, I’m not confident how effective it will be. Speaking of using range to set up the driving attack, a favorite method of attack for the more developed bigs in the league, Isaac’s handle isn’t anywhere it needs to be to put the ball on the floor at the pro level. At its current level, I envision his pocket being picked or him being stripped by stronger, quicker defenders than what he’s accustomed to.

Concerns around his handle and how his jump shot translate aside, Isaac has the look of a natural pro defender. This is somewhat contingent on him getting stronger, but the length and agility coupled with the willingness to defend are a great foundation to build on. And I can’t imagine teams are looking at him expecting to be a number one or even number two option. That said, the NBA has a bad habit of miscasting players out of necessity. Just because Isaac can make the three and can occasionally put the ball on the floor doesn’t mean that’s what he should be doing. With any luck, he’ll land with a team patient enough to build on his copious defensive strengths and allow him to develop as a competent, but supporting offensive player.

Fenrich: Mark Medina of the OC Register wrote recently that Dennis Smith “had a 48-inch vertical.” The highest vertical in Draft Express’s deep database on NBA-prospect measurements is 46” from viral dunkster, D.J. Stephens. I’m not saying Medina got bad info or that someone is embellishing here, but the iota of possibility that Smith could possibly have a 48” vertical speaks to mind-numbing athleticism and explosiveness.

When I watched Smith’s tape from NC State, my first thoughts were “Baron Davis” and that he plays basketball like a football player. At 6’3”, 195lbs, Smith is built like a brick shithouse and attacks the rim like he’s relishing the contact. (As an aside, where I keep seeing Davis, it seems everyone else sees Steve Francis. I think it’s the thicker-looking build that makes me think Davis, but hey, Davis, Francis, whatever, he’s dunking on someone.) It’s one thing to see an explosive athlete dominate skinny college-level big men. It’s another thing to envision him careening into Draymond Green or Kristaps Porzingis or even Robin Lopez for the violent dunk smash.

Smith showed a serviceable jumper in the NCAA where he shot close to 36% on nearly two makes-per-game. That’s a good volume, but I’m lacking a bit of confidence in the shot. He can get the pull up jumper when he wants, but his balance often looks off. On the three, he doesn’t always hold his follow-through.

Similar to being a decent three-point shooter, but failing to instill confidence, Smith averaged over six assists as a freshman; a quality number, but watching his tape, there’s a glut of bad decisions made. It’s not just turnovers (he averaged nearly 3.5), but the shot selection and the seeming obliviousness of when to shoot or make a play. Smith was far too comfortable pulling up early in possessions when better options were available. Draft Express has what almost amounts to a blooper reel of Smith making the kind of decisions that drive coaches crazy (or get them fired).

Probably most disconcertingly, there are numerous questions around his character and leadership. There’s a consistent lack of effort on defense, boneheaded decisions on offense, straight up looking off teammates trying to set screens, and body language that often communicates disinterest. Some of these intangibles can maybe be attributed to his environment. Like Ben Simmons last season, NC State’s program was far from stable. They fired their coach in-season and struggled throughout the year. While Fultz was in a similar losing situation at the University of Washington (their coach was fired after the season), it was stable in that the coach had been in place for several years and, despite a series of one-and-done players, a culture had been established. This is a bit of a cop out for Smith, but still worth pointing out.

Despite all the concerns, I’m bullish on Smith. I acknowledge there’s a level of risk that goes with drafting him and believe he needs to land somewhere where veteran teammates or coaches can hold him accountable. In the top-ten picks of the draft, that’s not always an option. There’s a reason teams end up in the lottery. I don’t know if it’s better to have all the athleticism in the world and struggle with the mental aspects of the game, or, like his fellow draft class peer, Fox, have excellent athleticism with a great head on your shoulders. And even though I ranked Smith higher because the upside is so massive, as I write this, I can’t help but think that a good player with great character may be the better route.

