Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

May 2021: Allen Iverson Classic, a player-centric Review

Over the course of a few days in May, a collection of top-ranked high school basketball players descended on Memphis for the Allen Iverson Roundball Classic, an NBA-sanctioned event (meaning NBA personnel could attend to whet their appetites for future employees) hosted by one-time Memphis Grizzly, Allen Iverson.

This time of year is typically the season for post-season all-star/All-American games with the McDonald’s game, Jordan Brand Classic, and probably some others that aren’t coming to mind. In this second year of global Covid disruptions, most events are on hiatus, but not the Iverson Classic which stood alone as the sole national event this year. Spread across three days, there were (allegedly) competitive scrimmages withheld from the masses, dunk and three-point contests, a one-on-one tournament, and finally, the main event, an all-star game on Saturday night (May 8th) 28 of the top high school players in the country (27 boys and one girl). The game was streamed through SUVtv for a not unreasonable $9.99 and is available on-demand. Before I get into the players, notes on the stream and game:

  • SUV, as usual, provides competent and mostly knowledgeable announcers.
  • For viewers who enjoy rewind/fast forward hot key features (think five-second forward/back), SUV’s video player does not include these features. This is inexplicable.
  • The white jerseys have light-colored (light gold? White?) numbers making it difficult at times to determine who’s who. Similar to the video player, this is a small nuisance likely only impacting a handful of viewers, but even the announcers were tripped up at times.
  • The rosters (and all players are included below) are accurate
  • The head coaches of each team were Stephen Jackson and Rasheed Wallace. Both were engaged and vocal. From my lens, the gravitas of these former players contributed to sustained energy and competitiveness from the players. All-star games have long been the domain of coasting, but imagine your 18-year-old self defying Sheed or SJax.

Black Team (number next to each player is their jersey number):

  • #1 Paolo Banchero: Seattle kid with 11/12/02 (18.5 years old) b-day, somewhere between 6-9 and 6-11 (he’s not 6-11 despite what ESPN has listed) depending on source, 5* Duke commit, mocked #2 in 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-3 high-school rank:
    • All we heard all week was how him and Chet Holmgren competed hard against each other all week and, for me, they’re the most tantalizing players and prospects.
    • Banchero settled for a lot of jumpers in the game, both off-the-catch and off-the-bounce, but I’m not too concerned as he has sound mechanics and some of the shots felt like they in search of rhythm.
    • Banchero’s combination of size, movement and ball skills are somewhat mesmerizing. So many bigs his age are rail thin, still growing into their bodies and creating uncertainty as long-term prospect, but Banchero already has a solid frame complimented by a clean handle, tight cross and effective hesitation. Combined with strong body mechanics and mobility, the aggregate is extraordinary.
    • Given his general focus/engagement and build, I was surprised to see him pummeled on the o-glass by Holmgren who’s length, timing, and underestimated strength caused Banchero problems all day. Holmgren had at least four o-rebs that were a direct result of out-working Banchero.
    • Banchero’s defense doesn’t worry me because he’s a smart player who has a solid motor, but I don’t necessarily see him as a high-impact defender long-term; particularly with him going to Duke where Coach K seems to have given up on teaching defense to big men.

A crossover dribble move executed by Paolo Banchero of Seattle
  • #21 AJ Griffin: son of former NBA player and current assistant coach, Adrian Griffin, 8/25/03 (17.7) b-day (2nd youngest player in game), 6-7 or 6-8, listed at 200 pounds but there’s no way he’s that light, 5* Duke commit, mocked #6 in 2022 ESPN mock, no consensus on HS rank due to not having played in over a year, but pre-hiatus, was consistently top-10 in national ranks and top-3 in Draft Twitter circles:
    • Griffin looks like he spent the past year locked in the weight room alternating between shoulder presses and lat pulldowns. He’s fucking huge and gives off some Kawhi Leonard vibes as a power wing – although he’s nowhere near weaponizing that power right now.
    • The handle is slick and he hit someone with a nasty inside out that I should’ve clipped, but didn’t. My bad.
    • Range extends beyond NBA three line without effort.
    • In love with pull-ups and it’s a pretty shot with a variety of dribble moves to set it up, but lot of settling.
    • Could see the rust from long time off, but both the current ability and long-term potential outstrip any lack of rhythm.
  • #2 JD Davison: Alabama native with 10/3/02 (18.6) b-day, 6-2 or 6-3 (I’d lean to 6-2), with a solid 180-poundsd, 5* Alabama commit, not included in 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-13 in class:
    • Got a coveted Givony tweet about his play
    • Showed some flair for passing/reading floor that hadn’t popped as well in other viewings.
    • Power guard who used his strength/athleticism well a couple times including shrugging off Jaden Akins on a dribble drive and recovering on a Nolan Hickman ball fake to get the block on second jump.
    • Not sure if he shot a jumper.
  • #26 Johnathan Lawson: member of Memphis basketballing Lawson family, 10/7/02 (18.6) b-day, listed at 6-6 170 but looks taller, 4*Memphis commit (de-committed from Oregon), mostly a top-100 rank:
    • Jersey number was strangely a different color from teammates
    • Didn’t focus too closely on him, but lack of physical development seems to be holding back better body control
  •  #11 Tyrese Hunter: Wisconsin kid with 8/11/03 (17.8) b-day, listed at 6-1 175, high 4* Iowa State commit, consensus top-40:
    • My first viewing of Hunter
    • Able to breakdown primary defender with handle/quickness; handle is tight, improvisational
    • Good speed, fluid movement
    • Good feel, able to read/react to defense both on/off ball à low-key, probably the secret ingredient to his effectiveness
    • In part because I hadn’t seen him before, but walked away really being impressed by him
  • #15 TyTy Washington: big time rankings riser with 11/15/01 (19.5) b-day, 6-3 or 6-4, 5* de-commit from Creighton with crystal balls pointing to Kentucky, #13 on ESPN 2022 mock, ranks between #12 and 21 depending on source:
    • Able to create for self and others as lead guard – can beat the primary defender and make plus-decisions at second and third levels à drive-and-kick game solid, floater game solid
    • Totally in-flow here, comfortable as primary or off-ball; plays well with others which was important to see after seeing him force things a bit at Geico
    • Good range and shoots an easy ball
    • Showed some defensive awareness with early rotation/anticipation
    • In general, a joy
  • #5 Peyton Watson: Cali kid with 9/11/02 (18.7) b-day, listed 6-8 but could be taller, 5* UCLA commit, #6 on ESPN 2022 mock, consensus top-10 in class:
    • Am generally a big-time Watson fan, but he was quiet in this one – some of which could be attributed to normally being a ball-dominant offensive player and needing to find place alongside three high-level guards (TyTy, Hunter, Davison).
    • Lanky kid with long strides
    • Showed good body control/concentration with off-hand finish against Chet Holmgren contest
    • Not a player I typically think of as big-time athlete, but pulled out an impressive windmill on breakaway
  • #5 Hunter Sallis: from Omaha with 3/26/03 (18.1) b-day, listed at 6-5 but could be taller, 5* Gonzaga commit, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, ranks between 7 and 14:
    • Like Tyrese Hunter, this was my first time seeing Sallis, but like Watson, seemed like struggled a bit to get into an off-ball role.
    • I don’t know what I was expecting, but Sallis’s athleticism exceeded my expectations; he gets up well off two feet, had an electric windmill in transition, and showed some impressive speed/burst getting out in a sprint.
    • I’m intrigued, but not wowed.
  • #23 Bryce McGowens: out of South Carolina with 11/8/02 (18.5) b-day, listed at 6-6, high 4* or low 5* depending on who you ask committed to Nebraska after de-committing from FSU, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock:
    • McGowens is a slender wing who’s still growing into his body. In this game, similarly to Sallis and Watson, he played more off-the-ball than he’s accustomed to, but unlike the other two, it felt like a more natural fit.
    • Had couple of read/reacts and improvisations on a help side steal and drive into Chet’s chest for free throws that were good to see as in-the-flow, unforced impact. (This idea of in-rhythm, organic impact versus forced impact is something that I’ll return to throughout. In an all-star setting like this where you have 28 players who are accustomed to being focal points, getting a feeling for how players assimilate into team construct in unfamiliar capacities isn’t a panacea for scouting or projection, but it is helpful to get a feel for how a player will adapt in different situations.)
    • His shot and mechanics are fluid and polished, but I often find myself wanting more with the overall output.
  • #0 Benny Williams: DMV kid born on 4/30/02 (19), listed at 6-8 (was 5-9 as a frosh in HS), high 4*/low 5*, committed to Syracuse, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-35:
    • I believe Williams was the last guy off the bench and in my imperfect notes and memory, he had a comparable role; forced to nibble around the edges and get shots/make plays as opportunity presented itself.
    • His jumper has always been a strength at his size and while I didn’t see him make one, the mechanics still look good.
    • Flashed some plus-awareness/BBIQ with a quick dump-off on an offensive rebound à it’s a small thing, but making heady plays in limited opportunity is about all you can ask.  
  • #35 Matthew Cleveland: Atlanta native born 9/15/02 (18.7), listed at 6-7, high 4*/low 5* FSU commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-30, much higher in draft Twitter communities:
    • Big, strong, athletic, engaged, Cleveland has long been a draft Twitter darling that I’ve been closer to mainstream on (15-20ish) than draft Twitter and a lot of my reservation is revealing of my own limitation in focusing on his HS/AAU role as an on-ball, high-usage player where, in my viewings, he’s been over-aggressive with questionable decision making and shot selection.
    • If Watson and Sallis struggled towards total all-star integration, Cleveland was impressively in his element repeatedly making plays (backcutting an over-laying defender, combining awareness and athleticism on an emphatic help side block, making quick reads with the pass) and making a positive impact.
    • Showed impressive touch/concentration finishing through/over contests at rim.
    • Seems like a Florida State guy.
  • #4 Terquavion Smith: North Carolina kid with 12/31/02 (18.4) b-day, listed at 6-3, 4* NC State commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-100 player with top-rank of #73:
    • First experience with Smith and regrettably don’t have much to offer. He hit a nice floater, showed some touch, and defended well on-ball.
  • #33 Brandon Huntley-Hatfield: 8/6/03 b-day (17.8), listed at 6-9 230 but wouldn’t be surprised if he’s heavier, 5* Tennessee commit, not included on ESPN 2022 mock, anywhere from #5 to #20 in class:
    • Big, thick forward without a ton of explosiveness
    • Deep love for jab steps to setup sidestep and step-back threes – competent shooter; opened this game with back-to-back threes; shot 39% on 43 attempts in 2019 UAA season. 61% from FT on 23 attempts in same UAA sample.
    • Not a quick decision maker, ball tends to stick to his hands while he jabs/surveys.
    • Big body, but not particularly effective utilizing it; not a banger, was out-worked/out-physicaled by Michael Foster.

White Team (number next to each player is their jersey number):

  • #34 Chet Holmgren: Minnesotan with 5/1/02 (19) b-day, listed at 7-0, 195 pounds, 5* Gonzaga commit, #2 on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus #1 player in class:
    • Offensively, spent much more time in post/around paint than he did with his Minnehaha team. Unsurprisingly effective around basket with length and soft touch.
    • Coordination/handle continue to impress given size/build/age and reveal ability to create off bounce which he showed with drive-and-dish.
    • Despite frame, appears to be stronger than he looks as he was able to dislodge heavier/thicker Paolo on more than one occasion.
    • Combination of strength, length, and positioning made him a nightmare on offensive glass – much of which was at Paolo’s expense.
  • #11 Michael Foster: Milwaukee native played high school ball in Phoenix at Hillcrest, 1/16/03 (18.3) b-day, listed 6-9 233, 5* G-League Ignite signee, #32 on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-20 in class ranging from #7 to #17:
    • Burly and physical with elite production (32-points and 18-rebounds-per-game as a senior), the biggest knock on Foster is that he doesn’t know how to play and makes dumb decisions and while it was an all-star exhibition, early on Foster helped off of Huntley-Hatfield when he didn’t need to and gave up a wide open three.
    • Additionally, he struggled with his handle forcing dribble drives and getting stripped for TOs.
    • The burly physicality was evident though as he was a bully on the offensive glass, repeatedly pummeling Huntley-Hatfield under the hoop for putbacks.
    • Flashed nice passing/awareness with a cross-court hook pass with a ton of velocity and accuracy to wide open shooter.
    • Unable to contain or deter Paolo in space.
  • #4 Kowacie Reeves: 1/31/03 (18.3) b-day, listed at 6-6 170, 4* Florida commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, ranked between #27 and #69 in class:
    • First time seeing Reeves, a long, bouncy wing out of Georgia
    • Jumper didn’t fall and didn’t see enough or close enough to get a feel for mechanics
    • Could see his well-regarding athleticism attacking the closeout for a and and-1 dunk
  • #0 Jaden Akins: Michigan native with 2/25/03 (18.2) b-day, listed at 6-3 160 though assume that’s an outdated weight, 4* Spartan commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, consensus top-55 recruit:
    • Fluid, smooth athlete; movement in general is pleasant and balanced
    • Maybe overly reliant on jumpers and if it’s not falling, struggles to impact game especially in this setting
    • By my unofficial and incomplete tracking, was 0-4 from field with a pair of missed pull-ups, a missed catch-and-shoot, and a blown lob.
  • #8 Josh Minnot: Florida kid with 11/25/02 (18.5) birthday, listed 6-8 but lot of indications he’s 6-9 or 6-10, 4* Memphis commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, ranked between #35 and #68:
    • First time seeing Minnot; he’s slim, long, tall; saw he has a 7-2 wingspan but not convinced from eyeballs
    • Showed good body control and functional usage of aforementioned length with balance on change of direction and scoop finish around AJ Griffin
    • Aggressive in attack though occasionally forced the issue on rim attacks that resulted in off-balance attempts
    • Not prettiest form/release, hips seems slightly turned inwards, release on the abrupt side, but was able to at least a pair of threes
  • #2 Nolan Hickman: Seattle native with 5/7/03 (18) b-day, listed 6-1 180, high 4*/low 5* former Kentucky commit who’s currently undecided, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, roughly in 20-40 range in class:
    • Recently decommitted from Kentucky and building on a strong performance at the Geico Nationals
    • Decently put together with solid athleticism, high-level awareness, quick processing/decision making, and oodles of skill. Awareness and processing allow him to anticipate and react in ways that frequently put him in the right place at the right time – these aren’t accidents are evidence in clip below.
    • I’m not much for superlatives, but am mildly confident that Hickman was the best passer in this event though JD Davison was at least flashier on this day.
    • Mostly average shooter with a floater and maybe a bit better off catch at present

  • #32 Daimion Collins: hailing from the Lone Star State, born 1/23/02 (19.3), listed 6-9 210, 5* Kentucky commit, N/A on 2022 ESPN mock, generally accepted as a 10-15 recruit:
    • Collins is a lanky, bouncy 4/5 with defensive upside for days and a bit of a jump shot who maybe thinks it’s an excellent jumper.
    • He’s a good case study for my particularly haphazard scouting technique as an example of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To wit, last summer I witnessed the lithe Collins thoroughly outplayed and out-toughed by 2022 Vincent Iwuchukwu, a near-seven-foot big in a much more traditional back-to-the-basket model. Collins had his moments, but they were few and far between and he was generally mauled. Unfortunately, this left an indelible mark on me as a character defining defeat, not dissimilar to a thumping Scottie Lewis once put on Jaden McDaniels which upturned my whole idea of McDaniels or, from what I’ve heard of others, the merciless roasting Jaden Springer put on Jalen Suggs and his soft handle a couple summers ago. For my process, I have to consciously guard against the Iwuchukwu battle being a character-defining moment for Collins.
    • Contextual baggage aside, Collins was active and engaged in this game where he strung together deflections, hit ahead passes, and length-revealing dunks. The ill-advised jumpers (contested pull-up straddling the three-line) were still there, but largely overshadowed by his athleticism, length, and effort.

Extending put back dunk shot from Daimion Collins, basketball player
  • #10 Kendall Brown: another elite Minnesota native, born 5/11/03 (18), listed 6-8 205, 5* Baylor commit, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, top-15 in class:
    • Strong forward, with well-built frame, elite leaper, two-way playmaker who gives me Shawn Marion vibes.
    • Didn’t show a ton of new this game, but that’s not a bad thing either: caught a pair of lobs, knocked down a pull-up from 16-feet, was a tad wild (spinning jumper and errant no-look pass) at times, remains a favorite of mine.
  • #24 Trey Alexander: Oklahoma native listed at 6-4 185, 4* recently decommitted from Auburn because the program allegedly “didn’t keep their word,” N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, ranked between #55 and #83:
    • Bit of a ball-dominant combo guard, mostly smooth with handle and pull-up game, good, not great as athlete
    • Alexander was put in a bit of a weird spot as the opponent matched him up with Raven Johnson, the only female player in the game. Johnson is a 5-9/5-10 5* committed to South Carolina. Alexander attacked the matchup with vim and vigor, attacking the smaller opponent on both sides of the ball, coming up with steals and beating her off the bounce multiple times.
    • It’s hard to take much away from this type of scenario except that Alexander played hard and his 55-83 slot feels accurate.
  • #23 Jordan Longino: Pennsylvanian listed at 6-5 195, 4* Villanova commit, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, ranked as high as #39 and low as #81:
    • My first experience with Longino, a thickly-built off-guard/small wing – his build could be somewhat confused based on an undershirt that possibly made him look bulkier than he actually is.
    • Showed plus-awareness and ability to quickly process/react to openings/opportunities with quick pass/reads; played a step ahead of the game.
    • Plays at measured pace, under control
    • Jay Wright had to be pleased see him make an early rotation and force a TO
    • Good body control with step-thru in transition.
    • Didn’t note him shooting any jumpers and I don’t have any shooting %s for him.
    • Walked away a fan, but patience is always the virtue with Villanova kids.
  • #12 Ahamad Bynum (Black Cat): Chicago kid with 2/21/03 (18.2) b-day, listed at 6-3 175, 4* committed to DePaul (since 2019), N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, consensus top-100:
    • Nicknamed “Black Cat,” my first time seeing him
    • Have seen him listed at both 6-3 and 6-1 but felt more in the 6-1/6-2 range
    • Aggressive instincts were there, but struggled to find any rhythm
  • #1 Daeshun Ruffin: Mississippi native listed at 5-10 160, 4* committed to Ole Miss, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, generally a top-55 recruit:
    • Surprisingly my first time seeing Ruffin as he’s been on the scene for several years.
    • Smaller lead guard, not just height, but build as well. Plays point, but loads of aggressiveness and scoring/attack instincts.
    • Good quickness with a low handle and electric spin move; showed some ++touch with a high-banker off the glass on the move
    • Able to hit threes off catch and bounce
    • Targeted in post by TyTy and beaten handily
  • #26 Bryce Hopkins: Illinois kid with 9/7/02 (18.7) b-day, listed at 6-7 220 but looks thicker than 220 and not in a bad way, 4* Kentucky commit after a Louisville decommit, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, top-30 recruit who got that coveted Givony love:
    • Thick-bodied, highly skilled forward with great feet and feel
    • Like Kendall Brown, didn’t see a lot of new stuff from Hopkins à he’s skilled/polished with a clean handle, a willingness to pass, and ability to grab-and-go off the board
    • Able to create space off-the-bounce with a tight cross and get to pull-up or rim
    • Don’t have stats on him and don’t have a good feel for his jumper. In other settings, he’s struggled to hit off the catch, but I haven’t noted any wonky mechanics.
    • I like Kentucky as a landing spot
  • #5 Trevor Keels: DMV kid with 8/26/03 b-day (17.7 – youngest player in game), listed at 6-5 210, 5* committed to Duke, N/A on ESPN 2022 mock, top-20 recruit:
    • Just second time seeing Keels as a senior after seeing several games of his previous years
    • Has outgrown some of baby fat and looks strong/thick; not an explosive athlete, but a good one with burst off the catch.
    • Was slow to get going in this game, but found confidence in second half with variety of drives and threes of catch and bounce.
    • Showed some creation with a drive-and-dump dime
    • Bit of a ball stopper with a penchant for pounding the ball in search of openings at the expense of decisively moving/attacking
Trevor Keels engages evasive maneuvers

A final note, despite being physically overmatched and somewhat targeted, the previously mentioned Raven Johnson was sound in effort and execution with quality passing/reads. She struggled to finish/hit shots, but was game as a competitor.

Masterpiece Theater feat. Andre Curbelo

Andre Curbelo is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds of point guarding mastery from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, a municipality on the northern coast of the island. He arrived in the US at age-13, in Long Island to be specific, to play basketball to be more specific and to carry on some kind of basketball-playing legacy that began with his father, Joel, also a 6-1 point guard who played professionally for 18 years and was a reserve guard on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1996.

While Curbelo arrived in the states in 2014, I first saw him when he was 17, in April of 2019 playing with the world team at the Nike Hoop Summit where he was the second-youngest player in the game. His stats in a limited 16 minutes were pedestrian and don’t bare repeating, but he popped in a way that caught attention with an easy-to-remember and recognize name. So often teenagers imprint basketball games with athleticism that overwhelms or size and skill combinations that exceed their peers. For Curbelo, it was heady basketball and feel: a timely recognition on a give-and-go, drive-and-kicks to the corners, effective screening, textbook fast breaks, and occasional touch.

As I’ve seen and learned more about Curbelo, the 16 minutes at Hoop Summit foreshadowed an impressive development that bloomed throughout his senior season at Long Island Lutheran (LuHi) and flourished into something like a low key cult among some weirdo high school hoops followers on Twitter – a group I possibly belong to.

Here, look:

That play was from July of 2019 when Curbelo was, in my eyes, still going through growing pains which, as a just-turned 19-year-old, there are plenty more growing pains to come, but the leaps he made from July to February of 2020 when I last saw him, were significant.

There is an innateness to Curbelo’s game that is dazzlingly magnetic. His combination of anticipation and awareness make him a highly effective highlight reel despite lacking the requisite size and vertical athleticism so popularly associated with basketball highlights. As I stacked up his game tapes, and saw him repeatedly puncture defenses and beat them with wrong-footed layups, drive-and-kicks, and drive-and-dish, my brain, in its bad habited manner, defaulted to a Steve Nash comparison which is not the same as me suggesting Curbelo will become a two-time MVP who evolves into the engine of a prolific NBA offense. It’s merely a recognition that aspects of Curbelo’s game resemble the great Nash’s and when I think about how a teenage basketball player develops a low-calorie cult following, it’s because there are more than just dashes of greatness in his game.

Of course, where I thought I was semi-original with my Nash comparison was quickly smote as the announcer of his New Year’s Eve day game against St Francis and Dwon Odom said, “I compared him to Steve Nash with how he plays … his game’s a lot like Nash’s.”

If you don’t trust my highly-amateur assessment or that of an announcer from the Beach Ball Classic, perhaps Illinois’ coach Brad Underwood’s comments will come with more credence, “He is an elite passer. I compare him, and it’s unfair because he’s a high school kid, to Steve Nash in terms of his ability in ball screens to make his teammates better.”

High school seniors just weren’t seeing or imagining this pass when I played 20 years ago:

That type of pass is much more a product of a game with an open, spread floor, but to even execute from that angle takes exceptional strength, balance, and awareness. This is normal from Curbelo. In the same piece I linked above, Underwood also said, “I think he is, without question, the best passing guard in the country.”

I’ve seen most every guard in the RSCI top-100 and think the only one who can compare with Curbelo in terms of passing is top-ranked Cade Cunningham who may have an edge that’s based mostly on his height although at six inches shorter, Curbelo is able to sneak and slither into spaces the 6-7 Cunningham can’t. The innateness I referenced above in no way diminishes the work Curbelo’s put into becoming one of the top passers in his age group on the entire planet, but speaks to something flowing through his basketball brain and its articulation through playing the game: this shit is natural for him.

People who are great at their chosen endeavors tend to talk about their talents in matter of fact terms which makes complete sense because it’s their normal, their routine. Curbelo’s discovery, his ability to adapt his game to a successful output and receive praise and attention, his incentive so to speak, gives me Good Will Hunting vibes. When the young prodigy and Southie tough, Will Hunting is sitting with the esteemed Professor Lambeau in the middle of a particularly intense exchange, he shouts at Lambeau, Lambeau the genius, the MIT professor, the Field’s Medal winner, “You know how fuckin easy this is to me? This is a joke!”

In a paraphrase that makes me feel like the scarf-wearing professor: discarded, incapable, unable to see the full chessboard of the basketball court with the same clarity and ease of a young man not even half my age, Curbelo described arriving in the US and realizing the power of his pass:

I knew I was able to pass. Then when I got here, I kind of didn’t know I had that on my game. When I realized I was like, ‘Damn, this is working. I’m getting scholarships and everything. I’m going to keep playing the way I am because the coaches like it, college coaches like it, I like it. I feel great.’ I’m telling you, every time I get an assist, I feel better and happier than when I score myself.”

“Damn, this is working.”

It works for Curbelo because of an interconnectedness of skill, anticipation, and physical ability. His passing happens to be the most obvious output of a hyper awareness that fuels his other strengths: off-the-ball defense, off-the-dribble attacking, and rebounding.

OFFENSE

Curbelo is at his best on the offensive side of the court with the ball in his hands. For a player whose jump shot is still in the work-in-progress stages, he’s remarkably able to marshal that entire side of the floor with the aforementioned interconnectedness. The reason he can beat defenses is his wild array of avenues for attack.

In the half court, he made a habit of exploiting the hell out of klutz-like defensive coverages in pick-and-roll, most frequently with Ohio State commit, Zed Key. Pick-and-roll coverages, even when drilled effectively, create decision points for defenders that involve the whole five-man unit and Curbelo, at 17 and 18-years-old, made it a point of manipulating, reading, and reacting to these coverages and the gaps they created.

It’s not just that he makes the right pass out of the P&R, but his ability to process when to make the pass versus attack the rim versus just pause and make the defense make a damn decision. The first clip here is my favorite of his P&Rs because he’s simultaneously improvising and dictating. As he comes around the screen, he intentionally gets his man stuck on his hip, the two help defenders pause when he pauses and uncertainty descends as the roll man keeps moving and his defender is compelled to drop with him (never mind the baseline defender is at least aware of his help role). In dropping, the help man fails to recognize Curbelo’s man is still in jail on his hip. But Curbelo reads the opening and drops in a floater. I’m not sure I agree, but speaking about that floater, one announcer said, “He may be as good as any point guard in the country at the floater, that’s his go-to shot.”

If the P&R is a scripted run-pass-option of sorts, Curbelo is equally adept attacking on the fly in the half court where he uses a blend of head and eye fakes, quick burst attacks, and change of direction to get into the teeth of defenses. It’s these unscripted scenarios where highlights emerge and cult fandoms are created.

Against Compton Magic in July of 2019, he effectively sold a fake dribble handoff no less than three times – two of them resulted in layups while the third, the clip below, was most impressive because the head/eye fake he put on the sell (I recognize this is an open court move, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness):

In this second version, the exaggerated head turn is all he needs to freeze the defender. Once the defender lets up for the slightest moment, Curbelo hits turbo, gets low and turns the corner. In July of 2019 at least, him finishing at the rim over a contest was the exception and not the rule.

And while adding a third variation of the fake DHO is probably overkill, the best he had (and he had a lot in the 10 or so games I watched) was against Walker Kessler’s Game Elite squad where the sell is so exaggerated that he runs the defenders right into each other while taking an easy stroll to the rim:

Alas, we’re talking about a maestro and focusing on just a portion of his oeuvre – the half court and just P&R and fake DHOs so far. These are bread and butter plays/moves that help to lay a pragmatic foundation on which Curbelo’s handle, passing, and processing can excel. As fun as they are, and seeing defenders bite his head fakes is pure entertainment, his improvisational game has touches of flair and proficiency that potentially open NBA avenues.

The sense of audacity and willingness to push passes through tight windows is part of the fun and his effectiveness. But for Curbelo, that audacity extends beyond the pass and into some wild, and occasionally suspect, realms of imagination. Here he is with the baby T-Mac off the glass:

It’s fun to ooh and ahh at these plays and while I have my doubts that he’ll try or be able to execute a pass to himself off the backboard in the Big10, the bulk of his highlights are functional plays executed with panache.

In the sample size that makes up this writing, Curbelo had an expectedly high usage rate and played primarily on-ball. In off-ball scenarios, he was quick to use the set of skills he uses to set up a dribble drive to set up backdoor cuts. Despite being a non-shooter, defenders across multiple leagues deny him the pass or overplay and Curbelo is adept at setting up defenders with hard moves towards the ball before a quick plant-and-burst for the backdoor. As much as the primary action, be it backdoor cut, fake DHO or crossover, takes center stage, Curbelo excels as the setup and the sell.

If we stick in the half court, but shift focus to his shot and finishing, the otherwise radiant aura of his game loses some of the sparkle.

Maybe I made a mistake in looking backwards with Curbelo, but in my tape review, I went from his 2020 high school season where he was, far and away his best, to his 2019 Adidas league and then FIBA games. This does bode well in the sense that he showed significant improvement from summer 2019 through winter 2020. What stood out in the summer of 2019 that was, to memory and notes, was a real and genuine struggle to finish against size and length. This challenge happened most frequently in Adidas and I attributed it to a few key weaknesses:

  • Lack of hangtime – Curbelo is average as a vertical athlete with his leaping most effective rebounding the ball. He has (had?) a tendency to leave his feet around the rim, run out of airspace and outlets and be forced to fling up a shot that would miss wildly or get blocked.
  • Rare use of jump stops – getting downhill, Curbelo’s instinct is to attack off of one foot and leave the ground. While finding effectiveness with this approach, he was frequently off-balance or, as mentioned above, ran out of air.
  • Judgment – I put judgment last, because as he progressed into the high school season, his judgment was much more reliable and consistent. Against Wasatch Academy in December, he struggled against their size and was somewhat in a funk, but it’s the only high school game I saw where I felt like he wasn’t himself.

Curbelo’s shot demands our attention as well and this attention, for me, boils down to a few sources: FIBA and Adidas stats, my own completely unofficial and occasional tracking, my notes, and conversations with other people who may have a better developed eye for this sort of thing.

Within these sources, there are three additional components I want partition: Touch, mechanics, jump shot.

In 60 games worth of stats I have on Curbelo across FIBA (22 games) and Adidas (38 games), Curbelo shot as follows:

It’s not exactly inspiring any Mark Price comparisons and it’s why you can say he reminds you of Steve Nash, but caveat the hell out of it.

The above generally lines up with what I’ve seen from Curbelo which included an unofficial 1-8 or 1-9 on jumpers against Compton where the only make was a head-on unintentional banker from just beyond the free throw line. And while I don’t go too deep tracking pull-ups versus catch-and-shoots, the bulk of Curbelo’s jumpers are pull-ups. The form and release are consistent: he plants hard with his left foot and the bulk of his elevation comes from that foot/leg while the right kicks out and he drifts (typically from left to right) with an ever-present slight recline so his shoulders are always behind his hips. If he’s dribbling forward and stepping into the shot, think pull-up-three-in-transition, the drift is reduced. The release, from my view, is consistent and serviceable. And yet, his jumper is nowhere near reliable through February of 2020. In the clip below, he’s totally in-rhythm, and while the characteristic movement (kicking out right foot, drifting, leaning back) is all there, the mechanics aren’t faulty. (Also, please note how he sets up the crossover with his head/eyes – sheesh):

I’m not sure I believe there’s a disconnect between Curbelo’s mechanics and his shooting percentages, but as friend-of-the-blog, Ross Homan discussed with me, given the non-dumpster-fire state of his mechanics, combined with his free-throw percentages (consistently high-70s to low-80s with volume), relatively low-volume threes attempted, and, finally, his touch, the shooting should be expected to come around. The touch is the key and particularly on the floaters. The floater, combined with touch off the glass, has been a consistent staple of his scoring attack across competitions and acts as an alternative to (currently) less-efficient attempts at the rim.

DEFENSE

This portion will be much, much shorter than the previous section. All the smarts and processing power Curbelo applies to the offensive side of the floor exist on defense as well. He’s a cheater, an opportunist, a sneaker who’s better defending off-the-ball than on it. Through some likely combination of preparation and pattern recognition, Curbelo drifts and rotates to general areas one or two passes away. By positioning himself towards the potential pass and interception, his closeout time is reduced and by anticipating where the pass will go, he’s often more ready for the ball than the opponent for whom it’s intended. And while not being a quick twitch athlete, he’s remarkably quick in his reactions and closing on passing lanes.

The same stalking mentality applies to dig downs on opposition bigs. He uses the element of surprise to feint-feint-dig-strip from angles that the big can’t see a la MJ’s immortal strip of the Mailman from the blindside in 1998.

Depending how you feel about lumping in rebounding as a defensive skill, I’m somewhat indifferent to. For his size and stature, Curbelo is a plus-rebounder. His hyper-awareness and focus allows him to have a nose for the ball and he’s fearless in its pursuit, never shying away from contact and showing strong hands on 50/50 contested boards. Despite not presenting as a leaper in rim attacks, off two feet for rebounds, he shows more functional lift.

IN CLOSING

A couple years ago when I started writing about high school players, one of the first I wrote about was an incoming freshman named Andrew Nembhard who I referred to as a “savant,” which is the same term I’ve applied to Curbelo which makes me think that it’s time to invest in new ideas and a new vocabulary. Self-critiques aside, Nembhard and Curbelo are dissimilar as players, but I’m drawn to them for the same reasons: beyond-their-years feel for the game of basketball expressed through the pass – basketball’s single greatest action. And I don’t denote it as such because there’s some relationship to selflessness and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the western world, but because the best passes, through slivers of space and mazes of giant limbs, are fucking dope and poetic like Walt Whitman’s best poetry and not his shitty racist ideas. Conveniently, both players are also possessed of inconsistent jumpers which lumps them into an odd family of non-shooting floor generals that includes Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and my favorite, Omar Cook, among countless others. At similar stages, based on my unreliable recall, Curbelo’s form is the best of this collection of point guards.

About Nembhard, I wrote, “I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it.” And in hindsight, I think I had that backwards: He can pass his way into it, we know that, but through his beautiful basketball mind, can he think and process ways into the league?

The same questions come to the surface for Curbelo even if, in this moment of appreciation for the pure craft, imagining a singular destination (the NBA) in such absolute terms seems simple in the extreme, the question, in its simplicity, remains: Can Curbelo reach (and survive) the NBA? I know he can pass his way in, but can the same brain/mind/body being that titillates with eyebrow-raising passes and okie-doke fake DHOs affirmatively answer the looming question of his shot and solve the riddle of giant athletes who only go under screens and don’t bite on the fake DHOs because it was clearly called out in the scouting report? In time, it will all be revealed but the answer really doesn’t matter. Curbelo is and will remain a master of his craft, be it in the NBA, the G-League, Spain, Croatia, Crete, Germany, or Puerto Rico.

***

Addendum of sorts:

The University of Illinois presumably is set in its starting back court with senior Trent Frazier (started 76 of 95 games at Illinois) and pre-season All-American Ayo Dosunmu although Curbelo fits the traditional “point guard” job description better than the upperclassman, Frazier.

Dosunmu will spend extended time on-ball and initially projected as a point guard. Thinking and looking long-term, Dosunmu, who dipped his toe in the NBA draft this past extended off-season, can likely develop more playing off of Curbelo, but it remains to be seen if that’s in the best interest of team-success in this basketball year of 2020-21.

Illinois ranks 8th in the AP poll as of this pre-season writing. Covid disruptions not accounted for, they will play Duke and Baylor before the Big10 season.

Circumstances concerning the return of Wilt Chamberlain to Philadelphia

While reading Rick Barry’s odd and awkward 1972 autobiography Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, I ran into the story of Wilt Chamberlain being traded by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965 for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash. It wasn’t just the lopsidedness of the trade that caught my attention, but the thou-doth-protest-too-much explanation from then Warriors-owner and trigger man of the deal, Franklin Mieuli (page 87):

“As great as Wilt Chamberlain was, he wasn’t a big draw. He carried a big contract with him. He forced us to play a great center, Nate Thurmond, at forward. Everyone figured we’d have to sell or trade Thurmond and bid on him. I figured maybe Chamberlain was the man to unload. If we’d have gotten off to a fast start the next season (1964-65) I might have stood pat, but we got off to a terrible start. We lost 17 straight. No one wanted to buy a ticket. The new operation in Philadelphia was willing to take Chamberlain back. I let them have him for Lee Shaffer, Connie Dierking, and Paul Neumann, plus some cash.”

There’s truth and variations, obfuscations, and alternative interpretations of what happened with the Wilt deal and much of it is contradictory to Mieuli’s retelling from 1972. Long-time sporting scribe for the New York Times, Leonard Koppett described the morass as, “Under the surface, moreover, lies such a labyrinth of interlocking interests, motivations and dependencies that even the conscientious basketball follower needs a refresher course to make subsequent conversation possible.”  Here are the key characters involved in the deal:

  • Wilt Chamberlain – basketball player and author of Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire who lives next door
  • Franklin Mieuli – San Francisco Warriors owner, purchased team with a Diners Club group in 1962. Sold team in 1986.
  • Eddie Gottlieb, aka Gotty – NBA lifer, Philadelphia native, described as being the “shape of a half-keg of beer.” Knew Chamberlain from his teenage playing days in Philly, pressed league hard for territorial draft (teams would get rights to college players in their loosely-defined “territory”) in order to secure the services of Chamberlain and ultimately selected Wilt after his high school graduation. Purchased Philadelphia franchise in 1952 for $25k, sold it in 1962 for $875k.
  • Ike Richman – described by Wilt in his autobiography as, “more than a friend and attorney and prospective employer to me; he was like a second father.” Richman purchased the Syracuse Nationals franchise from Danny Biasone (creator of the shot clock) and moved the franchise to Philadelphia.

There are a few themes in the loop of Chamberlain’s journey to San Francisco and back to Philadelphia: Obviously Chamberlain himself, the league’s walking calendar Eddie Gottlieb, and money.

The amount of speculation around why Mieuli dealt the mercurial “Big Musty” is legion. One of my favorites is NBA coach Alex Hannum’s, who says in Barry’s book, “I remember once when we had won the pennant with Wilt, Wilt suggested we be given something unusual like diamond stickpins instead of the usual rings. Mieuli gave rings. Later, Wilt got sick. When he rejoined the team, Mieuli met him at the airport with a diamond stickpin. Wilt looked at it and asked, ‘What’s this piece of ______?’ That’s why Wilt got traded, no other reason. You can win with Wilt. I did. Wilt is unfairly regarded.” (The blank is unclear in Barry’s book, but imagination can certainly be used.)

While Hannum’s explanation is the most colorful, it seems unlikely. Mieuli had killed his center’s trade value by making it clear to everyone at all-star weekend that he was available and while he was insistent on moving Chamberlain, it seems unlikely he was so insistent over a diamond stickpin and Wilt doesn’t mention said stickpin in his book. In his autobiography, Chamberlain, a frequent embellisher, describes Mieuli’s behavior at the 1965 all-star weekend: “when we all went to St. Louis for the January 13 all-star game, Mieuli told him (Hannum), ‘I’m not leaving St. Louis till I get rid of that son-of-a-bitch.’ … Mieuli wound up running around from hotel room to hotel room in St. Louis, trying to swing a deal for me, and he finally made it—at 12:30 in the morning, during the post-all-star-game party, on the winding staircase of Stan Musial’s restaurant. I understand it was one of the least confidential, most slapstick negotiations in NBA history.” This accounting is contrasted by Dave Lewis of the Long Beach Independent who wrote, “Hannum played a vital role in the deal by convincing the Warrior brass they’d be better off in the long run without him.” If there’s any accuracy to Lewis’s statement, it’s two-fold: 1) it makes the diamond stickpin story more of a tool for Hannum to absolve himself of any role in the trade and 2) Hannum had previously coached Shaffer and, according to Chamberlain, believed he could convince the AWOL player to come to San Francisco even though he was already on his way out of pro basketball.

Other explanations seek the conspiracy route and this was a thread that, given the incestuous components of the Philadelphian participants, was somewhat believable but when set alongside Gottlieb’s long-term position in the league, is ultimately unsubstantiated. From The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Fred Byrod on January 19th, 1965 (this link, and others that will appear, require subscription or free trial for access):

“A neat, three-way solution was arrived at, so the story went: San Francisco shipped Chamberlain back to Philadelphia instead of paying Gottlieb. Philadelphia gave the cash it announced it had paid for Wilt to Biasone (former owner of the Syracuse Nationals who sold the franchise to Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff). For his part, Gotty was handed a piece of the 76ers. Depending on your viewpoint, this explanation either contradicts, or agrees with, another rumor widespread ever since Richman and Kosloff brought the Syracuse club to Philadelphia—that they were really just fronting for Gottlieb, then on the coast, rolling in his new wealth, in his new role as GM of the Warriors. After a decent period of waiting on the coast, Gottlieb was supposed to reappear on the Philadelphia front and take over the reins from Richman, his longtime lawyer, and Kosloff, his one-time school pupil in South Philadelphia.”

Byrod then goes on to quote Gottlieb,

“San Francisco paid me half the purchase price ($425k) in the first place. I was to get the rest in four payments over five years, and I’ve received every cent due me thus far. I’m still a stockholder, as well as eastern consultant, for the Warriors. That’s a matter of record. The league wouldn’t let me have interest in two clubs at the same time. I’ve had three or four offers from other clubs, in case I leave the Warriors, in the last year. Don’t you think they would find out about it if I had money in the 76ers? Would they want me then? Get it straight, I never had any money in the 76ers. I don’t have any money in them now. And the way things are, I never expect to have any money in them.”

With the emphatic mic drop, Gottlieb seemed to be telling the truth. With Gotty’s role with the Warriors reduced to the vague “eastern consultant,” and the triangle of relationships (business and personal) between Chamberlain, Gottlieb, and Richman, it’s not a stretch to believe Gotty was angling for a way back in Philadelphia NBA ownership, but if so, it never materialized on paper or in any official legal capacity. He would eventually become a consultant for the league and personally created the schedule by hand up until the late 1970s.

That doesn’t fully address Mieuli’s thought process. After all, business is and always has been built on relationships. So let’s focus on the money. In my readings, it was reported that the money Philadelphia sent to the San Francisco franchise ranged anywhere from $75,000 to $300,000 (per Lewis, Long Beach Independent) and lots of observers had opinions how much money and in whose pockets it landed:

  • Theory #1: See above for Fred Byrod’s recapping that suggests the money went to Danny Biasone (former Syracuse owner).
  • Theory #2: Abe Saperstein, Harlem Globetrotter founder and one-time associate of Gottlieb, as retold by the San Francisco Examiner’s Prescott Sullivan: “Abe saw the so-called $300k deal as a cashless transaction. ‘I don’t believe any money changed hands. I think what happened was the Warriors gave up Chamberlain so as to square the books with Eddie Gottlieb who, in my opinion, has never been too far away from Philadelphia.’” (Worth noting Gotty and Saperstein, per Sullivan, “have not been on friendly terms for years” and it was speculated that this loss of friendship was a result of Saperstein’s view that Gotty had blocked his entry into NBA ownership.)
  • Theory #3: Terry Pluto in Tall Tales: “All that mattered was the bucket of bucks; the other guys were just bodies. The amount was $150k, which doesn’t sound like much now, but you could pay an entire starting team for $150k in 1965. Also the Warriors deducted Chamberlain’s $200k salary from their roster.”
  • Theory #4: Wilt Chamberlain, in his autobiography: “It was announced that Philadelphia gave Mieuli $300,000 … for me, but the figure was actually much lower—and most of it went to me, not Mieuli. He was behind in my salary, and suspect that’s another reason I was traded—I kept bugging him for my money.”

The above theories vary in their believability and when you consider Wilt frequently wrote about being paid more than his official salary, (page 172 in his autobiography, “Although I’d been making more than $100,000 for several years by then [1965 when he was traded], this was the first time any clubowner publicly admitted he was paying me that much,” and his disclosure (page 185) that Richman (friend, lawyer and “second father” Richman) “had promised me a piece of the team … Ike promised me half of his half—25 percent,” it’s difficult to sort through the murky waters of self-serving explanations and land on a definitive clarity. It’s fair to speculate that the number was well-under $300k (per Pluto and Wilt). Those funds likely went directly to Mieuli who paid Chamberlain any back payments. This corroborates Wilt’s narrative, and a degree of Pluto’s while discounting Byrod’s retelling of the cynical rumor and Saperstein’s likely uninformed and potentially jaded view (although in the same piece with Saperstein, he claims, “Wilt broke into pro basketball play for me on the Globetrotters. I have been more-or-less his advisor ever since.”).

Money was a real motivator for Mieuli who had experienced a rocky first few years as an NBA owner: the franchise bled money its first season (62-63), made the finals in its second (63-64), and had the worst record in the league its third season while trading the league’s most recognizable player in Chamberlain (64-65). In the New York Times piece linked above, Leonard Koppett wrote that “San Francisco, apparently, was not ready for pro basketball … In 1962-63, the team was a total flop financially.” This is in line with Mieuli’s statement above. The other piece, again from Koppett, that speaks to an unsustainability in the pro basketball model of the 1960s, provides this historical context, “Gottlieb (as owner of the Philadelphia franchise), under present tax laws, could not afford to go on paying Wilt’s salary, since basketball’s gate receipts have a built-in low limit. He tried to sell Wilt to New York, but the Knicks weren’t interested. So he sold the whole franchise, for some $800,000, to San Francisco.”

The notion (from Mieuli) that Wilt wasn’t a draw is likely true, but also likely rooted in the struggle of pro basketball to land in San Francisco in the early 1960s as it wasn’t a topic that I’ve seen in subsequent Chamberlain narratives. Lewis from the Long Beach Independent somewhat contextualized this, “Wilt has always been a good drawing card in his hometown,” but clarifying that, “He (Chamberlain) attracts the biggest crowds on the road and in the NBA the home teams keep the entire gates.” Mieuli took it a step further in a piece written by Roland Lazenby: “the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He’s easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose.”

Despite the lack of clarity on the details of the deal and the sketchy intrigue of its Philadelphia participants, both of the principals (Mieuli and Chamberlain) agreed it was a sensible deal in spirit and concept that was ultimately a bad dead in its execution:

Wilt: “Trading me really wasn’t such a bad idea for San Francisco. Nate (Thurmond) was 23 then, five years younger than me, with his whole future ahead of him. If the Warriors could get some other good, young players for me, they figured they might have the nucleus of a helluva good team. But Mieuli was so anxious to dump me, he made a lousy deal.”

Mieuli: “I could have gotten a lot more money for Chamberlain, but I wanted the players I got … People forget that Shaffer could have been an all-pro for ten years. But he was a flake. … Shaffer never reported. That alone made it a bad deal. Still, I’d make it again.”

And ultimately, both men landed in better basketball situations. The Warriors picked up Rick Barry in the 1965 draft. Mieuli unceremoniously dumped Hannum after the 1966 season and hired Bill Sharman who pushed a fast team faster (127.4 pace) and helped elevate the young team to the NBA finals. Of the three players in the Chamberlain deal, only Paul Neumann was still with the team. He played 78 games as their point guard before retiring at the end of the season, at 29-years-old. In retrospect in 1967, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia News wrote of the trade, “Neumann is still playing a lot of guard for the Warriors, but Dierking is playing center for Cincinnati, Shaffer is operating a trucking line in North Carolina and the cash has been spent.”

Chamberlain would be bounced twice more by the Celtics including a game-seven heartbreaker in 1965 after the trade, but he would eventually be reunited with Hannum in 1966 for what turned out to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Buying into Hannum’s team-centric approach, Chamberlain helped lead Philly to a then NBA-record 68 wins. They knocked Boston out in five games and in the clincher, Wilt went for 29-points, 36-rebounds, and 13-assists. Beating Boston was a special achievement in itself and made the finals against Mieuli’s Warriors something of a footnote. Philly won the series in six games.

Did some funny business happen to ultimately grease the wheels of Chamberlain’s return to Philadelphia? Between the weak ass return Mieuli got and the tight relationship between the Chamberlain-Gottlieb-Richman triumvirate, the answer is an unconfident, “probably” and that probably watered down by an acknowledgment that, if the chicanery did occur, it was likely a low level infraction at worst. I come away from the whole investigation most interested (or entertained, perhaps) by two components: 1) Alex Hannum’s damn diamond stickpin story. I love it and want it to be true. 2) Lee Shaffer. A fifth overall pick in 1960 out of UNC who was taken ahead of Lenny Wilkens and Satch Sanders, he was a 17-ppg scorer in 196 career games, appeared in zero games in 64-65 when he was traded, and vanished into the North Carolina trucking business like a non-homicidal Keyser Soze shaking off that limp. Lee Shaffer wasn’t likely a ten-year all-pro or good enough to swing the fortunes of the deal for the Warriors, but he was an effective player who retired at 24. Lee, if you’re reading this, I’d love to talk about your decision. I’m guessing it’s a lot simpler than what my imagination makes it out to be.

***

Epilogue (on Lee Shaffer)

Lee Shaffer did not vanish into thin air. A mild amount of research led me to this Reddit thread on r/VintageNBA which references a no-longer-available piece by basketball historian and deep well of encyclopedic knowledge, Curtis M. Harris. According to the thread, the original Harris piece, and comments on that piece,

“Lee Shaffer wasn’t hired away from the NBA to be a trucker. Lee Shaffer was hired away by Tom Kenan, whom was his college roommate. The Kenans are an old and storied North Carolina family with huge interests in trucking, oil, land and many members of the family are full time philanthropists.

Lee Shaffer retired almost a decade ago as the Chairman of Kenan Advantage Group. His son lettered in football in UNC and is now VP of operations in the trucking branch of Kenan Advantage Group, one of the largest, if not the largest chemical transportation companies in the NA continent. Quitting the NBA to go into business with his college roommate was the right call.”

I won’t presume to creep into the cranium of Shaffer and assess the rightness or wrongness or indifferentness of his decision to leave professional basketball, but I will include some anecdotes from a story by Mike White of the Post Gazette (Pittsburgh) on its unknown homegrown, Shaffer:

  • Shaffer on Tom Heinsohn: “We just missed out on playing the Boston Celtics in the playoffs one year and they didn’t have anyone who could guard me, either. They would put Tom Heinsohn on me, but he couldn’t guard his grandmother and you can tell him that.”
  • Shaffer scored 41 points in a high school playoff game as a 15-year-old senior.
  • Shaffer broke his leg during the 63-64 season which contributed to his premature retirement.
  • Shaffer claims, “Bill Russell was the best player there ever was. There can’t be an argument. But Oscar Robertson was the best player I ever saw. There’s a difference.”

1963: Lee Shaffer poses for a picture during the 1963 NBA season. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1963 NBAE (Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)

Scouting Dump #4, Part III: Only the Cream of the National Prospecting Press Need Apply

I wasn’t sure we’d get here and thought about throwing in the towel numerous times, but against better judgment, I’ve spewed out a few thousand more words on a particularly curious set of players and in the process realized that I’ve mis-ranked probably close to half of these players. I’ll let my mistakes sit plain in the light of day, free to be criticized, ridiculed, laughed at. Alas, even the Mona Lisa is falling apart ..

Parts I and II can be found here and here. 11 games were scouted and the previous players ranked as such:

  1. Usman Garuba
  2. Deni Avdija
  3. Kira Lewis Jr.
  4. Aaron Nesmith
  5. Theo Maledon
  6. Grant Riller
  7. Jahmi’Us Ramsey
  8. Devon Dotson
  9. Precious Achiuwa

TIER 4

10. Kevin McCullar, Texas Tech, trending up, Tier4:

I saw McCullar for the first time in March and it wasn’t love at first sight or anything, but it was a pleasant surprise in the sense of discovery that accompanies something new and unexpected. I tuned in to watch Jahmi’Us Ramsey and walked away semi-smitten with the 19-year-old redshirt frosh, McCullar.

Listed at 6-foot-6, 195-pounds, McCullar appears a bit bigger and plays bigger. He’s flashed strength in contested rebounding situations and shown a range of defensive versatility; able to toggle between guards and forwards without giving away advantages. And where I saw evidence of Ramsey struggling to smoothly integrate into Texas Tech’s defensive scheme, McCullar seems like a natural, a fish in Chris Beard’s water if you will. He’s rarely out of position, is quick to help and switch, and some of that may be attributable to him being in Lubbock a year ago and having familiarity with the program.

Offensively, he’s purely a supporting player with little actual offensive responsibility and this presently suits him fine. While just a 28% shooter from three and 30% from the corners, his ability to stretch the floor isn’t as good as it needs to be for him to be an optimal supporting piece. Like other non-shooters, he finds ways to contribute without adding floor space. He’s comfortable roaming the baseline, often ignored because he’s not a threat from distance, and flashing into space. From there, he’s able to quickly diagnose the floor and attack the rim with quick load time and enough strength to finish through contact or dump off ahead of rotations.

He’s not flashy, but with a near-4% steal rate and 58 TS, he brings a lot to the table without taking much away.

11. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State, trending up, Tier4:

My primary in-depth experience with Flynn was a shoddy 6-20 shooting night where he forced up one contested pull-up jumper after the next, hitting just one of his first 10 attempts, but of course that performance was highly irregular and untimely for Flynn and SDSU.

His Synergy profile is excellent with a nearly synchronistic relationship between effectiveness and frequency – IE; he was relatively most effective (96th percentile) as a P&R ball handler and 40% of his possessions came there.

Even in his struggles as a shooter against Utah State, his precision as a P&R maestro was evident. His timing was exquisite: in the clip below, he takes an extra dribble which creates the desired time and space to complete the pass. He shows a plus-vision and awareness in both P&R and open play situations.

And despite a poor shooting effort, Flynn was able to create good looks and spacing. He has a small but strong build accompanied by a tight handle, and good power that allows for balance and body control. He has touch in the paint as seen on a 68% shooting at the rim, but I worry a bit about his ability to finish over size and length in the NBA.

Flynn is a good guard I need to spend more time with. I slot him behind Grant Riller and Devon Dotson, but don’t believe there’s a massive gap between these three players. A person could place them in any order of three and easily make a rational case to defend their ordering.

12. Matthew Strazel, ASVEL, trending up, N/A:

Strazel is just 17 with an August birthday and isn’t draft eligible for a couple years yet, but he already has 16 high-level Euroleague games to his credit. I tuned in for his club’s match against Euro powerhouse, Real Madrid and if we’re being honest, I should have Strazel as an incomplete, but I enjoyed the feisty guard enough to share some thoughts.

As mentioned in my Theo Maledon write-up, he looks like the younger French cousin of Tyus and Tre Jones with a similar skin tone, torso-to-leg ratio, and over-exuberant on-ball defense. In a chicken/egg scenario, I’m uncertain if Strazel has always played an aggressive, reaching defense or if he’s a product of ASVEL’s Nolan Richardson-styled pressing. The source partially matters, but against Madrid’s Facundo Campazzo, he was an unrelenting pest, applying pressure to the older guard for 85 feet of court without any letup. The result was a persistent foul trouble on unnecessary reaches, but with good footwork, strength, and lateral movement, it’s easy to see an effective defender in Strazel as he fights through screens, exhibits consistent effort, and is able to cover ground laterally while continuing to apply pressure.

When able to dictate the game with the ball in his hands, Strazel’s speed and quickness are most evident and his greatest strength. For some younger guards, this is easier to see in transition when they can build up speed, but Strazel’s able to exhibit quickness and burst off a standstill and repeatedly beat Madrid’s seasoned defenders off the bounce and with direction changes; the 29-year-old Campazzo looked like he was standing in mud trying to keep up with the younger Frenchman. He showed touch around the rim (clip below) and competence running pick-and-pops (they didn’t run much P&R with Strazel at point). There was a lack of improvisational creation which isn’t to say it’s not there, but it wasn’t emphasized. Over 47 games in multiple leagues, he’s averaging around three assists to every 1.5 turnovers.

I’m intrigued to watch his development, but I do hold the small stature (6-0, 178-pounds) against his longer-term prospects. Even two inches taller would go a long way given his quickness and touch.

13. Saben Lee, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier4:

I first saw Lee in November of 2018 and was immediately captivated by his speed and pop. Finding out his dad is former NFL running back, Amp Lee, only ratcheted up the intrigue. Lee the younger is 6-2, 183-pounds of lean muscle who could be better-designed for football than basketball.

And yet, he plays somewhat like a football player, almost with a Dwyane Wade-ish carelessness for his body which careens around the court from one end to the next, faster than everyone save Kira Lewis Jr. and impressively strong given his lean build.

In 96 career games, he’s produced a FTr of 55% and was one of just three players 6-2 or shorter this season to attempt at least 29 dunks, per barttorvik.

I think, in part at least, I’ve been blinded by the electric athleticism and the thumper-like ethos with which he attacks the game, but basketball life is more than violent dunks.

Lee’s shown an ability to create for others and led Vanderbilt with a career-best 32% assist rate against a career-low 16% turnover rate. His judgment and decision making improved over his three seasons at Vandy, as did his shooting which peaked this past year with a 58 TS. His offensive skill developed in tandem with the improved stats. He’s shown good vision in the half court and is able to find the open man on drive-and-kicks, which is frequently an option given his speed and ability to get past the first defender. Passes zip off his fingers and are typically on-target, but he still has a propensity to get out of control on drives and/or strap on blinders for the basket. With the speed and quickness, he mixes in hesitations that are somewhat unguardable given the acceleration off the pause. He’s also shown an ability this season to link together more than one move at time – crossover into up-and-under with a head fake and necessary footwork.

His shooting (33% on 265 college threes) leaves something to be desired, but if he can continue to develop his ability to run the pick-and-roll and potentially use his strength/athleticism to defend both guard spots (will be a stretch against bigger twos), he’s athletic enough with just enough skill to carve out a spot in the league. Key for him, like a lot of college guys, will be figuring out how to remain effective with fewer opportunities.

14. John Petty, Alabama, no change, Tier4: no updates from 2/28 post

15. Jared Butler, Baylor, no change, Tier4: no updates from 2/28 post

16. DJ Jeffries, Memphis, no change, Tier4:

Obviously he didn’t appear in the Memphis/Houston game on March 8th, but I wanted to note my fondness all the same and if we’re being honest, this is probably a bit of an over-reach for Jeffries, but as we say, the heart wants what the heart wants … even if the mind knows better. Jeffries turned 20 in December which, among 158 freshman birthdays I have in my “database,” ranks as the 15th oldest. I don’t believe age alone can or should deep six a prospect’s status, but if he was 19 in December, I’d be even more confident in his development.

Jeffries is a big 6-7, nearly 230 pounds and had his freshman season limited to 19 games due to a partially torn PCL. In that time, he showed effectiveness as a rim protector (4.2% blocks) and shooter (39% on 41 threes). He finished well around the rim (72%) and was sound (74%) from the line at an anemic 22% FTr.

Stats and rates aside, Jeffries compliments his size with a good motor. He goes hard on both ends and is able to anticipate particularly well defensively. At times that same energy works against him as it feels like the game can get going too fast. This was less evident as the season went on, but it still cropped up with the occasional forced play, pushing the ball against a disadvantage, or firing up an air ball in transition.

As I look back over my notes from EYBL, I see the same propensity to rush the jumper or force plays on offense. He had more playmaking opportunities with his Bluff City Legends team, but showed passing vision and improvisational ability passing off the live dribble.

He kind of reminds me of a harder-playing, smaller version of Naz Reid with more defensive ability and commitment, but like Reid, an offense that needs to mature before he can reach his potential.

17. Nate Hinton, Houston, trending up, Tier4:

Like Strazel, Hinton, a 6-5, 210-pound sophomore should probably be an incomplete, but damn it, we must, at times, rush to judgment, however rash it may be.

Hinton’s a bit tricky in that he played big on a small Houston team and had the mentality and physicality to pull it off. As a 6-5 forward, he led Houston in rebounding and snagged nearly 16% of all available rebounds. With strong hands, active ball pursuit, and a willingness to mix it up for contested rebounds, he can out-rebound his size and position. These same traits are prevalent in his defensive makeup. Hinton can guard against a range of perimeter players and is able to get low into a defensive crouch and harass with active hands without committing fouls. In my limited viewing, he didn’t spend time defending Memphis bigs, nor does he project as a rim protector with just eight blocks in 68 career games at Houston.

On the attack side, Hinton’s profile inspires a bit of meh. He’s a shooter, but not a knockdown kind of guy: 39% on 119 threes this season and 44% on corner threes. In the game I watched, he made six shots and five were off-the-dribble pull-ups; primarily long twos. This was an aberration from his season where the bulk of his spot up possessions (61.3%) become no dribble jumpers, per Synergy, and this is what he’s good at with 1.16 points/possession against .79 ppp on pull-ups. I didn’t witness him attacking the rim much, but he’s just average there hitting 55% of his shots at the rim per barttorvik.

Hinton is a good intangibles player with ability as a spot up shooter and above average effectiveness as an on-ball and team defender. If he can hit the three at a similar rate in the NBA and defend well against much better players, he can stick in the league, but the lack of finishing and the jump in competition level give me pause. If I re-ranked these players, he’d likely drop a tier, but not a ton of spots.

Tier 5: more ranking, less writing (not sure if my audience is saying this or if I’m saying it to myself)

18. Lester Quinones, Memphis, no change, Tier5:

I wrote the below about Quinones back in November and while I still subscribe to those comments, I want to add that he’s a super smart player, is able to direct teammates into position on both sides of the ball and carries himself as a leader. There’s a lot of polish needed though and I’m not convinced Memphis is the place for that.

6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes.

19. Scotty Pippen Jr. Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier5:

I saw Pippen Jr a few times with Sierra Canyon and always thought he could play as he has good feel, high BBIQ, and plays at a controlled pace, but suspected his slight frame would hold him back and in some cases (defensively, particularly against quick guards and finishing at the rim – just 51% per barttorvik) it has, but Pippen was extremely effective as a freshman with a beastly 68.7% FTr. He was one of four players in the country and the only from a P5 conference with an FTr above 65% and assist rate over 25%. Once he gets his dad’s growth spurt, it’s on. In hindsight, I’d likely bump him up two to three spots.

20. Terrence Shannon Jr. Texas Tech, no change, Tier5:

6-7 lefty forward, plus athlete (see clips), probably thinks too much at this point, and even when effective (see clips), it’s sometimes in spite of questionable choices. Needs to develop better instincts and applicable fundamentals, improve decisiveness and focus. Good shooter from the line with a 52.5% FTr who has NBA potential.

21. Kai Jones, Texas, trending up, Tier5:

Consensus top-50 recruit at 6-11, 212-pounds. Skinny kid spends lot of time on perimeter for Texas and has a decent looking jumper despite poor percentages (7-24 on threes, 3-15 on non-rim twos). Flashes of creation off dribble (see clip) so there’s some potential attacking closeouts. Has some perimeter defensive mobility and was deployed at times as the tip of the spear on Texas’s press. Nearly 7% block rate.

22. Jaden Shackelford, Alabama, no change, Tier5:

Something to be said for guys who can miss five in a row and chuck without pause on the sixth. That’s Shackelford and Alabama with Nate Oats as coach is the perfect spot for him. Surprised he had a 31% FTr; one of four players in country (Markus Howard and Anthony Edwards included) to attempt over 230 (235) threes with FTr that high, per barttorvik. And, to his credit (I think?) did it with a 21% usage rate compared to the 29% and higher from the other qualifiers.

23. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas, trending up, Tier5:

Huge (7-0 with 7-7 wingspan, listed at 270-pounds) with improving mobility and doesn’t turn 21 until September. Shot 41.6% on 315 free throws in four seasons, shoots no jumpers. Can he purely be a roll man and rim protector? Age is in his favor and he’s shown a lot of development since arriving at Kansas, but anything more than a rotation big-to-spot starter seems like a reach. Probably deserves to be higher, but in this same tier.

24. Sam Merrill, Utah State, trending up, Tier5:

6-5ish with a solid build and 47-42-89 shooting splits for his Utah State career (759 threes and 503 FTs), finished career with 62 TS in 132 games. Turns 24 in mid-May, has lightning quick release and range, can make basic reads. Lacking in burst both vertically and laterally. Missed his only dunk attempt in college career. Seems like a stretch to stick in the NBA, but between shot, quick release, and size, it’s possible.

25. Marcus Garrett, Kansas, trending up, Tier5:

Kansas’s best initiator and best defender; a 6-5 near-200-pound combo guard. Struggles shooting (33% on 52 attempts this year, 61% on 92 FTs), but has made strides since freshman year (27% on threes, 49% on FTs). Lot of craft with the ball that I fear will be underutilized until he can shoot at a better clip. Is he good enough as an initiator and defender to sacrifice spacing in a second unit? It’s doubtful, but can he be a fifth man as a secondary initiator with a shooting unit? Perhaps.

TIERS 6 & 7: 20-man lightning round

26. Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending down, Tier6:

Smallish (6-3, 175-pounds) combo guard who gets after it defensively and shoots a pretty shot, but can’t make shots (33-32-68).

27. Ochai Agbaji, Kansas, no change, Tier6:

6-5 wing with 6-8 wingspan, has bit of handle/wiggle, but always fades to background with this Kansas group. Nothing bad, but nothing stands out either.

28. Christian Braun, Kansas, trending up, Tier6:

Solid build/shoulders as 6-5, 205-pound frosh who turns 19 in mid-April. Deliberate with exaggerated and effective ball fakes; can shoot it off catch (44% on 72 3pas) or attack off dribble and get to rim or make pass. Per Synergy, 94th percentile on spot up possessions (71 total possessions) and 99th percentile as P&R ball handler (18 total possessions). If I re-ranked, I’d likely slot him between Pippen Jr and Shannon Jr. I like Mr. Braun.

29. Camren Wynter, Drexel, trending up, Tier6:

Saw him by chance while watching Grant Riller. Decent size as a point guard (6-2, 175), but he plays both on and off-ball and shows good instincts in both positions. Lot of cuts and setups for cuts – fake towards ball and when defender momentum shifts with him, bursting the opposite direction. Probably not good enough shooter (35% on 190 career threes, 72% on 190 FTAs) to get by with average size and athleticism. Probably closer to the 36-37 group in this set.

30. Andrew Jones, Texas, trending up, Tier6:

Blown away by how good he looks as a 22-year-old sophomore who battled leukemia over the past two years. Former top-25 RSCI, got better as season went on including three-game stretch averaging 18p/game while making 11-19 threes. Showed lot of craft attacking off the bounce, able to get his own shot or drive-and-kick/dump. Partial to seeking out his own shot at this point.

31. Donovan Williams, Texas, no change, Tier6:

Gangly freshman wing averaged three points/game on 37-24-70 shooting. Wears knee-high socks that make him look even skinnier like Elliot Perry used to do. Potential to be blown away by strong wind although listed at 180-pounds with a 6-6 frame, excellent as a leaper, but struggles with strength and contested rebounds/loose balls. Can make basic reads and the shot isn’t broken. Ultimately needs to develop core strength and is over-ranked here.

32. Dylan Disu, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier6:

6-9 freshman shooter/floor spacer, shot 29% on 173 threes in 32 games (over five 3pas/gm); 75% 3PAr. Two stocks/game with 2.2% steal rate and 3.7% block rate. Appears to have good length and standing reach, shows ability to anticipate on defensive side. Uncertain about athleticism, but needs to develop offensively or at least get better shooting it.

33. Quentin Grimes, Houston, no change, Tier6:

True sophomore doesn’t turn 20 until May; has good size at 6-5, 210-pounds with square shoulders. Had shown ability as a playmaker/passer in high school, able to see and think the game, but something or other happened in Lawrence and his confidence appeared to fracture. Form on jumper is still clean, but release looks a little awkward at times, like his wrist whips out to the side. Looks the part with the frame, shot, and clean handle, but there’s an edge that’s missing or was lost along the way.

34. Tyson Etienne, Wichita State, trending down, Tier6:

No clue what went wrong for the Shockers this year, but they’ve had something akin to a mass exodus and as of this writing, Etienne is still there. Is cousin of DeAndre Jordan and nephew of Marcus Camby. Good shooter from distance (39% on 160 tries), but struggled mightily from two (35%) and at the rim (46%). More of an off-ball player, but at 6-1, despite a muscular upper body, it’s hard to see his game translating at NBA levels unless he can finish better. Has some burst and makes basic pass reads, but shooting is his calling card.

35. Neemias Queta, Utah State, trending down, Tier6:

The only Portuguese prospect on this list, Queta is 7-feet-tall with a 7-4 wingspan, inconsistent footwork, a lack of mobility and flexibility, but surprisingly impressive passing ability including some watered down Wilt Chamberlain-esque passing to cutters out of the post. Not all 7-footers are adept as rim protectors, but in the Mountain West, Queta is effective both blocking shots and generally protecting the goal/acting as a deterrent (9.4% block rate over 57 career games). He’s not the quickest or most agile and against SDSU, struggled to contain 6-11 Yanni Wetzel. He’s probably better than he was as a freshman, but improvements around the margins (passing, reading the floor, free throw shooting) while he continues to lumber and be a slow load big aren’t enough to enhance his pro prospects.

36. Dexter Dennis, Wichita State, trending up, Tier6:

Good NBA body at 6-5, 207 with definition and some bulk; utilizes effective footwork with pivots and patience to find openings on offensive end. Capable attacking off bounce and enough strength/body control with touch to finish over size/length. Inconsistent to poor finding bodies to box out on the defensive glass. Was 37% on twos and 45% at the rim (per barttorvik) this past season. That’s not good.

37. Davide Moretti, Texas Tech, trending up, Tier6:

22-year-old 6-3 junior shooter probably destined to excel in Europe (he’s Italian and has played in FIBA events since 2013) unless he gets an unlikely growth spurt. Career shooting splits: 49% (twos), 40% (threes – 416 3pas), 90% (FTs – 235 FTAs), and 62 TS. Scraps and doesn’t shy away from contact, but size and athleticism will be massive hurdles to overcome at NBA level.

38. Chris Clarke, Texas Tech, no change, Tier7:

Odd player, kind of hunched over, plays low to the ground at 6-5, 215. Above average passer and rebounder; has plus-strength, hands, and strong base which he utilizes defensively. Likes to use off arm while dribbling almost like a stiff-arm to hold defenders at bay. Reads and anticipates game well on both sides of ball. Dennis Rodman-like aversion to shooting (seven FGAs/40min) and not particularly good at it (2-12 from three, 48% on twos, 56% at the rim, no dunks). Made 14 of 33 threes (42%) as a junior at Virginia Tech, but was 4-21 (19%) in previous two seasons.

39. Marcus Sasser, Houston, no change, Tier7:

Strong-built combo guard at 6-1, 200 is nephew of SMU’s Jeryl Sasser and Texas Tech’s Jason Sasser. Those Sassers combined for over four-thousand career NCAA points. Sasser the younger doesn’t project to be that type of scorer (eight points/game on 36-35-76 as a freshman), but I like the physical frame combined with competitive, rugged defense and a decent shot from three (73% 3PAr). If I re-ranked, he’d be closer to #50 with Will Baker and Clarence Nadolny.

40. Caleb Mills, Houston, trending down, Tier7:

Leading scorer for a 23-win Houston team, Mills, like Sasser, is a smallish (6-3, 165) combo guard. Unlike Sasser, he’s of slight build and erratic shot selection. He’s a gunner whose go-to shot/move is a one-legged fade/drifting jumper. Despite a smaller frame, he’s strong enough to absorb contact (61% at the rim) and carry a 29% usage rate. Shows some ability in the drive-and-kick game, but is extremely partial to getting his own shots even though he’s only 33% on non-rim twos (on 180 attempts). Would bump up to #34 in a re-rank.

41. Courtney Ramey, Texas, no change, Tier7:

Not really sure how I feel about Ramey. As a freshman, I thought he looked smaller than his listed 6-3, but as a soph, I noted he looked taller. Players grow, but like the Geto Boys, I feel like my mind’s playing tricks on me. Paranoid confusion aside, I liked Ramey more as a freshman when he appeared to play a greater role as an initiator and shot the three better (38% against 31%). He can still create his own looks and has decent form on his pull-up, but the BBIQ I saw frequently as a freshman just wasn’t there with regularity. Some of that could be adjusting to the switch from Kerwin Roach to Jones or just non-linear development. After all, his free throws and non-rim twos improved significantly.

42. Yanni Wetzell, San Diego State, trending up, Tier7:

Fun New Zealander at 6-10, 240, but all out of eligibility after this season. Was more than able to hold his own both laterally and vertically against the higher-ranked Queta; able to beat him on contested boards and beat him with quickness/decisiveness out of the post. Plus effort and IQ, but not great length (from my eyeball). Needs to shoot it better than the 28% on 56 career threes in order to go from G-League prospect to NBA cup of coffee.

43. Herb Jones, Alabama, trending down, Tier7:

Weird to think this is a guy who I first saw making life difficult for Trae Young back in early 2018, but here we are and while Young’s star as ascended, Jones’s flattened out to the point that he’s probably underrated/underappreciated. He has size (6-7, 206) and length to hover around two stocks/game for his nearly-100 games at Alabama, but an inability to improve as a shooter was compounded by a wrist injury (and a shoulder as well, I believe) to completely kill off any shooting progress in his junior season (1-14 from three). He can pass and make semi-advanced reads, but despite a 59% clip at the rim, he doesn’t exhibit good touch there. With his size, decent athleticism, and ability to impact a wide range of scenarios on the defensive side, he should be better than he is. And if I’m being honest, even though his junior season was frustrating, his probability of getting to the pros isn’t any worse than Camren Wynter, Andrew Jones, or Donovan Williams.

44. Freddie Gillespie, Baylor, no change, Tier7:

Thick but undersized as a center (6-9, 245), Gillespie has a little jumper outside the paint and while he plays his ass off, he doesn’t consistently move well enough laterally to guard in space or have the strength to bang with big true fives. He’s kind of a poor man’s Xavier Tillman.

45. Dejon Jarreau, Houston, trending down, Tier7:

Jarreau has positional size to play as a lead guard at 6-5, but beyond the size and ability to make basic reads, he’s unreliable as a shooter with somewhat pedestrian athleticism. He can get to the line (~50% FTr over 91 career games), but made just 7 of 40 threes this past season.

TIER 8: Still awake?

46. Mark Vital, Baylor, no change, Tier8: no change from 2/28 post

47. Matthew Mayer, Baylor, trending down, Tier8: no change from 2/28 post

48. Tristan Enaruna, Kansas, trending down, Tier8: has size and length, doesn’t turn 19 until June, I get the potential, but at some point I need to see flashes of it and I haven’t.

49. Matt Mitchell, San Diego State, trending up, Tier8: beefy with a good jumper, likes to dribble.

50. Will Baker, Texas, trending up, Tier8: skilled big, can shoot, pass, and handle it a bit, but took a while to settle into frosh season. In perfect world, he probably would’ve redshirted this past year.

51. Clarence Nadolny, Texas Tech, trending down, Tier9: Looked better against Mega Bemax back in August 2019 than he did in Big12. Potential for mini-leap in sophomore season.

52. Erik Stevenson, Washington: transferring to University of Washington, part of chaos at Wichita State, good athlete who goes balls to the wall, has sound BBIQ, spent lot of time as a soph playing completely out of control.

53. Grant Sherfield, Nevada: transferring to University of Nevada

54. MaCio Teague, Baylor, trending down, Tier9

55. Mate Okros, Drexel, no change, Tier9: British/Hungarian kid; shot it well as a freshman (44-41-79), started all 33 games, low-impact (less than .5 stocks/game), but competent team defender.

56. Alex Lomax, Memphis, no change, Tier9: smart college PG and much-needed stabilizer on young Memphis team, but frequently cooked by bigger players at NCAA level.

57. Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change, Tier9: Smart and versatile, but refuses to shoot and when he does shoot, misses a lot: 44-29-56.

58. Jaime Echenique, Wichita State, trending up, Tier9

59. Russel Tchewa, Texas Tech, no change, Tier10: large, 20-year-old freshman from Cameroon, plays hard, sets a good and effective screen, currently has poor hands and should not dribble the ball.

60. David McCormack, Kansas, trending down, Tier10: stubborn sophomore big and former McDonald’s All-American, has legit size and some touch, but just insists on shooting and dribbling regardless of dis/advantage.

61. Matt Coleman, Texas, no change, Tier10

62. Isaiah Moss, Kansas, no change, Tier10: 23-year-old grad transfer for Kansas, game looks better than he produces.

63. Oton Jankovic, Vanderbilt, no change, Tier10

64. Malcolm Dandridge, Memphis, trending down, Tier10: Memphis had wanted to RS him, but with Wiseman gone, he played and wasn’t ready. Team-worst 38% turnover rate, but 64% FTr, 64 TS, and 76% at the rim. He can do some things, but like lot of Memphis players, has to polish, develop, and fine tune. Absent a dedicated film study, covid-19 is going to make development for these players harder than it would be in normal circumstances.

65. Justin Bean, Utah State, no change, Tier10: smart and savvy passer, somewhat of a rebounding savant who seems like he could’ve played in the 60s. Numbers exceed eye test.

66. Kyler Edwards, Texas Tech, trending down, Tier10: 40% from field, 32% from three, but those numbers drop down to the 20s when I watch.

 

Incompletes for DNPs: Gerald Lidell, Jericho Sims, Tyreek Smith

Incompletes for lack of opportunity: James Butler, Jaylen Forbes, Javian Davis-Fleming, Silvio De Sousa, Kamaka Hepa, Mario Nakic

 

 

Scouting Dump #4, Part II: You have tools, but do you know what to do with them?

I had intended this to be just a two-part dump, but here we are, nearly three-thousand words on five players who fill me with uncertainty and maybe even doubt, well yes, lots of doubt.

Part I can be found here and includes the 11 games that were scouted during this dump. Through nine players, here’s the overall ranking:

  1. Usman Garuba
  2. Deni Avdija
  3. Kira Lewis Jr.
  4. Aaron Nesmith
  5. Theo Maledon
  6. Grant Riller
  7. Jahmi’Us Ramsey
  8. Devon Dotson
  9. Precious Achiuwa

5. Theo Maledon, ASVEL, trending up, Tier2:

As a narrow-shouldered 18-year-old playing among grown men in the competitive world of the Euroleague, Maledon exhibits a remarkable poise, maturity, and leadership. In my viewings, he’s shown himself to be surprisingly capable and competent as an on-floor communicator willing to direct older teammates into position on both sides of the ball which speaks somewhat to what I heard an announcer earlier this season describe him as having “a certain arrogance, confidence.”

Moxie matters and it translates to a calm, evenly paced style the 6-foot-5 18-year-old plays with. Positionally, he has great size and on the defensive side, he knows how to utilize it. Against Real Madrid, it was fun to see the contrast in defensive approach between Maledon and ASVEL’s younger Matthew Strazel. Strazel, a 17-year-old who looks like he could be the French cousin of Tre and Tyus Jones, played up in the jersey of Madrid’s veteran Facundo Campazzo with overactive hands bordering on recklessness while the more seasoned and mature Maledon opted for effectively sliding feet and bodying up the smaller Campazzo. ASVEL as a team plays a full court, aggressive defense that Maledon appears to be more than willing to adapt to. His defensive effort: moving his feet, sitting in a stance, navigating screens, are all present. I wonder about the long-term defensive upside given his slighter frame and OK quickness, but the effort and size will help.

Offensively, he plays a mostly clean game with a fluid handle, understanding of how to utilize screens and angles, and an ability to make basic, pre-packaged reads. He incorporates subtle hesitations and unexpected crossovers that help to keep defenders off-balance. Off these dribble moves, he’s adept at driving and kicking to open teammates. His ability to keep defenders guessing on ball screens is one of the more impressive traits I’ve seen. He’ll go away from screens with a quick first step or setup opponents one direction against a screen before hitting them with change of direction on compact crossovers. There’s something unorthodox to some of these directional changes and I wish I would’ve recorded a couple of them.

In my limited sample, he’s shown touch around the rim and ability to finish over length. I haven’t seen him play through contact as much, but he’s consistently operated around 40% FTr and is at 36% this season.

His catch-and-shoot three is more of a toss than a good, tight snap off the wrist. Off the dribble, his form looks more natural, but at present he’s just an average-to-below-average shooter which is fine given he’s not even 19 yet. Across 162 games in Europe and FIBA, he’s shooting 34% on nearly 500 threes.

The size and ability to change speeds remind me somewhat of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the three-inch difference in wingspan, the strength, and shooting all lean heavily to SGA’s favor to the point that comparison doesn’t add up. Per ESPN, his physical profile is similar to Delon Wright’s and I can see potential similarities there, although Wright was 23-years-old as a rookie and Maledon will be just 19. That four-year difference is massive and speaks to the Frenchman’s upside as a potential low-end NBA starting point or combo guard.

6. Grant Riller, Charleston, trending up, Tier3:

The 6-3 Riller is a better pro-ready prospect than Maledon, but he’s also more than four years older. With all due respect to Aaliyah, age is more than a number and thus Riller is behind young Theo.

Like watching N’Faly Dante devour 6-7 Terren Frank in EYBL competition, Riller the senior just seemed a class above his Colonial Athletic Association opponents. And as such, it created a handicap of sorts when checking in to see him cook on a nightly basis. For the game viewed here (hosting Drexel on Senior Night), Riller nonchalantly kicked ass in myriad ways: NBA range threes, head fakes, spin moves, pull-up jumpers, threes on the move, running jumpers, slashing with efficient angles, post-ups, side-step step backs, floaters, rinse, repeat ad infinitum. The breadth of unforced offensive skill was something to behold and the ease with which he fluidly read and reacted to the defense was surgical. Between catching the ball and shooting it, Riller has as much craft as anyone I saw in college basketball this year and some of that is out of necessity. He has a good frame at 6-3, 190 pounds with good shoulders and lean muscle, but he’s not a twitchy athlete. He’s not blurring past opponents like Kira Lewis Jr.or bulldogging defenders like a focused Anthony Edwards. The combination of handle, deception (via fakery), shot/touch, and understated strength/body control are deadly and Riller knows this. He plays to his strengths; which is a lot easier to do when your strength can be described as just getting to your spots.

In my viewing, Riller has shown himself to have some ability to read the floor and create for others, but it’s nowhere near as natural as his scoring instincts. His ability to anticipate and make advanced reads is heavily skewed towards scoring the ball. Some of this can be attributed to team need: in most scenarios, a look from Riller is more efficient than anything else Charleston is getting. He has a high basketball IQ, it’s just a matter of spreading it beyond scoring.

Defensively is where I was least impressed with him and where the level of competition appeared to be most evident. Against Drexel, he seemed put out at having to defend, was caught ball watching, and wandered off his man without communicating to teammates. His IQ and ability to anticipate plays was evident as he had a highlight help block thanks to an early rotation, but overall the effort uninspiring. In a small sample, it’s hard to hold this against him, but it was by far his least impressive attribute.

He’s not the player or shooter that CJ McCollum was in college, but he looks to be from the same family tree of undersized scoring twos/combo guards.

7. Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech, no change, Tier3:

The 6-4, nearly 200-pound Ramsey has a June 2001 birthday and in terms of age, would slot perfectly into the high school class of 2020. Instead, he’s a young freshman with buckets of talent on a team with an outsized role, and a misunderstanding of how to harness said talent in said bucket.

I first saw Ramsey as a junior in 2018 going head-to-head with Cam Reddish, late of the Atlanta Hawks, and walked away thinking of him as a twitchy defender, a competitor, a secondary initiator, an ultra-confident player capable of falling back on his physical ability if the world otherwise tipped sidewise.

Then the Mega Bemax pre-season game happened and Ramsey dropped 44 on the Serbian club made most noteworthy for producing Nikola Jokic and Goga Bitadze. This game and Tech’s faulty roster funneled Ramsey into the role of primary scorer, a role he wasn’t, and probably shouldn’t have been plugged into.

Scout: good length and athleticism for a two-guard, but probably lacking in height which, in some situations, he can make up for with his athleticism, particularly vertical. He’s twitchy, he’s strong, fluid as an athlete. Capable as a shooter (42% on 141 threes), handler, and passer including out of the pick-and-roll despite not-so-good Synergy numbers; vision translates in transition and half-court; lot of drive-and-kick to his game. Seamlessly and effectively utilizes head fakes and shot fakes as part of offensive attack. BBIQ is strong with improvisational give-and-go’s, flare outs off screens, and dump-offs/wraparounds off penetration. Some truly awful decision making on pull-up threes. For a 42% three-point shooter, it’s remarkable how many bad shots he takes. Some of this I attribute to shouldering too great a role in Tech’s point guard-lacking roster. There was no reliable creation for Ramsey or Davide Moretti. Senior Chris Clarke was their best passer, but as a non-shooting initiator off the bench, his creation ability was under-utilized. This lack of creation put the ball in Ramsey’s hands more than it should’ve been and the result was a lot of J.R. Smith-type shots.

Despite physical tools, appears to have struggled to maintain focus in Texas Tech’s defense. When engaged, uses length as a defensive cushion, moves feet well, can anticipate and help accordingly, strong hands to strip on digs, good timing as help side shot blocker (2.5% on steals and blocks). When floating mentally, which is often, he helps too far off shooters which is either a bad habit, lack of awareness, or too much trust in ability to help and recover; gets lost or confused in TT’s switching schemes, despite showing lateral flexibility and a willingness to embrace contact, is beaten off dribble far too often as he opens his hips. Some of the latter could be scheme, but too often there’s no help.

If Ramsey can comfortably adjust to lower usage (team-high 26% with TT) and improve his defensive focus, he can be a positive NBA player. Not just can, but should. If I was re-ranking, I’d probably move him above Riller based on age and upside. Arbitrary stat: Ramsey was the only player in D1 to have both steal and block rates 2.5% or higher while attempting over 135 threes and making at least 40% and is one of just 12 players in barttorvik’s database dating back to 2008 to accomplish it.

8. Devon Dotson, Kansas, no change, Tier3:

Dotson isn’t a player I’m terribly high on. His strength is overwhelmingly strong: quickness. It’s flirting with Kira Lewis Jr.levels of quick and destabilizes defense in the open or half court. Dotson is more physically developed than Lewis and nearly two years older. He can attack with either hand, although he seems partial to the left, can change direction at speed, finish with both hands, and finish through contact. But beyond scoring, penetrating, and just out-quicking opponents, his game is somewhat unremarkable.

As a passer, I haven’t seen much beyond basic reads. His 22.5% assist rate is likely bolstered (like the rest of his teammates’) by Udoka Azubuike. The whole team, rightly so, has a habit of using the seven-footer as a release valve of sorts and when there’s no other option available, toss it up to Udoka because even if he doesn’t score, he’ll at least catch it. I’m not going to knock Dotson for taking advantage of a weapon, but rather believe he could’ve taken even greater advantage in setting up the big man for more lobs or dump-offs; or anticipating help rotation, drive-and-kick with greater frequency. That being said, per Synergy, his P&R decision making (as shooter or passer) ranks in the high 70s to low 80th percentiles. I’ll give Dotson some grace in their preference for Marcus Garrett’s creation to Dotson’s. The presence of Garrett over two seasons has reduced the need for Dotson’s creation and limited his in-game reps. It’s a theory, at least.

As a shooter, Dotson was 31% from threes and just average on catch-and-shoot threes (one point/possession, per Synergy). He shot 32% on 53 attempts at Under Armour in 2017 and was 36% on 91 attempts as a freshman. All told that’s 33% on 267 tries in an 83-game sample. His mechanics are mostly unmemorable – for better or worse, which is ultimately a good thing. He’s been an 81% free throw shooter at Kansas and, with time and work, he should be able to strive for average from behind the arc. He’s not bad enough that teams can completely play off of him. Even at 32%, he can attack closeouts and utilize his speed. That said, even as a freshman when he shot 36%, Ashton Hagans sagged off and dared him to shoot. Given his speed and untrustworthiness from three, this will be an NBA thing as well.

On the defensive side, I don’t have nearly the sample of notes as I do on Dotson’s offense. His speed and reaction time is enough to create disruption and his 2.9% steal rate over 66 games evidences that, but in the game against Texas Tech when he matched up with Davide Moretti, he was awkward and uncertain. I wasn’t watching specifically for his defense, but it became something unavoidable.

Like Ramsey, Dotson operates from a solid foundation of physical tools, but unlike Ramsey, I believe his strong skills are less valuable and his compatibility narrower. Tune in in June when I talk myself into Dotson being the better prospect.

9. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending up (but probably shouldn’t be), Tier3:

I’ve probably seen more games of Achiuwa than any other player on this list which probably says more about my ability to prioritize than anything else. Also, after writing about him, I’d probably drop him down a few slots, but we’ll let the record stand and fix it in a future amended board.

More than any other Memphis Tiger, Achiuwa benefited from the departure of James Wiseman as he was able to have the center position all to himself where he led the team in minutes played. He came into the season listed as 6-9, but feels taller and plays bigger. In his 31 games at Memphis, he registered a 6.4% block rate. It’s on the defensive side of the ball that he’s most impactful and impressive. He’ll turn 21 for his rookie year and despite being older than most freshmen, Achiuwa is painfully raw. The rawness is less noticeable on the defensive because he’s shown an ability to leverage his length and athleticism in a variety of defensive scenarios with the most effective being rim protection. He’s not a great shot blocker, but he’s already showing an aptitude for using verticality to disrupt shots rather than exclusively trying to block them and he with his athleticism, he has better-than-normal hangtime that allows him to linger in the air a split second longer than most guys, even on a verticality play. For his size, he’s mostly agile and can switch onto smaller guards. He seems to take a level of pride in his switchability and while he can be had with shot fakes, it’s ultimately a positive attribute. If that’s the good of his defense, the bad is his consistency and focus. There are lapses on switches, ball watching that leads to poor positioning, and generally unreliable awareness. There are times, like on box outs, where you can see him standing upright, watching the ball and suddenly the lightbulb goes off, “oh shit, I need to box out” followed by a scramble to put a body on someone.

In terms of effort, Achiuwa is not lacking. He has a high motor and a bit of a nose for the ball. Since I started watching him at Montverde Academy, I’ve sounded the same refrain: regardless of how you feel about his game, you always notice him. This ability to standout either in running the floor, scrambling for loose balls, or soaring out of nowhere for highlight blocks is a skill that I imagine a 16-year-old Andrei Kirilenko had.

If Achiuwa’s effort and motor are his calling cards and his defense is effective, but unrefined, then his offense is a hot mess. He shot a respectable 33% on 40 threes, 64% at the rim, and had a 51% FTr, but don’t be fooled, he produced on offense in spite of himself. My notes are littered with confusion: “Seems either incapable or uninterested in throwing a fake,” “egregious travel on P&R catch,” “if it’s basic, he can do it,” “trying to attack off dribble and goes nowhere à winds up throwing risky jump pass /eyeroll,” “Airball on C&S3 à just not his shot/game,” “stubborn as a mule trying to force shots in contested space.” It goes on, but I hope the point is conveyed. Going back to Montverde, he’s fancied himself as something of a passer/playmaker and while this seems to be less of an emphasis with Memphis, it still shows its ugly face on his 30 assists to 87 turnovers (~1:3 ratio). ::Insert Pusha T YUUGH::

There’s a productive player living somewhere in Achiuwa, but there’s so much cleanup and TLC that it’s far from a foregone conclusion he’ll reach whatever potential he has. It’s more likely that you’ll forever being trying to strike a tenuous balance between what he adds and what he takes away. To borrow from Fran Fraschilla’s immortal “two years away from being two years away,” Achiuwa is probably a year away from being a year away.

Scouting Dump #4: Part I: Scraping the Barrel in Isolation

It’s the afternoon on Friday, March 20th as I write this. I was supposed to be in Legoland in Kansas City with my three-year-old, Will. I always knew I’d be sneaking peaks at my phone and opening round NCAA Tournament games, trading the craziness of March Madness for the craziness of an overstimulated toddler. Instead, I’m looking backwards (as is usually the case in scouting, I suppose), watching games from February and early March before the Rony (coronavirus) descended on us like an unsensational Hollywood plot device, but alas, we have no Bill Pullman, no Will Smith, no Randy Quaid to fly his plane kamikaze style into the eye of the virus and perish so we can all go on with our bougie existences.

For this edition, we have 11 games and 70-some players spanning multiple continents, countries, and conferences. From Deni Avdija to Devon Dotson, Usman to Udoka, Maledon to McCullar, Merrill, Moretti, Mayer, Mitchell, Moss, McCormack and I could just make up some names and they may have the same odds of making the NBA as some of the players I’ve watched in the past few paranoid-filled weeks.

The games are below and a reminder to anyone reading one of my dumps for the first time: The only players ranked are players I watched in this the games listed below so no LaMelo Ball, Luka Garza, Obi Toppin, or Payton Pritchard. There are two exceptions to this rule which will be explicitly called out.

  • 2/7: Maccabi Tel Aviv @ Fenerbache
  • 2/22: Kansas @ Baylor
  • 2/29: Texas @ Texas Tech
  • 2/29: Drexel @ Charleston
  • 3/2: Texas Tech @ Baylor
  • 3/3: Vanderbilt @ Alabama
  • 3/5: Wichita State @ Memphis
  • 3/5: ASVEL @ Real Madrid
  • 3/7: Kansas @ Texas Tech
  • 3/7: Utah State vs San Diego State
  • 3/8: Memphis @ Houston

 

  1. Usman Garuba, Real Madrid, trending up, N/A Tier:

Garuba was still just a young hooper of 17 when I watched this game from early March. He 18 a few days after, but he looks nothing like either a 17 or 18-year-old with solid square shoulders, a broad chest, and lanky arms. Appearances and stats tell of a young man mature beyond his years: in 21 games of his past three FIBA events against competitors his own age, Garuba is averaging 21 and 17 per-36 with a somewhat inconsistent stretch of shooting: TS’s 68, 58, and 48. In 36 games with the big boy club (Real Madrid) this season, those numbers drop precipitously – which isn’t a bad thing: he’s at 10 and 10 with nearly three stocks/game per-36 with a 62 TS, 17% 3Pr and 40% FTr. He’s done this with Real as a true 17-year-old, a kid playing beyond the depth and experience of probably 99% of all 17-year-old basketball players on the planet.

And while Garuba sits atop my ranking here despite not evening being eligible for the draft until 2021, I don’t quite see him as the same elite-level prospect some others may. For a battered Real, he started against ASVEL and brought what have become trademark traits: willing physicality as a screener with great wide-based screens, ample effort around the basket keeping balls alive against grown men that went for easy boards against his own age group, a high-ish and loose handle, inconsistent shooting, and grace to his movements and on-court navigation that are remarkable for his age. He has excellent straight line speed for a big and runs the court hard.

This is all well and good, but against the experienced and pressuring ASVEL, Garuba was often in a rush; pushing the ball at one speed and unsure or unable to come to a complete stop without shuffling his feet. On separate occasions, refs missed travels and with his high handle and upright gait while dribbling in the open court, he’s prone to have his dribble deflected.

His form on the catch-and-shoot remains a work in progress with an elbow that is over-exaggeratedly tucked in. You can almost see him trying to line up or aim his three-ball instead of just fluidly going through his motion. On 83 attempts across FIBA and Real, he’s 29% from deep.

With his physical ability, size, and movement, he can and will impact the game enough that being a below average three-point shooter won’t break his game, but for all the feel and effort he exhibits, there’s a polish lacking that’s lacking. But again, he just turned 18. If anyone on this list has time, it’s him.

  1. Deni Avdija, Maccabi Tel Aviv, no change, Tier1:

Avdija might not be as good or have as much upside as Garuba, but he’s probably more fun – depending on your definition of fun and tastes, etc. Avdija is 6-8 or 6-9 with a decent, if 19-year-old-ish build and guard skills galore.

For Israel’s FIBA tams (U20, U18, U16), he’s a do-everything self-creating forward with sprinklings of Luka Doncic and Toni Kukoc. With Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team, he plays off-ball, but is aggressive and decisive attacking off the touch. His feel, on greater display with Israel than Maccabi, is elevated. He reads the floor well, anticipates, and can pull passes out of his ass.

Against Fenerbache, he seemed to be playing with an elevated confidence, unbothered by the competition or setting. His quickness is average at best, but he plays at a measured pace, takes efficient angles (offensively and defensively), and has high level of anticipation.

Playing off ball and shooting just 33% on 119 attempts for the season (across FIBA and Maccabi, he’s at 33% on 404 attempts), he had room on a handful of catch-and-shoots. For the game, he was 1-3 on C&S3s and hit one off the dribble. He shoots with confidence and while his release looks like it might be lower than ideal, I imagine he’ll improve over time. Free throw shooting is a bit more of a question mark. He didn’t get to the line in Turkey, but is shooting 52% on the season (on 27% FTr) and is at 54% on nearly 300 attempts across all comps. It’s a poor number for a player who’s otherwise so skilled.

With Israel, he’s proven to be competent and relentless as a cutter and keeps an omnipresent pressure on the defense. He’s also comfortable playing with his back-to-the-basket and mixes in spin moves and up-and-unders to gain advantage. The level of skill pops in technical aspects of his game: post moves, ball handling, passing, and defensive position.

Defensively, he’s severely lacking strength but not will. Against Fenerbache, he wound up on 6-11, 240-pound Jan Vesely a few times. Vesely spent three seasons in the NBA and in addition to just being bigger than Avdija, is more physically mature and powerful. He treated Avdija like a rag doll, using super upper and lower body strength to gain position on post-ups and rebounds. In and of itself, this isn’t anything resembling a death knell for the young Israeli prospect. But it lines up with some challenges I saw from him in the FIBA U20s last summer where his sound defensive technique (verticality and defensive positioning specifically) was frequently muted by stronger or more explosive athletes.

Avdija will get stronger and I believe his shot mechanics are sound enough that he can become an average shooter. The lack of strength does concern me even in the long-term as I believe it limits his long-term defensive upside. If Avdija can be just average as a shooter and defender, his ability and upside as a creator are good enough to slot him in as an above average starter. But getting to average shooting and defending is still years in development.

 

  1. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, no change, Tier1: Nothing has fundamentally changed from when I wrote about him 10 days ago or however long it was, but enjoy some recorded video action:
  2. Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier2:

Nesmith is a bit of a fluky inclusion to this edition as his season ended back in January with a foot injury. I hadn’t written about him yet and saw more of his games last season than this one, but wanted to dig in a bit more and to be honest, this scouting dump needed a talent upgrade.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Nesmith has ideal two-guard size. He was overshadowed as a freshman behind McDonald’s All-American teammates and current professionals, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. Even last year, in a lot of ways he projected as a better fit at the pro level. His size, defense, and shooting were promising in his first season at Vanderbilt, but it was his injury-shortened second year that propelled his case forward.

He uses his size, strength, and length well on both ends, but it stands out more on the defensive side where he averaged 2.3 stocks/gm with steal and block percentages both over two. He’s shown strong defensive principles as a team defender who exhibits awareness of who he’s helping off of and where he’s helping to. His length is most valuable as a shot blocker in a variety of scenarios: as a help defender (clip below), on-ball defender, or in recovery. He showed improved strength in his sophomore year and should be able to switch up and guard smaller fours in the NBA although he has room to improve as a defensive rebounder; specifically his positioning and box out consistency. If he’s defending up, he’s likely to give up a decent amount of second chance opportunities.

Despite accumulating 500 minutes in just 14 games, Nesmith was a flamethrower, shooting an unsustainable 52% from three on 115 attempts. Per Synergy, he was on some Steph Curry-type shit, finishing in the 95th percentile or higher across spot ups (31% of the time), off screens (21%), hand-offs (8%), and in isolations (5%) while merely 90th percentile in transition (18%).

He’s most comfortable and effective shooting jumpers either off the catch or bounce and is already developing an ability to burst hard off off-ball screens, take the pass or handoff, stop on a dime, set his feet and elevate into his motion. It’s not the Korver, Klay, Redick-level of body control, but the foundations are there. I’m also not quite ready to put him into that realm of pure shooter off the strength of an incendiary half sophomore season.

The offensive effectiveness trickles off quite a bit after the shooting. Per barttorvik.com, he’s middle of the road at the rim while Synergy has him in the 60th percentile (good) on around-the-rim non-post ups. In my viewing, his athleticism and length on drives has been evident. He’s a long-strider who can get to the basket although I think he can be both more selective and effective attacking closeouts, but is somewhat limited by an average-to-below average handle, very little passing threat or awareness, and occasionally wild or off-balance shot attempts. There are possessions where he commits to the drive before he catches the ball and is dead set on getting off a shot. This is more maturity and game reps than anything else, but it’s an area of opportunity. With his frame, athleticism, and shot, attacking off the bounce has the potential to be a scary weapon. And while I see this as opportunity, it’s worth noting that he nearly doubled his free throw attempts from 2.5/gm to 4.5/gm while improving his FTr from 27.5% to 30.7%.

Because of the defensive impact and potential versatility combined with the shooting, I keep thinking of him as a bit smaller Dorell Wright although I believe Nesmith’s 14 games as a sophomore are probably better than any shooting stretch of Wright’s 549-game NBA career and while both athletic players, they’re completely different types of athletes. There are some low key hints of Klay Thompson as well, but this is more in the defense/lack of creation with slight nods to the shooting. Somewhere between Wright and Thompson is a yawning canyon of potential outcomes, but such is life: choose door #1 and find love, peace, and happiness. Door #2 is a highway to hell without the fun of an AC/DC accompaniment.

Scouting Dump #3, Part II: Tiers 3 thru 10

This is part two of Scouting Dump #3 and includes tiers three thru 10, players seven thru 78. I’m not really sure what differentiates the tiers except there’s some level of break in skill or differentiation in ability and future potential between the players in one tier and another. It’s not based on hard science or even soft science, but rather on my arbitrary, un-copyrighted “system.”

You may also notice a trend of me suggesting that a player should be moved higher or lower and may ask, “why didn’t you just move them around instead of mentioning it. It only makes things more confusing.” Apologies for any confusion, but I kept them as initially ranked for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s helpful to understand the thought process for ranking or re-ranking a player and in some cases, I’ve explained that; 2) it’s helpful for me to see where my initial, less-thorough scrub landed players and where further investigation cast a new perspective.

Point two above is super important for me as a writer and draft “analyst” in that the process of writing and laying thoughts bare can be a revelatory process. My initial response and outside influences pushed Jalen Smith up my list (#8), but the more I poked and prodded, the less impressed I was and suggested I would drop him down to 12, behind Nico Mannion, Devin Vassell, Josh Green, and Patrick Williams. This is helpful for me to see and think through and hopefully it helps you better understand my process.

Games included:

The games:

  • 2/15/20: DePaul @ Creighton
  • 2/15/20: Maryland @ Michigan State
  • 2/6/20: USC @ Arizona
  • 2/8/20: Kentucky @ Tennessee
  • 2/1/20: Arkansas @ Tennessee
  • 2/9/20: Alabama @ Georgia
  • 1/30/20: Baylor @ Iowa State
  • 2/3/20: UNC @ FSU
  • 1/22/20: Rutgers @ Iowa – in person
  • 2/11/20: Alba Berlin @ Ulm
  • 2/19/20: Indiana @ Minnesota
  • 2/20/20: USC @ Colorado

Tier 3:

7. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, trending up, Tier3: In case you didn’t know, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did know, Kira Lewis Jr. a college sophomore, doesn’t turn 19 until April. For age purposes, he’s essentially a freshman who happens to have two years of college experience including one (this season) as the engine powering new coach, Nate Oats’s run and gun offense. Listed at 6-foot-3, 167-pounds, Lewis is wispy. Not quite Trae Young wispy, but the young man could possibly hula hoop through a proverbial cheerio. The thinner frame is most noticeable as a disadvantage on the defensive end where the slightest protruding hip or butt or screen is enough to throw him off his on or off-ball tracking. Off ball and away from screens, Lewis’s speed and quickness are his greatest defensive strengths and with a 6’6.5” wingspan, he has enough length to be a disrupter on that end. For the season, he’s averaging nearly two steals/game with a 2.6 steal percentage. On-the-ball, I’ve seen Lewis struggle to guards like Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, a speedy pocket rocket of a guard the likes of which can make a killing at the collegiate levels, but struggle against NBA size. It’s not just that player type that has success against Lewis, against Iowa State earlier in the season, their 6-3 off-guard, Rasir Bolton, a solid player who doesn’t project as an NBAer, was able to frequently get by him. More than strength or physical limitations, I get the sense on-ball technique is the area he can improve on: staying in ready position, taking better angles, these will help him contain. Coming into the season, I wasn’t completely sold on Lewis as lead guard and I’m still not necessarily convinced he’s a starting point in the NBA. And despite somewhat of a flat statistical development (TS same, 3Par down, FTr down; steals, assists, rebounds, and points up), he’s significantly improved. The frequency of quality passes seems to have exponentially increased specifically with drive-and-kicks and over-the-shoulder one-hand passes out of pick-and-roll. The skill improvements are bolstered by video game-like speed and quickness. Lewis is a blur in the full or half court. He changes directions so suddenly my own knees ache at the sight. The speed and quickness will absolutely transfer to the NBA, but where Tyrese Maxey’s base allows him to play at high speed with body control and balance, some of Lewis’s faster forays feel a bit out of control or off-balance. Strengthening his lower body, continuing to develop his passing and reads, and ultimately improving as a three-point shooter (35% on 282 attempts) are keys to NBA effectiveness. ESPN has placed him in the 30s on their big boards and mock drafts. Without having built out my own, I’d likely rank him higher than that based on upside and having a clear attribute (speed/quickness) that is NBA-ready.

8. Jalen Smith, Maryland, trending up, Tier3: Smith is another sophomore and ranks as the second-highest big behind Onyeka Okongwu in this player set. Without taking away from the man they call “Stick,” it’s worth noting that he’s over a year older than Kira and if we consider the leaps Smith has made from his 18 to 19-year-old season, it’s easy to see why Lewis supporters will beat you over the head with his age as a sign of development to come. But we digress and take away from the goggle-wearing Smith. He’s lean-ish at 6-10, 225 with a listed wingspan of 7’1.5” although it sometimes seems like he’s longer. I enjoyed him as a freshman alongside current Atlanta Hawk, Bruno Fernando as he showed flashes of being able to hit the jumper (27% from 3 on 71 attempts) with good rim protection and rebounding. In his second season, everything has improved: he’s over 62 TS, his block percentage is up to 8.1, his shooting splits up from 49-27-66 to 53-36-75. Even his at-the-rim numbers are up from 67% to 71%. Improvement is always a positive (I think), but it’s not to say Smith has entered a realm of flawlessness in this draft class. That leanishness I referenced earlier was on display against Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman (#17 on this list) in mid-February. Numerous times, Smith had Tillman boxed out, only to have the 6-9, 245-pound Tillman use swim moves and superior upper-body strength to dislodge the younger player. Some NBA box outs look like rugby scrums and while Smith will absolutely get stronger, packing functional strength on that frame is going to take time and work – it’s not enough to out-jump and out-reach guys for loose balls. If strength is an area of improvement, being physical isn’t. Smith won’t win all the positional battles, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and typically puts forth effort. Defensively, he shows good technique staying vertical in rim protection and bodying up potential drivers. Offensively, he has touch from the perimeter to the interior, but is somewhat limited on that end. He’s best shooting the three off the catch and while I don’t have the data, his accuracy seems to drop when he rushes or has a quick release. A lack of awareness and vision limit his passing impact as well. He misses open teammates, and like his shot, he has occasion to rush the play. If he finds a path to being effective as a pro, it’ll be driven by consistent shooting, rim protection, and improved understanding of NBA team defense. A part of this exercise that’s revealing is how the under-the-hood view of a prospect can skew your valuation more than you expect. If I were to do this over again, I would likely drop Smith down to 12 and bump up Nico, Vassell, Josh Green, and Pat Williams.

9. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending down, Tier3: I ranked Mannion atop a list of 45 players back in December and while I believe he’s improved since then, the combination of other players revealing more and me placing more scrutiny on Mannion’s strength and limitations have put him on a downward trajectory. I watched him against USC earlier in February in a game where he scored 20 on the strength of 12-18 free throw shooting with seven assists to four turnovers and kept thinking that he has this base of great fundamentals, vision, and anticipation that are somewhat muffled by an average-to-below-average physical profile. This feels kind of lazy in terms of race-based analysis, but his inability to get the slightest of edges on defenders prevents him from fully accessing his passing and vision. If he’s lacking somewhat in burst and vertical athleticism, he finds other ways to play bigger than his size. Like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, he’s a great screener who uses his smaller size to set solid screens on bigs. Arizona runs a lot of screen the screener actions from which he benefits. Offensively, his passing his far and away his best skill. Despite strong mechanics and mostly good shot selection, he’s shooting just 33% from deep (that number drops to 30% in 14 conference games) with a 44% 3PAr. Mannion’s been at his best when attacking aggressively – seeking his shot, attacking off the bounce, and not letting defenses settle in. I still believe in the shot, but he’ll have to shoot it better and develop more skill and craft off the dribble in order to unlock his full scope of ability. If I’m projecting out, I’d have him as a reserve guard in the NBA which is great, but a far cry from what I expected back in November.

10. Devin Vassell, Florida State, trending up, Tier3: I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched a ton of the lengthy 6-7 sophomore from FSU this season. He’s an advanced stats darling with one of the top BPMs (10.2 as of this writing) in the country, 59 TS on 43% three-point shooting, a 4.4% block rate and 2.9% steals. In two seasons at Tallahassee, he’s shooting 42% from three on over 150 attempts, but unlike a lot of college shooters, he incorporates a pull up mid-range game and while his handle isn’t tight enough to create space with frequency, his length and high-release point allow him to get shots off without a ton of room. He’s a plus-defender who second naturedly navigates screens and switches with a high defensive IQ that allows him to anticipate play development and act/react quickly. Like most Leonard Hamilton players, he stays active and engaged on the defensive end with his length and anticipation game helping him to rack up those steal and block rates. Like many players in this draft, he’s a very good complimentary piece who can plug into a role without needing to be a high usage (19.4%) focal point. Bonus: per barttorvik, as of February 26th, he’s one of only three players (as of Feb. 26) in the country with over 20 dunks, over 20 threes made, and above 40% from three.

11. Josh Green, Arizona, trending up, Tier3: Like Mannion, I wrote about Green back in December and not a ton has changed. He’s a plus-athlete who can pass, and competes defensively. At Arizona, he’s probably been a below-average shooter (42-32-77 with a 52 TS), but I kind of buy his shooting a bit more than the current output and believe he’s lacking some confidence on the perimeter as he sometimes catches and hesitates before letting an open catch-and-shoot fly. Ultimately I see him as a fringe level starter who plays hard on both ends of the floor, doesn’t shy away from physicality, and has shown a willingness to buy into a role which I probably value higher than others. Like so many of these prospects, he desperately needs to find consistency in his shot in order to be a regular contributor. Bonus: per friend of blog, Spencer Pearlman, Green has two left handed finishes over the last two years counting AAU and Arizona (not IMG). Two.

12. Patrick Williams, Florida State, no change, Tier3: I initially had Williams as the first player in my T4, but given his age (turns 19 in August), size (6-8 with 6-11 wingspan), and defensive versatility (3.5 stocks/40min and can defend both interior and perimeter – more on this), I bumped him up to T3. I’ve seen a handful of FSU games this season and given Williams’s propensity to be deployed in the corner as something of a floor spacer, I was surprised to see him second on the team in usage (among players with actual minute volume) behind senior point, Trent Forrest. While he’s far from an initiator with FSU (9% ast rate with 1.7 TOs to every assist), he’s shown a little mid-range ability in multiple games. These are usually one or two hard dribbles into the pull-up or into a jump stop with the occasional fade mixed in. There’s not a ton of passing or creation off the bounce and this dates back to his 2018 EYBL season as well (1.8 assists to 1.5 TOs). His physical ability, the lanky, muscular frame, best percolates on the defensive end. I’ve seen him defend shooters like Florida’s Noah Locke and point guards like Indiana’s Rob Phinisee and harass the hell out of these smaller, in theory quicker players. His size, bend, and lateral mobility allow him to sit deep in a defensive crouch and mirror dribbler movements. His length and push off power allow him to quickly cover ground both vertically and laterally. And this is apparently a theme of this player set, but as I write this, I realize I’d likely swap Williams with Green. His defensive versatility and shooting, albeit on low volume, have a higher likelihood of seamless transition to the NBA.

Tier 4: Not quite lightning round, but let’s get it moving:

13. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana, trending up, Tier4: Only a freshman, TJD is already 20-years-old and plays like he has some grown man strength. He’s listed at 6-9 or 6-10, 245-pounds and he makes opponents feel it. Physical player with no problem elevating. Prefers back-to-basket camping on right block, but can face up as well. No three attempts on season, but strong FTr (65%) and hits 70% clip. Struggles to defend in space. Kind of poor man’s Okongwu, projects as rotation 4/5 in the NBA. Has bit of an edge, will dunk on you.

14. Tyler Bey, Colorado, trending up, Tier4: Lanky 3/4 or 4/3, listed at 6-7 but seems taller to me with ton of length (listed at 7-0). Uber efficient Mr. Do Everything type of player for Buffs. Can hit unguarded three (13-26 on season) at low volume; lot of garbage man work on offensive end; 64% of his shots come at the rim with 59% being assisted; over 8 FTAs/40 with a 69% FTr. Roughly three TOs to every two assists; not a playmaker, but can make basic passes/reads. Plus on rim protection, able to make himself a massive obstruction at the rim with sound verticality, good lift, and long arms. Somewhat of an intangibles guy that maybe comes from a similar family tree as Shawn Marion, Shane Battier, and/or Andre Roberson.

15. Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change, Tier4: At the lazy, surface level, Nnaji reminds me of Jordan Hill: both big-haired Arizona big men with high motors. Beyond that, the comparison pretty much falls apart. I bring this up to say that Nnaji is not Jordan Hill. Against USC in early February, I wanted to see how the Minnesota native who grew up playing piano would matchup with noted ass kicker, Onyeka Okongwu. It took some adjusting, but Nnaji, was able to match USC’s big man through effort and positioning, using tireless footwork to gain position on box outs and post deflections. Offensively, he used a blend of skill, strength, and quickness to create good looks including a post catch into a shoulder fake, then immediately following the shoulder with a quick shot fake that Okongwu bit on before attacking for the finish. This is the type of move Okongwu would use himself and is the type of advanced post play that rounds out Nnaji’s strong offensive arsenal. He has range out to 18 to 20 feet and is a threat to roll, pop or slip screens. He’s also at 78% from the line on a 65% FTr which greatly aids his already efficient game – 65 TS. If he can extend his range to the NBA three-line, he can become super interesting as a pro prospect. He doesn’t have the rim protection of TJD, but he’s nearly a year younger and given his shooting, it’s not a stretch to see him as the better long-term prospect.

16. Santiago Vescovi, Tennessee, trending up, Tier4: I took a weird route to put the 6-3 Uruguayan point guard this high. After watching him against Kentucky (2/8) and Arkansas (2/11), I walked away thinking he’s not dissimilar from Nico Mannion. Both are cerebral, pass-first point guards. Mannion probably plays a tighter, more controlled game whereas Vescovi has more improvisational cleverness. Mannion is stronger with more burst as well. Vescovi was granted eligibility midway through the season and has struggled at times to adjust to NCAA officiating; most noticeable in his ball control and 5.2 turnovers/40 (1:1 ast:TO rate), much of which are travel and carry violations. He has good length, decent-sized hands, range out to NBA level, runs a good P&R game, and is active and aware as a team defender. Finishing at the rim and developing better decision making on dribble drives are areas for improvement, but I like him longer term as a potential NBA rotation piece and it’s worth noting that he doesn’t turn 19 until September. Bonus: Tennessee has two McDonald’s-level players coming in at guard next season in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson which has some interesting potential implications if Vescovi is still there.

17. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State, trending up, Tier4: I’ve gone back and forth on Tillman since the season-opener against Kentucky and despite him being undersized as a pro five, I always come back to him just knowing how to play the damn game. He’s solidly built at 245-pounds with a thick neck and a +4 or 5” wingspan and has an extremely efficient economy of movement that allows him to quickly close space and make quick, decisive movements. He’s hell on the defensive end and has made life difficult for Maryland’s Jalen Smith and Iowa’s Luka Garza among other Big 10 bigs. As of this writing, he’s at 3.2 stocks/game. He has a habit of overplaying, over-helping and cheating on the defensive end that leaves him susceptible to back cuts, but this type of thing can be coached up. Offensively, he’s less impressive as a shooter/scorer (53-28-66 shooting with 58 TS), but exceptional as a screener with above average positional awareness, and capable of making somewhat advanced reads. He seems like he’d be an excellent fit on the KG Celtics and maybe that’s because he kind of reminds me of Leon Powe, but his intangibles, feel, fundamentals, and build make him feel like a reserve big with the potential to contribute to a winning team.

18. Paul Reed, DePaul, trending down, Tier4: Paul Reed is the only player in the NCAA D1 this season to average at least 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks and is the first player in six seasons to do it. He kind of looks like Hakim Warrick with a long, lanky frame and a fluid gait with long strides, but he wrecks shit in ways Warrick could not. Reed is possessed of good hands, a high motor, and quick leaping ability. Multiple times a game, he’ll catapult into the screen from some unknown place (the bench? Dunkin Donuts?) and snare a rebound or aggressively swat a shot off the board. He can make basic reads passing out of the post, but can be rushed into mistakes with double teams. Reed has touch around that hoop that includes jump hooks and Steven Adams-like push floaters and while he can make threes, there’s a lot of movement in his form and it’s not a shot I trust in its current form (shooting 33% on 102 attempts for his career). Given the lack of bulk and what is, to me, somewhat of an unreliable shot, I like him as a dive man playing the 4/5 in an end-of-bench role with his defensive potential opening up more avenues to playing time as he physically develops.

19. Aaron Henry Henry, Michigan State, trending down, Tier4: Fairly certain Henry is ambidextrous. He shoots jumpers with his left, but attacks with the right and has a variety floaters and finger rolls from close range. He has pro size at 6-6, 210-pounds with a +4” wingspan, doesn’t shy away from contact, and is aggressive in attack although mostly average as a shooter (35% on threes, 42% on non-rim twos, 72% FT). Good as a team defender like most Michigan State guys and capable of defending the one thru three spots. May be able to defend smaller fours, but it’s not something I’ve seen. Pretty clearly behind Josh Green, Patrick Williams, and Devin Vassell for me. They each offer greater athletic and offensive upside with similar defensive potential.

Tier 5: More ranking, less writing, please:

20. Cassius Winston, Michigan State, no change, Tier5: Good enough passer, floor general, role accepter that I believe he’ll stick if he can hit the pull-up and three-ball at average rates. I do question his defensive ability; particularly on-ball.

21. Joe Wieskamp, Iowa, trending down**, Tier5: **had been trending up, but recent shooting slump 6-27 FG, 1-12 from three including missing wide open, high-leverage looks have made questions about mental toughness resurface. Completely disappears at times and looks confounded in quest to find effective contributions. For his player type (shooter), he needs to be better.

22. Romeo Weems, DePaul, no change**, Tier5: **had been trending down, but recent run of aggressive attack rebalanced him. Great physical profile with massive defensive upside has struggled mightily to find offensive consistency. Inconsistent shot and inability to create space off the dribble mean he’s only really effective as a cutter. I blame some of this on what appears to be an abysmal DePaul offense and team approach in general, but Weems is collateral damage. If he comes out, I’d absolutely gamble on him in the second round and if he wound up better than Vassell, Green, and them, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

23. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota, trending down, Tier5: Weird scoring big man at 6-10 with 7-2 wingspan, always looking for his shot. Likes to turn and face off the catch and capable of hitting mid-range or putting it on the deck and attacking. Gaudy 28% usage with excellent 62 TS, but more than two TOs for every assist. Decent defensive timing and length. Screams G-League to me.

24. John Petty, Alabama, trending up, Tier5: Far and away one of my favorite players in this class. After a ho hum first two seasons in Alabama, under the tutelage of Nate Oats, Petty is flashing the ability that made him a top-35 recruit in the class of 2017. He’s always had some J. Smith pull-up confidence, but this season has cranked up his efficiency (45% on 189 3s vs 36% on 413 previous two seasons). What’s been more impressive though is his improved rebounding and assists with declining turnover percentage despite more minutes and lower usage. He’s made leaps and bounds as a passer, able to create off the dribble and find teammates on drive-and-kicks or drive-and-dumps with one-handed whip passes or more conventional dump offs.

25. Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: Like Petty, Quickley has enjoyed a breakout season. He’s a lanky 6-3 guard with a 6-8 wingspan and wiry strength. He’s rightly been recognized for his shooting this season (91% on over five FTAs/game and 43% on five threes/game), but has rounded out his game with passing creation, quickness, and defense which make me think he can spend time as a combo guard in the NBA or play alongside bigger point guards and take the point guard matchup defensively. More compelling as a prospect than Winston, but maybe bit more risk.

26. Ashton Hagans, Kentucky, trending down, Tier5: Hagans is a real MFer and I mean that in the most positive sense. He’s a floor general who competes on both ends, has strong hands he uses to strip bigger (or smaller) opponents, has a high BBIQ, and is above average as a college facilitator. But he can’t shoot (28% on 108 3s in two seasons), is average at the rim, and poor from non-rim twos (30% on 73 attempts). Every guard I have ranked above him in this set shoots the ball better and unless he can make improvements there, it’ll be hard to stick at the league’s most competitive spot.

27. Nick Richards, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: 22-year-old junior with a 7-5 wingspan, runs floor hard, plays within himself, probably slots in as a roll man with bit of potential for elbow pick-and-pops. Good rim protector is a better fit for pro style than Oturu despite being less skilled.

28. Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton, trending up, Tier5: Listed at 6-2, but not convinced he’s that big. Looks smallish, but has no issues getting his shot off against taller opponents and is 64% at the rim. Plays with good speed despite lacking quickness, has clean handle, and good offensive awareness. Shoots it well from all over the court (42% on 301 career threes, 44% on non-rim twos), struggles to contain penetration at times on defensive side as is lacking lateral quickness.

Tiers 6 and 7: Lightning round-ish

29. Ron Harper Jr. Rutgers, trending up, Tier6: Thick at 6-6, 245 with long arms with shot potential (33% on 101 attempts this season). If you told me he winds up in Houston or Boston, I would say, “Yes, that makes sense.”

30. Jared Butler, Baylor, no change, Tier6: Have seen very little of him.

31. Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton, trending up, Tier6: Bit undersized to play off-ball at 6-4, but shoots it well 59 TS and 40% from three on over 175 attempts. Does bit of everything and makes me think of more well-rounded, but worse shooting Quickley. Big fan of his.

32. Luka Garza, Iowa, trending up, Tier7: Massive physical evolution, monster motor, back-to-the-basket player in mold of Al Jefferson is up to 36% from deep on nearly 100 attempts this season after 31% on 118 attempts previous two combined. Still runs awkwardly and lacks agility required to defend pretty much anyone in space. Potential to be end-of-bench big or Euro MVP.

33. Malik Hall, Michigan State, trending down, Tier7: 6-7, 215 pound combo forward, plays up in position in Izzo’s scheme and shown more flash than consistency as a 19-year-old freshman.

Tier 8:

34. Keion Brooks, Kentucky, trending up, Tier8: I know what was going through my head when I had Brooks trending up, but I believe it was an overreaction: over the course of the season, I believe he’s gotten bigger, is moving more fluidly and generally looks a bit more confident on the floor, but none of it translates in the numbers and given that the bulk of games I saw from him were pre-conference season, I’m trusting the data here. He should be lower, my bad. (The more I think about this, the less sense it makes.)

35. Yves Pons, Tennessee, no change, Tier8: freak athlete at 6-6, 205-pounds with 7-foot wingspan. Third year at Tennessee and he still can’t shoot a jumper, but is the only player in the country 6-6 or shorter with a block rate of 8% or higher per barttorvik. Feel like he’d be amazing at parkour.

36. McKinley Wright, Colorado, trending up, Tier8: Pit bull of a point guard with a nose for the rim, plus-speed, handle with either hand and stays low with it, touch on floater, but just average from deep (34% on 292 career attempts) and solid at the line (78%). Size on defense and lack of high level vision/passing have him behind guys like Zegarowski, Butler, and Hagans.

37. Mark Vital, Baylor, no change, Tier8: 23-year-old redshirt junior fascinates me because he’s built like a middle linebacker (6-5, 230, thick neck) and jumps out of the gym. Can’t shoot to save his life (14% on 49 career threes, 43% on 60 FTAs this season) should be behind some of the guys I have him ahead of.

38. Nick Ongenda, DePaul, trending up, Tier8: Impossibly long freshman looks like baby giraffe, but surprisingly fluid movements; reminds me of Stephen Hunter based on build, but he’s probably skinnier. He’s a two years away from being two years away kinda guy, but the length and mobility offer hope.

39. Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up, Tier8: Great size at the point, good passer, pushes with pace, and (mostly) plays under control, can defend on-ball, average shooter. Positional size probably greatest strength, but doesn’t strike me as pro level guard.

40. Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia, trending up, Tier8: Ehhh, maybe empty calorie four man. Likes to shoot and can attack off dribble, but below average defender and inefficient shooter. Probably would not be trending up on a redo.

Tier 9: some mistakes; probably punch drunk

41. Johnny Juzang, Kentucky, trending up, Tier9: looks better than start of season, willing and capable defender with strong lower body, and decent looking shot. Mostly incomplete though.

42. Toumani Camara, Georgia, trending up, Tier9: all effort garbage man hits o-glass, probably ranked too high here.

43. Mitch Ballock, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Impressive shooter with decent size (6-5, 205); 40% from three on 552 career attempts with quick release off catch or dribble. Should be in Tier8.

44. Christian Bishop, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Another impressive Creighton kid; plays up at 6-7, active defender (3.3 stocks/40) with plus BBIQ, and impressive athlete. Not a shooter, probably too small for player type.

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45. Mason Jones, Arkansas, trending down, Tier9: 32% usage, weird guard with somewhat of a throwback, ground-based game built on craft. Not good enough to warrant high usage in NBA and doesn’t do enough outside of scoring to be effective in league.

46. Charlie Moore, DePaul, trending down, Tier9: smallish player with plenty of scoring and passing ability, but wind up questioning his reads and deep forays into the paint with nowhere to go. Not a DWN favorite.

47. Trent Forrest, FSU, no change, Tier9: Plays point guard, but don’t believe he’s a point guard. If he could play defense only, he’d be more valuable.

Tier 10: getting late

48. Christian Brown, Georgia, trending down, Tier10: long wing, probably more combo forward than wing, good athlete, incomplete.

49. Anthony Cowan, Maryland, no change, Tier10: Big shot maker, average shooter, probably deserves to be a bit higher, but is he really going to be a scoring guard in the NBA?

50. Donta Scott, Maryland, trending up, Tier10: Burly, banging Maryland four-man who can shoot a bit. Not scared.

51. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending down, Tier10: 6-11 soph with a 7-5 wingspan who shot 43% on 14 threes as a frosh, but is 5-27 (18.5%) this year. Better in theory than practice.

52. Armando Bacot, UNC, trending down, Tier10: Supposedly Cole Anthony’s wingman, rebounds ball well, narrow shoulders with ok length, ok around rim, but doesn’t shoot it well anywhere else. Turns 20 March 6th. Bonus: Same birthday as Shaq.

53. Aaron Wiggins, Maryland, trending down, Tier10: Has regressed as a sophomore who showed 3-and-D potential as a frosh. Not good enough to regress.

54. Raiquan Gray, FSU, trending down, Tier10: Fun player, kind of built like Zion, but with maybe half Zion’s vertical and efficiency. Cool spin move.

The rest.

55. Marcus Carr, Minnesota, no change

56. Isaiah Mobley, USC, trending down

57. Christian Koloko, Arizona, no change: super long, fun shot block disrupter, missed two free throws to seal fate in loss against Oregon. It’s ok.

58. Balsa Koprivica, FSU, no change

59. CJ Fredrick, Iowa, trending up: Probably not an NBA player, but carries himself like he is and it matters.

60. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, no change

61. Davonte Gaines, Tennessee, trending up: super long and skinny redshirt frosh. Has defensive upside.

62. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending down

63. Jaden Shackelford, Alabama, **trending down: Should probably be trending up.

64. George Conditt, Iowa State, trending down: had higher hopes for him; seems to struggle against first units.

65. Sahvir Wheeler, Georgia, no change

66. Jaylen Butz, DePaul, trending down

67. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, **trending down: Had career game against Iowa on 2/25 and played with uber confidence. One game can flip flop a freshman, I guess.

68. John Fulkerson, Tennessee, trending up

69. EJ Montgomery, Kentucky, trending down

70. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down

71. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down

72. Darious Hall, DePaul, trending up

73. Eric Ayala, Maryland, trending up

74. Rasir Bolton, Iowa State, trending down

75. Shereef Mitchell, Creighton, no change

76. Joe Toussaint, Iowa, no change

77. Matthew Mayer, Baylor, no change: Should probably be 8-10 slots higher.

78. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: I’m a sucker for hoopers who look like they live in the weight room.

Incompletes: Ethan Henderson, Reggie Chaney, Serrel Smith, Uros Plavsic, Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, Max Agbonkpolo, Kyle Sturdivant

 

 

Scouting Dump #3: Mostly February, Tiers 1 and 2

12 games, 86 players, and a new job span this latest scouting dump which has, admittedly, undergone a partially expected detour that included site seeing with Cole Anthony and LaMelo Ball and aborted ventures to RJ Hampton and some other point guards. There’s also a high school version sitting somewhere in my drafts, but all is on hold until we scrub through the latest 86 – or at least the first six of those 86 since being concise is an impossibility. As a reminder: the only players covered are players I viewed during this window of games so please no kicking up dust or angry letters to the editor because you didn’t see LaMelo or James Wiseman or Markus Howard or whoever you’re fancying these days.

The games:

  • 2/15/20: DePaul @ Creighton
  • 2/15/20: Maryland @ Michigan State
  • 2/6/20: USC @ Arizona
  • 2/8/20: Kentucky @ Tennessee
  • 2/1/20: Arkansas @ Tennessee
  • 2/9/20: Alabama @ Georgia
  • 1/30/20: Baylor @ Iowa State
  • 2/3/20: UNC @ FSU
  • 1/22/20: Rutgers @ Iowa – in person
  • 2/11/20: Alba Berlin @ Ulm
  • 2/19/20: Indiana @ Minnesota
  • 2/20/20: USC @ Colorado

Previous editions:

 

  1. Anthony Edwards, Georgia, no change, #1 overall, Tier1: Edwards either had the flu or was recovering from the flu when his Bulldogs hosted Alabama and it appeared to have some effect on his game, but the degree to which it did is impossible for me to say, but when Anthony Edwards, he of the heat check, he of the pull-up-three game, he of the questionable shot selection habits, chooses to bypass a wide open three in favor of a pass, something is clearly amiss. Flu or not, this version of Edwards was different from the last I’d seen him in January against Tennessee where I noted that he had shown, “lazy fucking D not even getting hand up on JJJ (Josiah-Jordan James).” Against Alabama though, Edwards was engaged and competing defensively. He got out and denied passes, jumped passing lanes for steals, stayed in front of Bama’s lightning quick spitfire Kira Lewis Jr. He was far from flawless, but a greater ability to stay focused than I’d previously seen. Offensively, he was more within the flow of the group: using his strength and quickness to attack off the bounce, taking open looks instead of forcing pull-ups, and making pass reads in the half court. It’s all there with Edwards, a 6-5, 225-pound bull(dog?) of a guard. And it’s always been there which is why I’ve had him atop my list since Cole Anthony’s injury. With Edwards, the ceiling, that beautiful fresco to be imagined and hopefully, maybe, possibly realized, hinges on consistency: consistency of effort, of output. Prior to the Alabama game, he had a three-game stretch where he averaged 28-points, ten rebounds and over 3.5 stocks with 47-39-72 shooting splits on 11 threes and six free throw attempts-per-game. In the subsequent four games, it’s 13.5-points and six rebounds with just over two stocks and 34-17-93 shooting. Somewhere in this seven-game morass lie hints to his NBA future. Anthony Edwards: Fun vs Function.

 

2. Onyeka Okongwu, USC, rising, Tier2: After seeing Okongwu rain arrays of dunks and ambidextrous finishes against Arizona and Colorado, I was so stinking tempted to bump him up to tier one with Edwards, but the more I stewed over it, the more clearly his potential limitations prevented me from lifting him to the much lusted after tier one valuation. At just 19-years-old, Okongwu has a range and versatility to his offensive game that borders on savant levels. His face-ups out of the post include spins, shot fakes, scoop shots, both hand finishes, hooks, floaters all powered by masterclass footwork. He strings moves together in ways that twist up defenders and remind me of some weird basketball version of Manny Pacquiao with his crazy punch angles. To top that off, his explosiveness, strength, and hands are all well-above average. The combination of skill and athletics allow him to dominate as an undersized (6-9, 245) center, but that size and some of his lapses in focus on the defensive end are why I ultimately put him in T2. Not to go all micro sample size, but against UW’s Isaiah Stewart (6-9, 240 with a 7’4” wingspan), Okongwu was physically overpowered at times. Stewart plays with a motor rivaled at the collegiate level only by Luka Garza and so it’s not a knock on Okongwu that he lost some battles, but against tanks like Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, DeAndre Ayton, Nikola Jokic or even less-skilled behemoths like Jusuf Nurkic or Aron Baynes, he’ll have challenges. Given the league’s deviation away from post-ups, it doesn’t put a hard cap on Okongwu’s ceiling and, when engaged, he’s aware as a team defender and is a plus as a rim protector. He’ll have a quickness advantage over most NBA fives, but unless he can better develop a perimeter game (0-3 on threes at USC and 1-4 across Adidas Nationals and Gauntlet games), his full range of skills will be harder to tap into.

3. Cole Anthony, UNC, trending down, Tier2: Anthony, a 6-3 freshman who turns 20 in May, was my number one overall player in the class, but injury, inefficiency and extended, high-level viewing have steadily knocked him further down my list. Anthony isn’t the shooter I thought he was or could be. In nine pre-injury games, he shot 38% on twos and 35% on nearly seven three attempts. Since his return, the twos have crept up closer to 40% while the threes have dipped down to 27% on 41 total attempts. In EYBL, he was an 89% free throw shooter, but that number plummeted to 68% pre-injury, and bounced back up to 84% on 45 post-injury attempts. With the exception of the free throw percentage and a nose diving steal-per-game average (from 1.9 to 0.7), this hasn’t been a tale of two seasons for Anthony, rather, it’s been one long, uneven march towards the draft. It’s not just the shooting though, it’s repeated defensive mistakes that have, somewhat at least, tried to course correct since returning. Despite an explosive first step and a booming vertical, Anthony struggles to create looks at the rim for himself and has a strange propensity for leaning back at the peak of his jump on rim attempts, hanging, clutching and adjusting, looking for just the right angle on his shot. It’s a bad habit that’s led to inefficiency. He’s shooting just 46% on close twos per barttorvik. If most of what I’ve written about Anthony is critical, it’s what he’s proven capable of in spite of a challenging season pockmarked with injury and losing. He’s maintained a 33% usage rate surrounded by non-pros and non-shooters. He sports around 40% rates on FTr and 3PAr which should lend themselves better to a pro game with hyper emphasis on the efficiency of threes and free throws. His rebounding, particularly on the defensive end, is one of the areas where his vertical athleticism and strength visibly translate. There’s an effective, impactful player here, it’s just not to the degree I previously thought.

4. Killian Hayes, ratiopharm Ulm, trending up, Tier2: At 6-5 with a listed 6-8 wingspan, Hayes is bigger, longer, and over a year younger than Anthony. In the German league, he plays against fringe NBA guys like Ricky Paulding, Zoran Dragic, Bryce Alford, and Peyton Siva where he’s more than held his own with per-36 averages of 17-points, four rebounds, eight assists, and two steals. He has, by most measures, out-performed Anthony this season. Anthony’s athleticism, pull-up ability, and history of producing give him the slimmest of edges for me, but it’s narrow enough that a handful of strong performances or workouts from either player could tilt the advantage. But Hayes’s prospect profile isn’t tied to Anthony’s. He easily stands apart as his ow distinct talent. At 6-5, he’s not wispy thin like LaMelo or even a Shaun Livingston. He has a good build that he puts to use on the defensive end where he seeks out contact in on and off-ball situations and on loose balls or rebounds. He fights through screens which is a sight to beyond after seeing LaMelo crumple so many times. The combination of defensive awareness and technique, effort (usually – there are lapses), and size provide for a solid foundation. If he’s sound defensively, it’s on the offensive where he’s radiant. Next to Ball and probably Nico Mannion, he’s the best pick-and-roll passer of this deep point guard crop; able to quickly diagnose the optimal pass angle or wait for the defenders to muddle up the help or switch; he can make an over-the-top pass or thread the needle and, P&R or not, passes with a Rondo-like confidence that belies his age. While the pass is his most developed offensive skill, he has a lefty hang dribble that while maybe not lethal, does create problems for defenders as he can, with equal deftness, drive off the hang, pull-up quickly, or zip a one-hand rope to an open teammate. He has touch on a short-range pull-up and on floaters and has a TS of 60 across 31 games in all competitions this season. His handle is clean, but he’s struggled against pressure at times and as mentioned, his defensive effort and engagement can wane off-the-ball. And it could be scheme-based but I’ve seen him float on the offensive end without the ball which is consistent with his occasional off-ball lack of engagement defensively. Mini warts aside, Hayes probably projects as a safer bet than Anthony with an ever-so-slightly lower ceiling based on athleticism.

5. Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky, trending up, Tier2: At 6-3, 195, he’s a prospect Draft Twitter was high on coming in, but who I struggled to assess based on his tweener guard size. It only took me watching Kentucky’s season opener to hop on the bandwagon and my appreciation of the Maxey experience has grown since then. His stats aren’t pedestrian, but they don’t scream lottery pick either: 14-points on 44-29-82 shooting with a 54 TS on 23% usage with the fifth best BPM on the team per barttorvik and completely average steal and block rates (1.3 stocks/game). Stats don’t appropriately convey Maxey’s Energizer Bunny on-court effort. Against Tennessee, it was the usual baseline-to-baseline, sideline-to-sideline coverage like a midfielder playing box to box without seeming to ever take a breath. From the waist down, Maxey almost looks like a running back with a powerful lower body that propels his projectile-like first step. If the boom isn’t trouble enough for defenders, that Maxey can beat you with the pass, spot up, or drive only adds to the threat. He attacks with a decisiveness that keeps opponents on their heels at all times. He can finish at the rim with both hands and mixes in a floater that he releases from unorthodox angles. In this game, he incorporated a lob in the half court on a defensive breakdown. This is the type of read-and-react scenario that helps me trust more in his abilities to shoulder a greater weight of a pro offense than what we’ve seen at Kentucky. And it’s not just that Maxey has burst, but he has speed to accompany it and, like his burst, his speed is complemented by plus-body control. Maxey can play fast, but under control; able to push the break at break neck speed and finish in traffic under control. Defensively, I’ve seen him face guard Anthony Edwards, chase shooters through screen gauntlets, and bang forwards in the post. Lower body strength is probably one of the more historically overlooked traits in NBA players, but you can see the shifting emphasis in Houston and Boston where James Harden, Grant Williams, PJ Tucker, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye are being deployed as multi-positional, switchable defenders. Maxey doesn’t have the physical range to do what those players can, but at a legit 6-3, his effort, technique, and lower body strength will limit teams’ abilities to target him in mismatches and thus keep him on the court. For Maxey and the next player on the list (Tyrese Haliburton), there’s a lot of the same similarities as between Anthony and Hayes. I believe Haliburton is probably a safer prospect with a more transferable set of skills, but am ultimately drawn to the electrifying upside of Maxey’s speed, burst, and self-creation; shot included.

6. Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State, no change, Tier2: Haliburton is a poster child of sorts for this draft class. He’s a hyper-efficient combo-guard/wing who can do most anything you’d want except get to the free throw line with any regularity (16.7% FTr/1.2 FTs/gm in 57 games in Ames). For more context on the free throw volume: each player listed above Haliburton here has attempted more free throws this season than he has in two years at Iowa State and for Edwards and Okongwu, they’ve nearly doubled his attempts – eek!

As a freshman, he slotted behind NBA draft picks and G-Leaguers Marial Shayok, Lindell Wiggington, and Talen Horton-Tucker, but still put up a team-best 7.8 BPM with just over 10% usage. For context, in barttorvik’s player database, which dates back to 2008, Haliburton is one of three players with usage rate under 11% and BPM over seven. With an increased load this season (21.4%), his BPM has correspondingly risen up to 11 – 6th highest total in NCAA D1. But life as a prospective NBA player is about more than usage rates and BPMs. This is fine for the slender Haliburton who screeches past eye tests with preternatural instincts. On the defensive end, he averages 3.2 stocks/game and is the only player from a Power 5 conference in the top-10 nationally in steals/game (2.5). He’s able to menace opponents with elite reaction time and anticipation. It’s easy to describe his play as “instinctual,” as I just did, but it betrays an elite mind and accelerated ability to process the game around him. This same processing that leads to copious steals puts him in the neighborhood for loose balls galore and allows him to make split second decisions on the offensive side as well. He can be this decisive in the full or half court because he always knows where to find his teammates. This awareness allows him to leave his feet and diagnose plays while in the air. Making aerial reads is just a small part of his passing game. Haliburton is decisive with the ball, willing to swing for hockey assists or make snap on-the-move, off-the-dribble one hand passes. Aside from the weird lack of free throws, he has an unorthodox shot release that’s remarkably effective. He sped up the release time from his freshman to sophomore seasons and over 234 attempts is shooting nearly 43%. The knock here is that those percentages are driven by elite catch-and-shoot numbers. Per Spencer Pearlman’s Stepien scouting report which leverages Synergy data, Haliburton ranks in the 97th percentile on C&S while his pull-ups (0.68 PPP) are in the 37th percentile.  Despite the lean frame, Haliburton is an explosive athlete with strong hands, good balance, and touch around the basket. In the two-year sample we have of his time with Iowa State and the U19 World Cup, he’s proven to be effective in various roles – from facilitator (U19s) to role player (freshman year) to primary scorer and facilitator (sophomore year). This role type versatility combined with his athleticism, processing speeds, and offensive feel project well for the league.

Part 2 of a Multi-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: LaMelo Ball: Between Lazy and Opportunistic

NOTE: This piece was originally written as being inclusive of both LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton and the opening couple paragraphs read with that intention in place. However, after slipping into the writing process and realizing I had a lot to say about Ball’s passing, shooting, and defense, I opted to keep the focus of this piece on LaMelo and change what was supposed to be a 3 or 4-part series into an open-ended “multi-part” series. Thank you for your patience as my attempts at planning and self-restraint are clearly lacking.

Beyond the novelty of two American-born basketball playing teenagers venturing thousands of miles away from home to prepare for certain induction into the NBA, exist two young men who are ascending as pro prospects, positionally ranked side-by-side, yet performing and projecting as polar opposites: LaMelo Ball, a being who sits at the center of his world, on and off the court, with teammates and cameras and narratives orbiting around him. The other, RJ Hampton, comparatively anonymous, but apparently utilitarian as a basketball player, a peacock of sorts comfortably clothed in muted grays, whites, and blacks.

For context, I have already written about Cole Anthony and still have Nico Mannion, Tyrese Haliburton, and Kira Lewis Jr.to cover in part three (and likely Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, and Killian Hayes in a yet-to-be-considered part four). As tiers are a core theme of classification in the draft Twitter realms, I’d probably bucket Cole and LaMelo together and then Hampton, Mannion, and Haliburton in a second tier with Lewis Jr at the back. Hayes, Maledon and Maxey would be dispersed between tiers two and three. I mention this because the separation between these point guard prospects is tenuous at best. Specifically tenuous in the sense that I’m plagued by deep self-doubt about under-ranking the Tyreses (Haliburton and Maxey) who are barging their way up up up my list with consistency of output and effort.

Overall context aside, let’s hop in with two feet, two hands and any other appendages you want to bring along (yours or someone else’s – with consent) and differentiate our American-gone-Australia/New Zealand teenage point guards.

Ball is fascinating as a prospect. His game and ability are most similar to Mannion’s in that they each have a deep feel for the game that reveals itself primarily in their passing and vision, but also crops up in opportunistic defensive situations. What’s ironic about Ball’s feel coming through on the defensive end is that his lack-of-consistent defensive effort rivals that of MVP-year Russell Westbrook or peak-YouTube James Harden and once seen becomes near impossible to unsee. This dichotomy isn’t new for an NBA player, but in a prospect who presents as Picasso on one end (passing, creation) and a muppet baby on the other (defense), before even arriving in the NBA, it’s kind of disconcerting.

Let’s start with Melo’s offensive gifts. I think, with the right kind of eyes, you can see rainbows and starbursts shooting from his fingers on certain passes. There’s an audacity to high level passing, a feeling, a self-confidence, a willingness to risk it all (or maybe just risk one single, itsy bitsy turnover) in exchange something like selfishly orchestrated cooperation. These are the attributes of Melo and they exist in a lanky, 6-foot-5 frame with loose Jamal Crawford limbs that lack the elder Crawford’s control, yet still obey Melo’s wishes on demand.

He’s long and a legitimate point guard. While lacking plus-speed or quickness, he has surprisingly good acceleration, particularly off the defensive glass where his long strides and ball control allow him to get out and take advantage of scrambling defenses. But Melo doesn’t need the advantage of a break away to push the defense on its heels. His basketball IQ is expressed through a bottomless feel, hyper awareness (not just of teammates and defenders, but seemingly of teammate strength and preference), and improvisation that translate just as well to the half-court. Being tall and imbued of passing genes and vision makes life easier and despite having just turned 18 in August and still physically maturing, Ball is at home in his body, able to take full advantage of his size.

His size and vision/feel combination make his passing the strongest skill of any player I have in the lottery. It’s a talent that exceeds Anthony Edwards’ athleticism and pull up game, is better than Cole Anthony’s tight burst and shooting, exceeds Mannion’s passing, goes beyond James Wiseman’s rim protecting potential and Onyeka Okongwu’s skillful bullying. In an NBA that’s evolved into a chess match of floor spacing and geometry, a passer with Ball’s panoptic ability and size can bend the game in ways that he may not have been able to in the past.

Passing is the primary, the raison d’etre, but it doesn’t exist alone. We desire that the offensive skills should work in concert with one another and in Melo, this is partially the case and where we will segue from strengths into weaknesses and opportunities. For his passing to be fully weaponized, his shot and handle require fine tuning and efficiency. The handle is there already with those floppy arms and dexterous hands, the ball is an extension of the hand which is under control of the mind. In LaMelo, it works together in a simultaneously choreographed and improvised ballet: the moves, from the head and eyes to the arms and hands, to the hips and feet executing in sequences born in Chino Hills, fine tuned in Lithuania and Ohio, and finally being upgraded in Australia at the youthful age of 18. Because the handle is so strong, Ball can beat stronger defenders and force help and this ultimately creates the same type of advantage of a fast break: defense scrambling, teammates cutting and spotting up, and Melo orchestrating.

If the handle and passing are two pieces of the puzzle, the third is the shooting – inside and out, off the catch and off the move. It’s not good. In his 12 games with Illawarra, he’s shooting 37.5% from the field while hitting 25% on 80 three-point attempts and 46% on twos. For context, there are just two NBA players (Jordan Poole [24%] and Russell Westbrook [24%]) shooting this poorly with similar or greater volume and no college players. The inefficiency from deep doesn’t stop Melo from chucking as he’s attempting nearly seven threes/game. It’s too early to abandon all hope though as Melo’s shown in-season improvement from deep. He started the season 3-26 (11.5%) from deep and over his last 54 attempts, is shooting 31.4%. It’s still well-below where you’d like him to be but it shows development and adaptation. It could also show streakiness.

I don’t have any advanced shooting stats on Melo, but in viewing his NBL games, there’s a strong preference for shooting threes off the dribble with traces of the bad habits of pulling from Steph Curry range that simultaneously made him a household name and make one question that otherwise radiant basketball IQ. His shot selection is poor and self-indulgent. It’s possible he’s using the NBL as a laboratory of sorts and exploring what he is and isn’t capable of in game-speed situations, but that’s really the only explanation for some of the ill-advised deep threes he shoots and far-fetched at that. That he occasionally hits one doesn’t validate the shot. Sticking with the decision making, if he hits one shot, there’s a good chance he’s pulling up off the dribble on the next attempt. Existing in a state of heat check when you’re a 25% three-point shooter is hopefully just a sign of immaturity rather than deeply ingrained habit, but again, it calls into question his ability to combat his own on-court impulses and somewhat reduces his otherwise galvanizing playmaking.

While he’s partial towards the pull-up three, his catch-and-shoot threes tend to look quite a bit better with greater symmetry and balance, but still that funky release. This isn’t a surprise, but there are pros and cons to it: On the pro side, it shows that his mechanics aren’t broken. He has touch that translates on rim drives, the free throw line (72% in NBL), and C&S threes. The con is that he rarely gets C&S opportunities as he’s rightly a primary ball-handler. I’ll turn to friend-of-the-blog, Cameron Purn for a deeper description of his shot mechanics and some of the problems that stem from it:

Both of LaMelo’s elbows flare out wide, and his release point can sit as low his nose. His right hand sits on the side of the ball as opposed to the bottom; his left thumb is involved in the shot motion to counteract the spin from the right. His base sees variance from time to time with the right leg periodically sticking out to begin the motion; can land with both feet facing perpendicular to the rim. Amount of knee bend and lower body involvement has been inconsistent. Sometimes inserts a backwards lean involving a kick-out, which offsets his balance. Follow-through has been inconsistent. Outside shot is technically a set shot; doesn’t generate much lift

From my own viewing, the inconsistency Cameron references in Ball’s knee bend and lower body are a key source of his inefficiencies. His misses often are not close misses, but airballs and bricks that are a byproduct of his frequent imbalances and high-degree-of-difficulty shots.

But where his deep ball is an inconsistent shitshow of outcomes, he exhibits remarkable touch on his floater and finishing around the basket. The handle and threat of the pass, often set up by head and eye fakes, is such that he can frequently break down defenders and get into the paint. He’s somewhat deceptive in terms of athleticism. During the warmups of one game, he was attempting the off-the-bounce, ball-through-the-legs dunk with relative ease. This doesn’t imply functional athleticism, but in Ball’s case, he gets up quickly, if not terribly high. Combined with his in-air ball control, he’s shown ability to finish. His strength still acts as an impediment though as against NBL defenders, he can be swallowed and have his shot smothered. The inability to do small things like create space by bumping a defender off balance with a shoulder limits his overall attack.

I’m not convinced the off-the-bounce three-ball comes around and if it doesn’t, it somewhat calls to mind the treatment given to a young, three-point-averse Rajon Rondo. To be clear, Melo’s a better shooter as an 18-year-old than Rondo was even in his late 20s and so getting a Ben Simmons-type treatment isn’t going to happen. That said, there’s an efficiency low point where defenses start playing off him, daring him to take the shot and living with his infrequent makes. Is it 30% on seven attempts? 25% on five attempts? I’m not sure, but him reaching average off-the-dribble levels of three-point accuracy is far from a guarantee.

Before probing the festering sore of his defensive woes, it’s worth acknowledging that his preternatural feel for basketball reveals itself on the defensive end and inspired the subtitle: “Between Lazy & Opportunistic.” In the NBL, he’s shown a strong grasp for team and help defense, a skill that seems propelled by an ability to anticipate and react. The problem with this ability is twofold: 1) it occurs infrequently so it’s not something his team can presently depend on. Maybe he’ll anticipate and react, or, more likely, he’ll be standing stiff-legged with his hands at his sides. 2) this anticipation is a form of opportunism and requires an awareness of where the ball is that often leads to Melo losing his man. This opportunism is embodied by the ball acting as a magnet of sorts. He can force turnovers through his anticipation and quick reactions and rebounds decently for his position due to his size and ball tracking.

So while his defense isn’t a complete wash, that he shows occasions of positive impact almost acts as a source of frustration at the rarity of occurrence. His defense is awful despite any positive impact. And it’s awful in multiple facets.

Probably the most glaring weak point of his defense is his uneven effort, particularly off the ball. More often than not, Ball can be found on the defensive end standing straight-legged with his arms at his sides, not necessarily resting or conserving energy, but just standing, usually watching the ball. This position of unprepared ball fascination makes him an easy target to be backdoored and cut on. And because he’s not in a ready position, even when he does have the “oh shit” realization that he’s lost his man, he’s neither quick enough or in a defensive stance that would allow him to quickly react. This statuesque ole bullshit reminds me of Roger Dorn in Major League, the aging third baseman who’s more concerned about taking a grounder off the face than he is about making the right play. Melo doesn’t seem to have the same concerns, but the outcome is the same.

On-the-ball, he’s an easy target for screeners as his lithe frame and lack of fight allow him to be taken completely out of plays. Throughout my notes, I reference him dying on screens. On occasion, he’s shown a willingness to lock in and get through the screen, but similar to his team defense, the effort and engagement are so inconsistent as to be unreliable. His physical limitations don’t stop on screens. Against other NBL guards, older and stronger in almost every case, he’s plowed through like inanimate traffic cones or Saints defenders circa 2011 trying to wrangle Marshawn Lynch. In football terms, he’s an arm tackler easily run through by opponents, his resistance nominal at best. Similarly, the lacking strength and effort make his boxouts, when they do occur, ineffective at best. While he can rebound well with good hands and nose for the ball, he completely detaches from his man when the shot goes up, and is prone to giving up offensive boards on errant misses.

It’s fair to acknowledge his age as the key factor in his strength and even his focus, but as is the case with Anthony Edwards and his shot selection, the questions come back to habits for LaMelo. Are these habits deep enough that he can’t unlearn them or are the occasions of execution and effort indicators of presence and potential? He’ll get stronger in his upper and lower body and I think there’s an element of oversaturation with Melo that makes us think he should be further along than he actually is because we’ve all been seeing him since he was a skinny kid shooting from half court three or four years ago.

Trying to figure how LaMelo transitions and translates to the NBA is an exercise with greater uncertainty than most for me. He’s third on my big board with probably the second highest upside (behind Edwards), but it feels more dependent on circumstance than other prospects. Within his realm of possible outcomes, I see the mediocre shooting and inconsistent defense of a late-20s Rondo. The elite passing and ineffective defense of Trae Young. It’s the presence of the attributes, not the players themselves where I see similarity. I project and assume LaMelo will gain strength and fill out as he ages. Now in his third season as a 22-year-old, his brother Lonzo Ball has begun to fill out physically, but he always had a sturdier frame and tighter core than his brother. Even if his defensive effort remains poor and inconsistent, being stronger at 6-5 will make him more difficult to run through. In terms of finishing, even slight strength gain and improved core and lower body strength would significantly improve what is already a diverse attack and allow for more efficient finishing and more fouls drawn.

The mental side of the game is harder to predict. Assuming Ball is coachable (I’ve never seen or read anything suggesting otherwise), then I’d like to imagine he can improve his shot selection or just reduce the amount of heat checking and deep threes. I don’t project him as ever having sustained above average three-point shooting because the mechanics, from top to bottom, are too inconsistent and too out-of-whack. That’s not to say he can’t evolve to respectability over time a la Jason Kidd or Rondo, but even these players never quite developed any reliable off-the-bounce three and had to settle for slower, catch-and-shoot options. Ball is a better overall scorer and shooter than those players were at a similar age and while that doesn’t guarantee he’ll shoot better over time, having at least the presence of a pull-up game increases his range of outcomes.

Sticking with the mental side and coachability, I mentioned above that he’s dependent on circumstance and what I mean by that is he needs the room to fail and grow (as all NBA teenagers do). His game is fraught with bad decisions, a likely by-product of his pre-NBL days of playing three-plus years in what essentially amounted to a circus-like all-star atmosphere designed to draw attention rather than develop as a basketball player. The muscle memory and need to put on a show is still there and it will drive some coaches or GMs crazy. But there’s a fine line between optimizing towards the strengths of a savant and asking Picasso to paint inside the numbers. With the bad habits he’s developed, the learning curve from flashy passer to contributor on a winning basketball team seems like it will be longer for Melo than others, but with a significant upside. In a perfect world, he lands somewhere like New Orleans, not just because his brother is there, but because with David Griffin at the helm, there’s a sobriety of expectation and understanding of development. The clock is ticking on the Pels, but it’s not a clock resting solely on LaMelo’s shoulders. Conversely, a destination like New York, with its top-down dysfunction, uneven player development, and NBA 2K-styled roster building feels like a place where bad habits can flourish and calcify.

Between New Orleans and New York are myriad outcomes that offer a million choose-your-own-adventure outcomes for Ball. While his passing and ability to make the game easier for teammates will, with extreme certainty, translate to the NBA, the remaining skills and abilities, from his cockeyed shot to his lazy defense, are wildcards in ways that exceed the question marks of his 2020 draft class compatriots. Were he even average in other areas of his game, he’d be my top-prospect overall, without peer. But he’s not and it’s unclear if he’s willing or able to become average. That I still keep him in my top-three and that ESPN has him number-one overall in their latest mock draft (to the Knicks of all places) is testament to creative genius, to positional size, to potential, possibility, and to the inspirational power of the imagination.

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: Half-cocked Ideas and Hairbrained Theories feat. Cole Anthony

This post was supposed to be about players I reviewed back during Thanksgiving Feast Week or whatever the hell that cavalcade of games was marketed as. I scouted/watched 60-some-odd players that week and ranked 47, but the more I marinated and ruminated and procrastinated, the more it became clear that the bundle of point guards at the top, players not named Anthony Edwards, deserved their own inquisitions.

Six of my top nine from that week project as some form of NBA point guard and I presently have them ranked as such: (This list only includes players I watched that week so you won’t see Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, etc.)

But there’s something that feels oh-so-fragile to this exercise in subjectivity. We were recently alerted that Cole Anthony, son of Greg, would be out six-to-eight weeks for surgery on a meniscus injury. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton of the NBL are both in the midst of their own injury-related hiatuses. The opportunities for scouting these young men are growing less by the day and thus the opportunity for inaccurate assessment grows. I will be wrong. I will change my mind. I will doubt myself. I am human, born to make mistakes.

COLE ANTHONY

So why Cole at the top? I came into the season with Cole Anthony as my number-one overall prospect based on a powerful athleticism that none of the other point guards on this short list can compare with and that goes for Kira Lewis too. Anthony’s strength and elevation exceed that of his fellows. To top it off, in 21 games of the 2018 EYBL season, he shot 89% on 195 free throw attempts alongside 38% on 142 threes. When the best athlete is arguably the second-best shooter (Nico Mannion the best), is passable as a creator, an elite guard rebounder, and flashes defensive potential, it’s easy to get giddy, and overlook gut feelings that I’ll explore further below.

Too, every one of these players has warts. If a massive aspect of scouting is projecting how these players develop and what they become as pros, then deeply understanding their flaws and how deeply ingrained they are in relation to the strengths, which we so rightly celebrate, is a requirement of the exploration.

WARTS & STUFF

Cole: average-to-above average passer/creator, possibly lacking in feel, questionable defensive IQ, questionable finishing and release angles, old for class

LaMelo: defense defense defense inclusive of strength, focus, and effort. Shooting, shot release, core strength, lower body strength

RJ: shot and touch, uncertain if he’s a full-time point guard, ability to defend smaller/quicker guards, developing defensive awareness

Nico: average athlete, average length, can be stymied by team length, lacking vertical explosiveness, ability to generate good looks for himself

Tyrese: creation for others beyond pick-and-roll, attack instincts, shot mechanics, strength

Kira: passing instincts, point guard feel, strength (I’m fully aware that Kira is young for his class), defensive consistency

It was a combination of Anthony’s EYBL and Oak Hill tape, bolstered by the stats above, that drove him to the top of my list. But what’s happened in his month of competitive play at Chapel Hill that tilted the narrative and exposed some of those vulnerabilities?

Anthony shot out like a rocket in his debut against Notre Dame with 34-points on 65 true shooting and 11 rebounds. For all its small sample size, it appeared his strengths would translate seamlessly. But if Anthony chooses to shut it down following his knee surgery, that game will be his collegiate high-water mark, the points, rebounds, threes made, and true shooting all career bests. Against Notre Dame, he performed in his templatized style: an array of pull-ups from two and three, an omnipresent threat attacking off the dribble, and a general physical imposing of will.

Even in high school, when Anthony dominated, there were hints and tics of potential inefficiencies that I should’ve better sniffed out and over his subsequent, post-Notre Dame games, they surfaced with greater frequency and clarity. Unlike Mannion or LaMelo, Anthony is not a pure point guard in the sense that he’s not a natural facilitator. I believe the notion of “pure point guards” is overblown gatekeeping nonsense, but in this case, it merely serves to articulate that Anthony neither defaults to the pass or can pass/read with the gusto of some of his peers. Of the six points in this scout, I’d say he’s on par with Lewis as the two least-talented passers of the bunch. In his nine games as a Tar Heel, Anthony picked up 34 turnovers to just 31 assists, easily the worst ratio of any guard in this set.

The UNC challenges don’t end there. Anthony, like many players before him, has succeeded, has thrived, in spite of himself. His combination of athleticism and highly developed skill has meant he can excel in high-degree-of-difficulty scenarios. Case-in-point are the pull-ups he loves so much. Further, looking back over my notes from his Oakhill days, I called out his challenges in both generating clean looks for himself and finishing around the rim. At UNC, I’ve seen a series of odd-angled shot releases on penetration, particularly upon making contact with help defenders. He has the strength and hangtime to make in-air adjustments and absorb contact, but how he adjusts and gets off his shots, often while pulling back in-air instead of driving all the way through, seems like it hurts his ability to finish.

Defensively, I don’t tend to get concerned with guards this age unless effort or physical ability are significant red flags. With Anthony, he’s averaged nearly two steals/game with a 3.2% steal rate, which are both fine. He’s shown an ability to focus in on-ball situations, has great feet and hips that allow him to easily and fluidly change direction, and a hyper burst allows him to recover on plays where he’s been otherwise beaten and positively impact the play. In terms of off-ball defense and drill fundamentals, he has a lot of work to do. He loses his man from ball watching, has off-ball lapses, and multiple times this season, I’ve seen teammates physically push him into right position or shout instructions to him as he’s failed to execute the right coverage. Again, he mostly gives full effort and with his physical tools has plenty of upside. The work comes in the less sexy realms like pick-and-roll coverage and help defense.

All of this leads to an attempt at answering what does a pro version of Cole Anthony look like? What translates? What doesn’t? Or, to what degree do his skills and abilities translate? I believe in the athleticism: the burst, elevation, strength, and balance. As a foundation, his physical/athletic profile is vastly superior to the other guards with the exception of maybe RJ Hampton, who Anthony is still more athletic than, just not by as great of a degree. The athleticism, build, and effort mean he should be able to hover around average defensive impact for a guard with the potential to be much better. Stubbornly, I trust in in Anthony’s ability to assimilate and adapt as a scorer at the NBA level. With better spacing and a commitment to developing as a finisher –in terms of touch, decisiveness, and release – his scoring profile would be well-rounded with room to grow in efficiency and decision making. The clip below exemplifies Anthony’s wide range: he uses his burst and handle to split the double, but his eyes are only on the rim. To be fair, he’s surrounded by non-shooters, but the commitment to the shot is a limiting habit at present. It’s also a good of both his inconsistent touch (it comes and goes) and what could be an inability to decelerate – a recurring trait I’ve seen on his drives.

To go deeper on his offense, there’s a subtlety of skill that will lend itself to his eventual NBA transition and acts as a good reminder that he’s the son of an NBA player and has spent much of his life around NBA gyms. Anthony is adept at getting the most out of his screens: he’s patient and when he does decide to go, he rubs shoulder-to-shoulder with the screener. He’s also a bully who knows how to impose himself, both vertically and horizontally, against smaller guards. While he won’t see many guys in the NBA as small as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (6-0, 190 which seems generous) or Virginia’s Kihei Clark (5-9, 155), against both, Anthony leveraged his strength on drives to the rim, easily finishing through both of the smaller players. In EYBL, he’d even take taller players into the post where his strength and two-foot rise gave him an advantage. His off-dribble game is effective in part because of his excellent body mechanics and ability to dribble hard, stop, square, and rise in one (mostly) fluid motion. In high school, he showed a greater utilization of head fakes and feints, but in his limited UNC stint, I saw this less frequently. These skill-based attributes are advanced for a college freshman and are further evidence of how and why his scoring ability can translate.

And in a world where the above prognostications are spot on, my greatest concerns aren’t addressed or resolved. Against Virginia, in a game where Anthony was already dealing with the injury that will keep him out for the next one to two months, I had the stinking, sinking realization that he wasn’t elevating his teammates and despite what I’ve observed of him as an engaged and encouraging teammate, he wasn’t making guys better. As a shoot-first lead guard, he hasn’t figured out how to operate off the ball and is prone to existing as an all or nothing offensive piece. He can make the pass if he can get to the read, but my interpretation of his attack is that his mind and eyes are seeking avenues to score first, distribute second. It’s not that a modern point guard must be pass first either. Trae Young and Luka Doncic both score a shitload of points while using dynamic scoring and vision in a complimentary fashion: the scoring opens up the passing and vice versa. Anthony doesn’t have to be Young or Luka to be effective, but he hasn’t yet exhibited consistency for advanced reads or passes or an ability to reliably utilize one skill to set up the other.

Despite trending down, I still have Anthony as my second-ranked prospect in this draft behind Anthony Edwards. There are worlds where he can follow paths or styles that resemble Jamal Murray or Kemba Walker. I get the Russell Westbrook comps too, but don’t see Anthony reaching that level of passing. In a draft class severely lacking in high-degree-of-confidence stars, Anthony slides in as a flawed, but somewhat ready-made player, a physically mature player whose upside exists in nuance and mechanics. He exists for me as a high-floor prospect with a low likelihood of achieving his potential and, as currently constructed, unlikely to be a significant contributor on a winning team.

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