Fenrich: I get the urge to see in Markkanen, a seven-foot, sweet jump shooting giant from the Nordics, a younger, modern version of German great, Dirk Nowitzki, but I don’t see it. I never scouted Dirk, never saw any tape of him back in the summer of 1998. So I went ahead and found this clip of Dirk going against America’s finest teens at the Nike Hoop Summit of ’98. And there are a few things that pop:

  • The announcers were comparing Dirk to Detlef Schrempf
  • Watching Dirk back then, you can see the badass, but aside from say, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, I can’t think of many guys you’d scout as an amateur and say, “He’s going to be a top-10 all-time scorer, MVP, and NBA champion.” As good as Dirk was in this clip, I don’t think anyone expected him to be the guy he’s become.
  • Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk

But Markkanen is a lot of other things. He’s a big kid with a basketball pedigree. His dad player for Kansas and the Finnish national team. His mom was also a national team player. He’s a legit seven-footer with a big, broad-shouldered frame that occasionally looks even bigger because he wore big t-shirts under his jersey at Arizona. In his single season in Tucson, he shot 42% from three on over four attempts-per-game. His range extends out to the NBA level and he appears to have a strong base. He does have a little hitch when he catches on spot up threes where he’ll catch and bring the ball down before elevating into his rhythm. It’s a small thing and he’s such a great shooter that I doubt it matters but when thinking about a vastly more difficult level of competition, these split seconds matter.

What the three ball opens up is the dribble drive as NBA bigs are often challenged to close out on shooters with a hand up and still defend the dribble drive. Not convinced he’ll be able to put it on the floor at first, but it should be something he develops.Sticking with the dribble drive, it was difficult to discern his ability to pass off the drive. Can he develop to the point where he can put it on the floor against a closeout defender, make a move, see the help and then find the open man? This is the type of skill level that takes a player from Channing Frye rotation-guy to Ryan Anderson-starter or better.

The big differentiator with Anderson though, is that Markkanen is a legit seven-footer while Anderson is around 6’10”. Neither player has great length, but based on those broad shoulders and average athleticism, Markkanen has the potential to be a load around the basket though that appears to be unlikely given his current stylistic approach.

Defensively, I’m not expecting much. To borrow from Jeff Van Gundy, so much of a defense is about effort. Is he willing to put in the hard work and effort to try on the defensive end or is he content to shoot seven threes each night? From the materials I’ve seen, there’s no indication he won’t put the work in, but it’s difficult to project at this point.

What’s most intriguing about Markkanen is that he’s likely the best shooter in this entire draft class. Being seven-feet and having that type of stroke automatically lifts the floor to Channing Frye-type levels. Even with the league evolving in terms of its size/skill versatility, Markkenen has the potential to be among the best shooting big men in the league. And that designation, “best shooting big man,” can mean anything from Channing Frye to Dirk Nowitzki – even though he won’t be Dirk.

Bug: If you’ve never watched Zach Collins play, you might look at the stats and wonder why he’s a projected lottery pick. Ten points, six rebounds, and only 17 minutes-per-game…what’s the fuss about?

Luckily for those of us that can’t keep our eyes open for those late night west coast games, we got a good look at Zach Collins in the NCAA Tournament. He had stretches during in March where he was the best player on the floor, with potential oozing from every orifice.

The correlation between what you see on the court and his stats don’t quite match up though. Why does such a skilled player only play 17 minutes-per-game, and only average ten points and six rebounds? We could blame it on the high foul rate that kept him off the floor, or we could claim that his youthful status on a veteran team held his minutes back. Either way you slice it, there is a mystique about Collins. Everything you see from him just screams “can’t miss prospect,” but the elephant in the room will always be “why did he play so little?”

Based on what I’ve seen from the tournament, and various clips, he has immense potential. He hits the three at a 47% clip, blocks four shots-per-game/per-40 minutes. The inside/outside game brings Pau Gasol to mind. He can bang down in the post, but also take it outside and knock down open jumpers. He compliments the offensive game with more-than-sufficient rim protection. When put in situations where he is required to guard smaller players, Collins shows the lateral movement to not be a liability in pick-and-rolls with good lateral movement for a seven-footer.

Using the term “leap of faith” could be applied to most prospects, but that phrase is the slogan for Collins. I see him play and get excited, but the 17 minutes of playing time is always the footnote. Can he extrapolate his impressive stats over a full game, or did he see limited minutes for a reason? We’ll find out soon enough, but based on what I see on film, it is worth the gamble to make Collins a lottery pick.

%d bloggers like this: