Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

All the way home, the rain didn’t stop

**This is the third in series of 10 poems and art pieces we’ll be posting leading into the 2018-19 NBA season. All art in this series is done by friend of blog, Andrew Maahs whose portfolio can be found at http://www.Basemintdesign.com.**

It’s October in Iowa
Raining like Seattle forever and ever
The NBA is in town
Kids, families, future would-be hoopers
Packing in Hilton Coliseum
Jerseys of all colors parade past in the wet slog
Somewhere in the bowels of Hilton sits Andrew Wiggins

No one expects much from pre-season games
Twenty some odd minutes
Odd indeed
Thibs is dressed like he just woke up from a Butler Bender or perhaps he’s still asleep
Bud’s hair is growing out and curls around behind his ears, it shines golden in the light
John Henson’s jovial and talkative, to opponents, teammates, fans
John Henson bangs and works but is powerless against KAT
Wiggins is a flat line

From the fourth row, Giannis is huge
Huge feet, huge shoulders, huge biceps with a huge vein pulsing
He’s serious
Brook Lopez is a mountain
Pat Connaughton’s hair is a high school dye job gone bad
The fans are mild, polite, the dads wear UnderArmour pullovers like they do everywhere else
I see Darvin Ham, Vin Baker, faces and names I’ve known for over 20 years
Thibs likes sticking Wiggins in the post
He’s game I suppose but it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter

I barely notice the score, it really doesn’t matter when you’re in the fourth row and can carry on a conversation with KAT
“What size shoes do you wear?”
“TWENTY!”
It’s a large foot in Jordan 8s, a large man, an unkempt beard; he’s adept playing through contact
KAT laughs, carries on, scores 33 in a variety of ways
KAT Is the best tonight in Ames
Wiggins maybe cracked the top-ten and I don’t think that’s hyperbolizing

Giannis is as tall as the mountain Brook Lopez
He’s deadly serious, gives a damn
Even on a Sunday night in a preseason game at Hilton Coliseum in Ames Iowa
Bud signals for Giannis to sit sometime in the third
The Greek doesn’t bother hiding his frustration
In a 20 point game in the preseason at Hilton Coliseum, the Greek plays most of the fourth quarter
Upon finally agreeing to exit, he seeks out Bud, they squash it, Bucks win I think
Wiggins looks and plays like it’s a Sunday night in early October

With low energy and little in the way of expression
Wiggins worked the offensive glass for five rebounds
That tied his career high and it appeared accidental
Though sometimes offensive rebounding can be unintentional
But Wiggins isn’t really the right place, right time guy
Instead, from the fourth row, and from the TV
He’s detached, devoid of whatever’s coursing through
Giannis and KAT and probably Jimmy and probably Thibs and Bud too

Wiggins is not a flat line and I shouldn’t have written that but won’t delete it either
Wiggins snatched those five offensive rebounds because among athletes, he’s athletic
Quick leaping, high rising with
Good hands, but
I drank my beer and scanned myself for confirmation bias
Zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, zero defensive rebounds, four turnovers
Maybe, on one of his two missed free throws, he grimaced in frustration, blamed himself
Blasé blasé blasé

Walking to the car, soggy in the rain, my jeans heavy,
Me and Hamilton raved about KAT and Giannis
White Donte and Christian Wood too
Luol Deng looked a shell and was mercilessly stuck on Giannis
The crowd chanted “We want Rose! We want Rose!”
Jeff Teague pumped his fist to the chant, grinning at Derrick
Henson fouled out in 15 minutes and got a kick out of harassing the refs
Josh Okogie’s instincts were on display, Bates-Diop’s were not

Up close, in the flesh,
If you didn’t know better,
If you didn’t know Andrew and his background and potential,
You wouldn’t have noticed him
But a preseason game isn’t a place for drawing conclusions
And I often think about Andrew Wiggins and hope it all comes together
He’s only 23, averaged 23 points when he was 21, led the league in minutes
All the way home, the rain didn’t stop

Marc & Mike: Against the West (we were runnin against the West)

**This is the second in series of 10 poems and art pieces we’ll be posting leading into the 2018-19 NBA season. All art in this series is done by friend of blog, Andrew Maahs whose portfolio can be found at http://www.Basemintdesign.com. The poem below should be read to the tune of Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.**

It seems like yesterday
But it was long ago (it was October 29th, 2008)
Marc was lovely, he was the king of the court (Marc as in Gasol who had 12 and 12 in his Grizzlies debut)
There in the darkness with the intros playing low
And the wins that we shared
The bloody battles that we won (it’s unclear which battle is referenced here)
Caught like starving bears out of control (probably referencing Memphis mascot: the Grizzly bear)
Till there were no Spurs left to maul and no Thunders left to roll (Grizzlies’ playoff opponents during their heyday)
And I remember what he said to me
How he swore that he knew we could win (it is assumed this was a private, undocumented conversation, though it could be referencing Mike Conley’s comments here in 2015)
I remember how he held me oh so tight (Marc & Mike in April of 2011)
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then (likely a reference to Conley’s unfulfillment in ultimate NBA success)
Against the West (could Memphis have had more success in the east?)
We were grindin’ against the West
We were young and strong, we were grindin’
against the West
And the years rolled slowly past
And I’m finding me and Marc alone (aside from Conley & Gasol, only Wayne Selden & Andrew Harrison appeared in the team’s last playoff run in 2017)
Surrounded by teammates I thought were my friends (could Conley be alluding to locker room issues?)
We found ourselves further and further from our goal (2018 was the first season since 2010 that the Grizz missed the playoffs. The “goal” in this case is likely an NBA Championship.)
And I guess I lost the day
It was Golden State alone (in 2015, after taking a 2-1 lead over eventual champion Golden State, the Grizzlies would lose three straight games; each by double digits)
I was living to play and playing to live
Never thought about injuries or even how much I hurt (Conley has missed 122 games since the 2014-15 season)
Moving 48 minutes a night for months at a time
Playing for Dave and for Fiz and JB
I began to find myself losin’
Losin’ with Marc again and again
Against the west
A little something against the west
I found myself seeking shelter against the west
Well those losin days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Media days and commitments
Nights in Houston, days in Portland
Against Lillard
I’m still runnin’ against Harden
I’m older now and still runnin’
Against the Brow
Still runnin’ against the west
Me and Marc still runnin’
Against LeBron
See the young man run (likely alluding to Jaren Jackson Jr, the probable torchbearer for Mike & Marc in Memphis)
Against Durant
Watch the young man run
Against Westbrook
Let the Grizzlies ride
Against the west
Let the Grizzlies ride

A Letter to Kawhi Leonard

**This is the first in series of 10 poems and art pieces leading into the 2018-19 NBA season. All art in this series is done by friend of blog, Andrew Maahs whose portfolio can be found at http://www.Basemintdesign.com. The poem below should be read to the tune of Lionel Richie’s 1984 hit song, Hello. A brief, entertaining background on the video of the song from Wikipedia:**

The music video, directed by Bob Giraldi, features the story of Richie as a theater and acting teacher having a seemingly unrequited love for a blind student (Laura Carrington) until he discovers she shares the feeling as demonstrated by the discovery that she is sculpting a likeness of his head. The bust used in the video, which bears little resemblance to Richie, has been parodied in popular culture. Richie himself complained to the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, that the bust did not look like him. Director Giraldi’s response was “Lionel, she’s blind…”

We’ve been alone with you inside our mind
And in our dreams we’ve won with you a thousand times
We sometimes see you pass the ball to Kyle
Kawhi! we think we even miss your smile … ?

We can see it in your eyes
We can hear it in your laugh
You’re all we’ve ever wanted, since we traded for you in the draft
‘Cause you knew what not to say
And you knew what not to do
And we want to tell you so much, we miss you

We long to see the bright lights in your rows
See you dab the sweat upon your nose
Sometimes we feel our team will crumble down
Kawhi! You really left us in a lurch

‘Cause we know just where you are
And we know just what you do
We know you’re feeling lonely, we know Masai is loving you
We don’t want to win your heart
‘Cause it’s unhealthy and unsmart
But let us start by saying, we never knew you
Kawhi! Do you know what you’re looking for?

‘Cause we wonder who you are
And we wonder who got to you
Are you somewhere feeling sated, or did someone hypnotize you?
Tell us who drove a wedge between our hearts
For we haven’t got a clue
But let us start by saying we miss you
Kawhi! Was it Tony or Uncle Dennis?

Does it even matter now?
We’d never blame Pop or RC anyhow
Like Toronto, this world’s so cold and so untrue
It’s the ones you love who end up leaving you
We hope your new friends keep you warm all through the night
Canada’s pretty damn cold, you know that right?
Kawhi! Dejounte tore his ACL

But you can’t hear us any more
The distance is oh so far
Kawhi …

 

 

July 18th, January 18th, and Other Days

Kawhi Leonard is 6’7” and weighs somewhere around 230 pounds. He wears his hair in cornrows and attended Riverside King in Riverside, California where he won a state championship and was named California’s Mr. Basketball. Since 1980, over 83% of the California Mr. Basketball recipients have been drafted into the NBA.

At San Diego State University, Leonard played for coach Steve Fisher who famously took over as interim coach at the University of Michigan in 1989 with just a week left in the regular season. The details of the previous coach’s dismissal are inconsequential, but entertaining. As interim head coach, Fisher led the team to the NCAA Championship which was played in the Kingdome in Seattle against PJ Carlesimo’s Seton Hall Pirates. Fisher’s team won the game 80-79 on a pair of Rumeal Robinson free throws in overtime. At the time of Robinson’s greatest basketball triumph at the Kingdome in 1989, Kawhi Leonard was not yet born. Carlesimo went on to win three NBA championships as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Fisher ran into Kawhi at SDSU, the Kingdome was blown to bits, and Robinson spent six-and-a-half years in federal prison.

While at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard listed his hobbies as “grinding.” The three words he chose to describe himself were “It’s grind season!” (That is the first time I’ve seen a Kawhi Leonard quote with an exclamation point.) Speaking of grinding, the hip-hop duo Clipse released a hit track called Grindin’ in 2002 when Kawhi was probably 11 years-old. One half of Clipse is Pusha-T. Push recently had vicious rap beef with hip-hop recording star and Toronto native, Drake. In addition to the money and fame afforded to Drake as a rap star, he’s well-known as a Toronto Raptors superfan. On July 18th, 2018, Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Raptors. In an Instagram post, Drake referred to Kawhi as a “poised clinical warrior.” Kawhi recently turned 27. He set all kinds of records in his two seasons at SDSU, but ultimately could not overcome Michael Cage’s rebounding records. Cage notably wore his hair in a jheri curl while in the NBA and is presently a broadcast analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder where he offers insights with a shorn skull.

Art by Andrew Maahs http://www.basemintdesign.com

Kawhi has said he chose SDSU because he “wanted to go with who loved me first.” When he signed with the Aztecs, Doug Gottlieb, then of ESPN said, “one Pac-10 coach told me (Leonard) is better than anyone else who signed in the Pac-10.” 83% of California Mr. Basketballs make the NBA. Gottlieb played high school basketball at Tustin High School in California in the mid-90s when Leonard was probably in kindergarten. Tustin High is about 39 miles from Kawhi’s high school. Gottlieb did not win Mr. Basketball, Paul Pierce did.

Before he played an official game at SDSU, Coach Fisher, who also coached Michigan’s famed Fab Five group, said, “Kawhi has long arms and big hands and can be disruptive on the defensive end. He can play multiple positions and is someone that we believe can guard anybody from the one through four positions and eventually will be able to play all of those offensive positions.” In a story written by Tom Haberstroh for ESPN in February of 2016, it was revealed that Kawhi’s “hands are bigger than Anthony Davis’ … Of the active players who’ve gone through the combine since 2010, he has the widest hands on record, at 11 ¼ inches.”

Leonard is currently under contract with Nike’s Jordan Brand and “designed the Brand Jordan logo that appears on the back of his personalized sneakers. It’s 9 ¾-inch hand with the fingers forming ‘KL’ and his No. 2 jersey number notched into the index finger.” As of March of 2018, negotiations between Jordan Brand and Kawhi had “broke down abruptly.” Kawhi was 26 then and is now 27. (Personally, I dig the logo.)

On January 18th, 2008, Mark Leonard was shot multiple times at or around 6:15pm in Compton, California. He was pronounced dead at 6:44pm. Kawhi was 16 at the time and played in a high school basketball game the following night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Denzel Washington claims to have attended that game and recently told Bill Simmons that Kawhi “had about 29 points and 27 rebounds,” but the Los Angeles Times recorded Leonard had 17 points that night. The film He Got Game was released on May Day of 1998 when Kawhi was just six. In that movie, Denzel’s character Jake Shuttlesworth dons a pair of Air Jordan XIIIs as he embarks in a high stakes game of hoops with his son Jesus who’s played by NBA legend, champion, and amateur golfer, Ray Allen. The “He Got Game” XIIIs will be re-released by Nike this year to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary (Where does the time go?). On July 23rd, 1993, when Kawhi was two years-old, James Jordan was robbed and murdered. His son Michael didn’t play another basketball game until March of 1995. Kawhi and Jordan are two of three NBA players to win Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP. At the time of this writing, Kawhi is still 27.

JJ Redick once said of Kawhi, “More than his length, his strength, his quickness, that motherfucker is so … locked … in … I have no idea what scouting report they give him, but he knows every play, and takes no breaks.” JJ Redick won the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year Award (a variation on California’s Mr. Basketball) not once, not twice, but thrice. 70% of Virginia Players of the Year since 2000 make it to the NBA though that number is skewed by prep basketball factory Oak Hill Academy which has accounted for half the Mr Basketballs to make it to the NBA. Kawhi Leonard did not attend Oak Hill Academy, he attended Riverside King where played Milwaukee Buck Tony Snell and won a state championship before going to SDSU, being drafted by the Pacers, traded to the Spurs, winning an NBA title, and then being traded to the Toronto Raptors on July 18th, 2018.

The Future is Long; alternately: When Everyone Becomes a Unicorn

There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.

Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.

This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:

We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.

It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.

The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.

After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.

I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.

(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)

The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.

Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”

Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.

Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])

Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.

Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.

2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.

Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame:

 

 

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Top Player: Luka Doncic; alternately: Don’t Believe Everything Your Ears & Eyes Behold

Like every top prospect in this draft (and in most drafts?), Luka Doncic the prospect is not without flaws: he has a questionable handle for a lead ball handler and an annoying habit of picking his dribble up too early. He’s an average athlete and maybe over-reliant on stepbacks, and for all his advanced vision and screaming passes, he’s not above forcing the ball into spaces it can never reach. In other ways, he’s a complete outlier amongst his peer set: his pick-and-roll game is game is master class, his passing the best in the draft, his combination of size and skill an almost teenage facsimile of Magic and Bird which isn’t to say he’s Magic or Bird, just that for a kid his size to play with this type of skill is rare. Where the other kids in his draft class have played 30 to 40 games with other teenagers at the American collegiate level, Doncic has been battling with grown men, NBA-caliber men, in Spain’s ACB league. He is different, he is same.

Doncic is listed at 6’8”, 230-pounds which, purely in terms of height and weight, puts him in a class with Harrison Barnes, Joe Johnson, and Danny Granger: a trio of sturdy, shooting wings who, like Doncic, combine power with skill to offer NBA value. He is not the athlete of Barnes or Granger; flexible, wiry, strong. He’s closer to Johnson; powerful and dependent on skill. While his game doesn’t reference Johnson’s, his build and how he utilizes his strength does. Iso Joe has made a career out of being able to get to his spots and create looks for himself or his teammates. To be totally fair, Johnson’s handle and explosiveness off the dribble are much better than Luka’s. Both players use the dribble to set up defenders for space-creating stepbacks though Johnson’s is much more fluid than 19-year-old Doncic’s.

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

The bigger difference between Doncic and Johnson is the younger man’s ability to diagnose plays, see the court, and execute passes. It’s fun to reference Magic and Bird and lofty basketball IQ ideals, but even the European game has adopted the modern NBA’s spread schemes with players surrounding the perimeter and opening space for drivers like Doncic. In these schemes, he operates with the precision of LeBron or James Harden in that he can probe the defense with patience, draw in help defenders and, when all seems lost in the world and the dark clouds of help defenders descend on his little spaces, he can jump, see, twist, and whip violent passes to shooters around the arc. In that regard, he has the right set of skills for this modern NBA. And it’s not to suggest he’s a gimmick or an automaton, rather creativity, improvisation, and trust exist at the core of this type of play. Read, react. Read, react. Read, react.

For all the reasonable questions around Doncic’s athleticism, it’s his speed and pace that intrigue. Doncic goes hard. He sprints off screens, dribbles hard, pushes the ball up court with single minded, pedal to metal, headbanging intent: the goal is my destination; there is no alternative. (Blessings are curses, and nurses are nurses; ho hum.) Intensity is fun and magnetic, but knowing when to accelerate, when to brake, or when to just ease your foot back are more important. This is less a question of decision making and more a question of skill development. In my notes, I wrote, “could benefit from watching lots of CP3 – not the quickest guy; uses body, speed shifting.” (It’s always fun to reference yourself.) There are already hints of Paul in Doncic’s game. Against Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvian team at the 2017 Euro Basket tournament, Doncic was able to use his strength and mass both to get into the Zinger’s chest and neutralize his length and also hold him off to get clean looks at layups. Using strength to create space is a tactic both Johnson and Paul have excelled at and one that Doncic ideally continues to refine. Back to Paul; he’s a virtuoso and some think he’s the best point guard to ever play the game. It goes without saying that aspiring NBA point guards should study his game, but for Doncic in particular, with his strength, vision, and need to create space, CP should be a model to emulate.

I’m not convinced Doncic needs to be a point guard to reach his NBA ceiling. As I mention above, he has a terrible habit of picking his dribble up too early and he can be harassed by smaller or longer defenders with strong, active hands. It’s not to say he should disregard his handle as his game needs a strong handle to be fully realized. Rather, as with Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green, we’ve seen that elite passers can be utilized outside of traditional ball-dominant roles. I can envision him playing any position from one to four – and likely struggling defensively with any of them. He has plus defensive instincts with strong active hands, an ability to read the floor and anticipate the pass, but bends more at the waist than the knees and so is prone to being beat off the dribble. That’s hardly unique though and his offense is good enough that he can be a minus defender and still be a net positive. He’s a solid defensive rebounder when he commits to it, but is prone to ball watching and ignoring box outs.

I get the concerns: athleticism, ability to create space, handle, defense. But it’s hard to process those areas of opportunity without fully acknowledging just how advanced his game is. The questions, phrased in the lingo of the present, is about Doncic’s ceiling and floor: most agree he has a high floor based on that enormous skill set and basketball IQ. For the anxious and the detractors, his ceiling is in question due to the lack of athleticism and pudgier build. It’s a reasonable concern as he has a Paul Pierce-type build with a face that looks fuller than what we expect from our best athletes – which says more about appearances than outputs. Similarly to Trae Young, I’m opting for the eye test and the output for Doncic over the convention and appearance. First impressions are a motherfucker and appearances can skew entire perceptions. Doncic is 19, a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until February of 2019. He plays basketball. He just led his Real Madrid team to their league title and the Euroleague title while winning MVPs in both. As an 18-becoming-19-year-old, he played in over 70 games this season. He’s nothing like his peers.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 2 & 3; alternately: Floors & Ceilings, Todays & Tomorrows

Post written by Brian Foster, aka Bug. Follow him on Twitter.

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

DeAndre Ayton: From a physical standpoint, DeAndre Ayton is the most NBA-ready of all the bigs projected in the top half of the lottery. Standing at a rock solid 7’1”, 250 pounds, Ayton has the physique and mobility of a young David Robinson. Although Ayton doesn’t possess the shot-blocking acumen of the Admiral, he is the perfect blend of throwback size/strength with some modern NBA big floor skills sprinkled in. What stands out the most when I watch Ayton is his footwork and agility for a man that big. That rare ability to have that size/athleticism combination along with his elite footwork is what sets him apart from the other elite bigs in this draft. Ayton has a good balance to his offensive game that allows him to score in a variety of ways. His physical gifts make him a great finisher around the rim on both post-ups and pick-and-roll dives to the rim. At Arizona, he played with another center on the floor, while also facing a lot of zone defenses, so I expect him to be even more of a beast on the block with more room to operate. Ayton exhibits an excellent touch on his jump shot from the mid-range, so he has the potential to be a pick-and-pop threat if he develops range to the three-point line. His 73% free throw shooting is a good sign for his jump shot translating to the pros. Another area Ayton excels at offensively is efficiency. He had a PER of 32.6 during his freshman season, averaging 20.1ppg on only 13 shot attempts. Paired with his elite rebounding stats (11.6rpg), Ayton was an absolute monster for teams to handle from the moment he stepped on the court.

Like most young prospects, Ayton has areas of concern that he will have to improve upon to reach his full potential. The concerns with Ayton come on the defensive end of the floor. His defensive struggles seem to be more focus and recognition problems. At times, he will kind of space off and lose his man or allow his guy to get to the rim without much contest. He also had a low steal average at 0.6/game with just under two blocks. You would think he has the ability to double both of those averages with the minutes he had on the floor. He averaged a low 2.3 fouls-per-game while also playing a whopping 33.5 minutes each night, so it is fair to wonder if some of the low work rate on defense was from fatigue. I’m not as concerned as some may be about his defensive struggles, mostly because someone with that much athletic ability can become, at worst, a capable defender with experience and coaching.  Ayton has the potential to be an all-time great if he can clean up some of those defensive lapses, while also showing some more nasty when protecting the paint. Assuming no health issues arise down the road, my money is on Ayton reaching his potential, becoming a dominant force for years to come with Hall of Fame-type numbers when it is all said and done.

Jaren Jackson: Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the most intriguing players in the draft, possessing traits NBA execs are looking for from a high lottery pick. Jackson is young (doesn’t turn 19 until September), oozing with upside, and passed the NBA combine measurement tests with flying colors. During his freshman season at Michigan State, he showed the ability to provide elite rim protection, while also being able to switch and contain guards if needed. Jackson used his long 7’5” wingspan to block three shots-per-game while only playing 22 minutes en route to Big Ten DPOY honors. In this modern era of switching defenses, that defensive versatility and rim protection alone should get Jackson minutes right away. As an added bonus, Jackson also proved to be a capable outside shooter while in East Lansing, shooting a very respectable 39% from deep on 2.7 attempts per game. It remains to be seen if that percentage will translate to the NBA three-point line, but even having a pick and pop game in the 15-18 foot range is going to be a plus at his size.

The two biggest red flags for me with Jackson are his playing time and production in college. Some of the playing time issues were his own doing with foul trouble (8.6 fouls per 100 possessions), but Michigan State’s roster wasn’t talented enough for him to only be playing half of the game. Jackson also leaves a lot to be desired as a rebounder. He started out the season strong with five double-doubles in his first 10 games, but only had one double-digit rebounding game in his last 25 games of the season. With his size and length, you would hope to see a much better rebound rate, especially considering Coach Tom Izzo’s reputation for his teams always crashing the glass hard. All things considered, Jackson is still an 18-year-old kid learning to play the game. The difference between Jackson and the other bigs at the top of the draft, is that I believe Jackson is still a couple of years away from being a starting caliber player. If the team selecting him in the draft is expecting to get a player they need to produce right away, I think they’ll be disappointed. Patience will be the key for whoever selects Jackson.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Player #4: Trae Young; alternately: Wispy Hairs, Bold Dazzle, & Basketball

The first time I saw Trae Young (December 30th, 2017) play a full game, I lost my mind for a bit. This is hardly something to be ashamed of or to apologize for. Without pangs of momentary inspiration and even occasional overreaction, what are we? Pre-programmed overly rational beings subsisting on sterile logic and rationale? Part of what makes us human is our ability to feel, free of judgment, to exist in a moment, to imagine. This is why Trae Young has become an object of emotional overreaction – both good and bad. So what?

artwork by Andrew Maahs; http://www.basemintdesign.com

First the bad, the sober, the audit. For an NBA lottery pick, Young is slight of build. He’s 6’2” with a 6’3” wingspan and somewhere around 180-185 pounds. These measurements compare nicely with Jay Williams, Jordan Farmar, and Luke Ridnour. Unlike Williams and Farmar, Young isn’t an electric athlete. He has quickness and good instincts, but he’s not an exceptional leaper or explosive off the dribble. In his one year at Oklahoma, while he drew a lot of fouls (8.6 FTA/gm; sixth in the NCAA in FTAs) and didn’t physically breakdown, he was corralable by smart defenses and struggled at times to finish over size. His finishing was exacerbated by his decision making. Young is challenging to scout because his role at OU was so unflinchingly imbalanced: he was everything and everyone and so his decision making which could, at times, be described as abominable, becomes slightly less abominable against the context of his setting in Norman. And this decision making extends into every part of his offensive game: pulling up from 30-plus feet with plenty of time on the shot clock, penetrating into the jaws of the defense and leaving his feet in the lane and then flinging up contested and impossible shots, and making those same forays but instead of forcing the shot, forcing a pass into a tangle of long arms (5.2 turnovers/game).

Defensively, he doesn’t have the greatest physical makeup for a defender, but we’ve seen enough players to know effort and technique can mask physical limitations. In Young’s case, I frequently watched him standing straight up and down, considering taking an opportunistic approach to defending, but in the end opting to take no approach. His go-to move when getting screened was to wilt and make no attempt at fighting through. Similar to Young’s overly-relied-upon role on offense, I wonder (wishful thinking?) if some of this was enablement, maybe Young preserving his energy to continue carrying the team on offense. Effort is table stakes and not bringing effort is a sin even for the atheistic.

All of the above make Young’s NBA candidacy, while obvious, something that stirs up the bubble guts. If Big 12 teams could hassle him into the brink of the abyss, then what of Boston or Golden State or Utah or Patrick Beverley or Fred Van Vleet? If Alabama’s Herb Jones (6’7” with a wingspan around 7-feet) can frustrate him, then what of longer, stronger, better NBA wings?

Despite the physical limitations, coaching gaps, and decision making, Young averaged over 27-points and nearly nine assists. He made 118 threes on 36% shooting despite 74% of his total three-point-attempts coming from beyond the NBA line and 102 of those 241 coming from 30-feet or deeper (per CleaningTheGlass.com). His coaches struggled to develop any type of cohesion between Young’s supernova flaming balls of 35-foot-three-point bombs and his talented, if overshadowed, teammates. As the season progressed, entire defenses were stacked up to slow or stop him and they usually succeeded.

And yet, Young still inspires because, like Doncic, he has a set of skills that appear ready-made for the NBA in 2018. His range extends to 35-feet from the hoop which means his gravity has the potential to tilt entire defenses. Stretching the opposition to breaking points opens worlds of possibility for those with foresight, vision, and imagination. Young, despite being notorious for his deep, deep, deep threes, is at his best when playing his strengths (shooting depth, ball handling, and passing) off of each other. His handle is excellent: creative, quick, dexterous. The handle and shot allow him to create space or beat defenders without having powerful burst. His release, even from 30-plus feet, is quick enough that defenders have to close out tight which creates attack options. Once the initial defender is beat is when Young’s powers form like Voltron as he can beat opponents with floaters, lay-ins, drawing fouls, or, most impressively, passing. At the collegiate level, he kept his eyes up and patiently surveyed his options, reading, reacting, interpreting, and deciding. I’ve already mentioned that his decision-making needs vast improvement. He doesn’t have the size or strength to complete passes with the same oomph of Doncic, but his vision, spatial awareness, and improvisation are special and I imagine will only be better accessed when playing with NBA players. My refrain in all Young’s college games was something like, “imagine what he’d do with legit teammates.”

My first reaction when I saw Young’s combine measurements was to drop him down my big board. It wasn’t far (4th to 5th), but I thought it validated the concerns I’d seen; namely that he could be neutralized by length on the perimeter or interior; that his physical limitations would only be exacerbated in the NBA. As I’ve had time to process these prospects and Young’s game, I’ve realized that his skill and ability exceed the shortcomings. Decision making can be learned. Effort can be drilled. To be 19 with infinite range and preternatural vision is to inspire awe that makes people compare you to Steph Curry and Steve Nash. In draft terms, it’s not important that Young becomes Curry or Nash or Pete Maravich. It’s that he could, that it’s actually a possibility. That potential alone is enough to light up butterflies. That it’s purely potential and not realized against NBA men is probably causing reflux. Somewhere between butterflies and reflux lies the future of Trae Young.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 5 and 6; alternately: Tall Teenagers & Our Collective FOMO (we want to keep our jobs … and be right, but mostly keep our jobs)

Post written by Robert Hamill, aka Hamilton. Follow him on Twitter.

One sure thing in a draft is that there is rarely a sure thing. Every player has upside and downside; strengths and weaknesses; NBA-ready skills and those that need work. There are so many ways to predict the future, but without a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor you’re still just making an educated guess. Picking at the top of a draft generally provides a narrow range of outcomes, but on the flip side it’s a bigger deal to the organization and the player when he doesn’t pan out. When the player is big the flop is even bigger. Why are basketball people still obsessed with size, even when they’re repeatedly burned? The answer is complicated and probably better suited for a psychologist because it’s really about human behavior. Having a small child gives me an interesting look at human behavior on a daily basis but I’m no expert on such matters. From a basketball standpoint the answer seems to be about convention and fear. It’s about an attitude that says big means tough and physical, and big means protect the paint. It’s about a fear of missing out on the next Big One.

This proposition creates a particular problem for NBA teams as they fawn over size and various physical traits that accompany it. We could re-visit the 1998 draft’s top choice of Michael Olowokandi as a most extreme example of how this can go wrong. And everyone is well aware of the famous Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan choice Portland made. Despite the way the game has evolved more recently, teams still fancy big men. Early 2016 selections included Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquise Chriss (eighth). Jahlil Okafor went third in 2015 despite red flags that were obvious, even to amateur evaluators like me (getting owned by Frank Kaminsky doesn’t project well for guarding NBA players). Yet he still went third to a competent Philly front office in the midst of The Process. The jury is still out on Chriss and Bender, but the early returns are not promising.

Let’s not forget the 2013 draft which included Cody Zeller at four, and Alex Len at five. Thomas Robinson went fifth in 2012 (one slot ahead of Damian Lillard) and Meyers Leonard was selected eleventh. (Sure, eleven is a bit outside the range we’re dealing with here, but a chance to drag Meyers will likely be met with delight by Fendo). Aside from Portland, and Charlotte in 15-16, none of these teams has made a playoff appearance with any of these players on their rosters. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing with bad franchises getting picks wrong and continuing to run bad teams out onto the floor. To borrow from D’Angelo Barksdale “The Kings stay the Kings.” Either way, several teams to whiff on big guys in recent drafts are in the top of the lottery again suffering from organizational instability.

One especially noteworthy example of the infatuation with big men is Portland’s choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Oden had been on the radars of league execs and hoop nerds for years because he looked and played like a grown man at age 16. By the time the draft rolled around it wasn’t a secret he had the knees of a much older man. Portland’s decision to select Oden continues to look worse as KD ascends the NBA’s pantheon while Oden has been out of the league for years. It would be one thing if Oden had been by far the best player in the draft, but that wasn’t the case. KD destroyed college basketball playing similarly in some ways to the way he plays today. A major concern with him was his upper body strength. Think about that. A wing player as skilled as KD is discounted over how many times he can bench press 185 pounds while the guy with the knees of a 30-year-old tops so many draft boards. Oden ending up amongst the stiffs listed above might be a bit unfair because his early demise was injury-induced. At the same time, the decision Portland made, armed with all the information they had illustrates how deep NBA teams’ love affair with big men is and how blinding that love can be.

That’s the context I’m thinking about with top of this draft. It’s full of good, (mostly) modern big men, each also possessing significant cause for concern. That undying love of bigs likely means a couple of them won’t achieve their ceiling or even middle ground. The two players we’re considering here represent different versions of the big man prospect and could easily come up short of their draft slot.

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

Mohamed Bamba brings the highest of ceilings in a truly unique physical package. He’s the type of player who sparks the “what if” conversations which lead to a player being selected early, despite obvious risk. Marvin Bagley, though not polished in the typical sense of the word, may already be showing us who he is. That’s likely a good thing, and a bad thing.

Bamba is a unicorn of sorts. He has a 7’10” wingspan, which is the longest ever measured at the combine, and an absurd standing reach. He runs well for his height and moves laterally quite well too. For a guy his size he can get down into a defensive stance when he wants to. That’s a lot of rim protection and possible switchability. As the Ringer’s NBA draft coverage points out, he’s a “theoretical shooter.” Indeed, he only attempted 1.7 3s per game at Texas, making 27.5% of them. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express attended Texas practices and says Bamba was frequently the best shooter on the team. That’s nice, but practices aren’t games and Texas wasn’t populated with great shooters. (Only two players shot over 35% from three for the season.) The mechanics of the shot aren’t particularly good either. He stays relatively set and brings it to an acute angle toward his head. The release itself is eventually pretty high, but his elbows tend to be pointed in odd directions. A pro jump shot is generally tighter and smoother. The shot needs considerable work before it will be reliable in the NBA.

On both ends of the floor he keeps a solid base for his frame but I can’t help but wonder if his high center of gravity will be a problem. He’s not that strong and I can see him getting pushed out of position by smaller guys a lot. He also looks pretty chill on defense which could be an issue when combined with his lack of strength. We’ve seen players bodies morph as they mature physically and get with pro trainers and dieticians. It’s not often the skinny ones who bulk up, but rather the heavier ones who trim down. How much bulk can he add? How much stronger can he get? Does he have the mass to guard the likes of KAT, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Hassan Whiteside when they want to take him to the block? Whiteside can be a real dog but if you don’t bring it he, like any other starting level NBA player, will beat your ass.

But how do you pass on a player with the upside he possesses? If he can really guard all five positions he’s in elite territory defensively. If he can develop into a 35-40% shooter from 3 he’s an elite stretch big man. He’s regarded as smart and inquisitive so there’s reason to believe he will be coachable and put in the work. That matters. He may be a truly end up being a uniquely modern player. We won’t know until we know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking him before DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic but anywhere after that is worth the risk.

Marvin Bagley put up gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers during his freshman year at Duke. This wasn’t just any freshman year because Bagley should have still been a senior in high school. That’s right. A guy getting 21 and 10 in the ACC shouldn’t have even been there yet. Bagley does it by running harder and jumping higher than most. He operates mostly inside the three-point-line – in similar spots to a younger Kevin Garnett. His effort and offensive skills profile reminds me of KG too. There’s some Toronto Chris Bosh there as well because he’s ultimately too low key a personality to be like KG.

It would appear the rest of his game hasn’t caught up with his scoring and rebounding. He couldn’t muster one block or one steal per game. Each of the other bigs at the top end of this draft bettered his 1.7 combined blocks and steals per game. During the final six games of the season, two ACC tourney and four NCAA tourney, he got two steals and blocked one shot. In six championship-level-competition games, the guy averaged .33 steals and .17 blocks. Not great. It should be concerning that an explosive 4/5 with a great second jump isn’t reading the game defensively. That’s a plausible answer considering how hard he runs and how well he rebounds. It’s not about effort, but something else. If you move as well as Bagley you ought to be getting your hands on some passes and shots. This is also where the comparisons to young KG and Toronto Chris Bosh fall apart.

Duke played zone pretty much all season. There were no fewer than four NBA players on the roster, including two lottery-projected bigs to protect the paint and rim. Yet their best option was to play zone? That’s an indictment on Bagley to some extent. How much he grows and develops defensively depends somewhat on where he ends up. There seems to be coalescence around Bagley to Sacramento at two. It seems legitimate that the Kings like him, but would they like him as much if Jackson Jr and Doncic hadn’t refused to undergo complete pre-draft evaluations? What does Bagley in Sacramento look like? He’ll score, and get rebounds. He wants those numbers just like he wants to be picked as high as possible regardless of the organization. Dave Joerger can coach defense but Duke playing zone and the lack of steals and rebounds really concerns me. The Kings’ roster isn’t good and it won’t get better in the 2019 draft since they don’t own their own pick. With Vivek and Vlade calling the shots it may never be. If Bagley is going there, he’s going to stuff the box score with points and rebounds. It’s going to be a hollow and unfulfilling 20 and 10.

Like so many draft classmates, the bigs at the top of this draft will be forever linked to each other. They each possess unique gifts and common weaknesses; each offering something a little different from the rest. We’ll spend much of next year looking at rookie rankings and watching for signs improvement. We’ll inevitably rank and list them (we’re already doing it) as we look back at this draft. In the First Take sports culture so many people exist in, if one turns out to be a Hall of Fame player, then the rest have to be trash. It’s unfair that a player’s fate is tied to so many things he cannot control. Being big and picked early can be another one of those things.

 

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 7 – 12; alternately: The 3rd, 4th, and maybe 5th tiers/tears of uncertainty

Taking risks is all well and good, but at my nature, I recognize that questions without factual answers are, and should be, fraught with uncertainty. If forced to answer, if forced to pick between say, Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges, I’ll usually think and talk through a litany of pros and cons for each player (Mikal the shooting defender with ineffectual off-the-dribble game, Miles the bouncy, broad-shouldered athlete with pedigree but questionable attitude [for me at least]), before determining that immeasurable variables (work ethic, team/scheme, coaching) will ultimately determine success and (in this moment) picking Miles even though just a few days ago I picked Mikal.

If I put together 10 more big board rankings between now and the draft on June 21st, there would be almost daily movement, jockeying between players by one or two spots. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t trust my rankings (or those of my friends), rather that this stuff is exceptionally fluid. And humans are and our perspectives are fluid and evolving. A different set of eyes (Steve Kerr) can see the potential in a person (Draymond Green) that helps to unlock a potential others (Mark Jackson) couldn’t conceive. ESPN’s Chad Ford (for the purposes of this view, I’m not concerned about Ford’s rewritten history as it doesn’t significantly change the points) had Green 20th overall on his big board which is well ahead of Green’s 35th overall draft slot, but no one that I’m aware of had him pegged as a generationally versatile defender. On June 25th, 2012, Ford wrote, “I’m hearing increasingly that the Pacers (26th overall pick in 2012) are very high on Green…I don’t think Green will slide past here.” The Pacers opted for Miles Plumlee instead, which Ford chalked up to a “messy soap opera” in the front office. In that same post-draft write-up, Ford chided Miami (#27, Arnett Moultrie – traded), Dallas (#33, Bernard James), and Washington (#32, Tomas Satoransky) for not taking Green. Even immediately after the draft, the consensus was that Draymond should not have fallen.

Draymond Green will forever and always be my go-to when exploring the variability of the draft. Green is an ultimate outlier because the variability of human participation; in this case, his own and those of his coaches, Jackson and Kerr. It can easily be speculated that Green would have trended into a strong NBA player with or without Kerr’s addition to Golden State as he only missed three games in his first two seasons while averaging over a steal and nearly a block-per-game in his second season despite getting just 22 minutes/game. But this? A three-time champion, multi-time all-star, two-time All-NBA player, and a Defensive Player of the Year?

Uncertainty abounds and you can tell me different, but I’ll probably be over here with Draymo (wishing I wasn’t), pointing to him as proof that all that probabilities, prognostications, and proclamations still rest in the infinitely fragile tissues of pathetically weak and impossibly resilient humans.

(Big Board rankings below based on DWN’s initial Big Board from 5/14. The updated version from 6/4 can be found here.)

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

Michael Porter Jr. (Fenrich): Michael Porter Jr.is one of the harder (hardest?) lottery players to project in this draft. He transferred from a school in Missouri to Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School before his senior season. At Hale, his coach was former NBA All-Star and royal Seattleite, Brandon Roy. The team went 29-0 with Porter leading them to the top of several national rankings and garnering the Gatorade and Naismith Player of the Year awards. ESPN had him ranked as the second-best player in his class and an unnamed “ESPN Analyst” wrote he was “a possible number one pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.”

I put a little more emphasis on Porter’s high school bio because he appeared in just 53 minutes as a freshman at Missouri and now, a year and a back injury later and he’s a wild card. He’s 6’11” with a 7’0” wingspan. He has bounce, can handle the ball, snatch the defensive rebound and push it himself. He’s always been lean, but measured in at just 211-pounds at the combine which puts him on physical par with a younger Dragan Bender. I’m less concerned about the beef, as he was out for the entire season and hasn’t yet benefited from pro-level strength and conditioning. His range extends well beyond the college arc, but it doesn’t mean his form or accuracy are there. When I watched him at Hale, I didn’t love the form on his jumper and in his limited time at Mizzou, it didn’t look any better. His shoulders are shrugged and hunched. The form reminds me of Draymond Green’s but with more lift. Defensively, I’m reluctant to hold any of his NCAA time against him and so the slower feet and lateral quickness are merely a note instead of a criticism.

Like many of these one-and-done kids, assuming health (far from a guarantee for Porter who first sustained a back injury as a sophomore in high school), the physical foundation is obvious. He’s a massively fluid athlete for a kid his size, but I get nervous when kids try to overcompensate or prove themselves the way Porter’s done. During a combine interview, he told ESPN he was “without a doubt … the best player in this draft.” And again, while I’m reluctant to draw conclusions based on two appearances he made with Mizzou at the end of the season while returning from injury, he forced shots and looked fully immersed in a hero ball approach to offense or perhaps an acolyte of the new age “Mamba Mentality” – which can be interpreted many ways. Both the interview and the small sample shot selection are negligible, but when factoring in the injury history with a player who’s accustomed to dominating the game, the uncertainty elevates to a place that makes me uncomfortable. Assuming he regains health and commits to learning the game (his passing and playmaking need a lot of reps and improvement; particularly if he’s going to be attacking off the dribble), Porter has tools of a potential multi-time all-star – like a modern Tom Chambers or something.

Wendell Carter (Fenrich): First impressions are hard to get over and my first extended impression of Wendell Carter from a January game against Miami included this note: “First thought on his boards is Moses Malone.” Carter’s a bear or a bison or a big ass kid with long arms. He’s 6’10,” but measured a 7’4.5” wingspan at the combine in Chicago which helps to explain his activity on the glass where he pulled down 13.5 rebounds-per-40, 4.5 of which were offensive. It’s not just that he pulled down a good portion of misses, but that he did so with definitive emphasis: above the rim, strong-handed (which is interesting because he has comparatively small hands [8.5” width, 9” length], but of course size and strength are often not related), absolute rebounds like Moses used to do.

His activity translated to the defensive end where he averaged over two blocks and nearly a steal-per-game despite getting less than 27 minutes each night. This activity goes beyond just picking up stats. Carter bends his knees well, he’s not stiff. He can get down in a stance and slides well laterally against mismatches. This type of athleticism and commitment to defense should serve him well with the NBA’s present-day switch-happy tactics. In that regard, he reminds me of Tristan Thompson who, at his peak, was a key component to an NBA championship.

Carter took just 46 threes in his 37 games at Duke, but shot over 41%. From the line, he was near 74% on 4.5 attempts/game. His form on both is solid and replicable with a high release point (super higher given his length) and speaks to the overall polish of his game. For being just 19, he’s comfortable using the three to setup the dribble drive where he looks to shoot or pass. He’s a better creator than you’d expect, but the execution is still a mixed bag. Carter’s capable of seeing the pass, either in high/low situations (with Bagley) or off the dribble, but his ability to complete the pass is still developing. That said, just the vision and willingness are already quality. He averaged just 13.5-points, but given Duke’s stacked lineup, it’s hard to hold that against him; particularly when both his inside and outside attack is so varied and refined. That said, in the full games I watched and the clips I’ve seen, he has a strong preference to spin baseline off the left block. I only call this out because it’s the kind of thing NBA teams will book and take away.

Two final areas that pop for me when I think about Carter as a pro are his athleticism and his role. He didn’t participate in the athletic measures at the combine, but watching him, his explosiveness doesn’t jump off the screen. His strength is the most obvious attribute and he can throw it down with ferocity, but compared to teammate “Bagels” Bagley, he’s pedestrian – which is fine. Not all NBA bigs are pogo sticking gazelles, but a lot of them are and they’ll present a different set of challenges for Carter. Role is an interesting one for him. He was comfortable as a fourth option at Duke, but his offensive versatility indicates the ability to take on a larger role. A couple of us compared him to Al Horford and it’s easy to see why:

Carter’s younger, longer, and a better shooter. Aside from the obnoxious fawning over “MVP Al,” he’s had a great career as a five-time all-star and key piece on conference championship-contending teams. Part of Horford’s value over his 10 seasons in the NBA has been his malleability. Be it positional or role versatility, Horford adapts without sacrificing output. If Carter can live up to 75% of Horford, he’ll have a solid career as an NBA starter.

Mikal Bridges (Bug): Mikal Bridges is this draft’s poster child for the 3-and-D prototype. Bridges has a great combination of height (6’7”) and length (7’2” wingspan) for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. He’s coming off a breakout Junior season where we he developed from a 10ppg role player into an All-American caliber player. Bridges has a beautiful looking jump shot that he has refined over his four years at Villanova (he redshirted during the 2014-15 season), making him one of the deadliest outside shooters in the nation (43% from three). Bridges’ ability to get his feet set, square up, and get a three off on the catch reminds me of Ray Allen late in his career. He has a high release point on his shot which makes it easy to shoot over most wing defenders. He has some shortcomings as a ball-handler and a shot creator (for himself and others), but he is much more than just a spot-up shooter. He’s capable of finishing above the rim on drives or on the break in transition, just ask Gonzaga’s entire frontcourt.

Defensively, Bridges uses his length to give opposing wings and point guards headaches. He doesn’t have eye-popping steals stats, but he has active hands and is difficult to shoot over as evidenced by averaging over a block-per-game this past season. Bridges will need to continue to get stronger to be able to handle NBA wings. It is a bit concerning that he is still rail thin after being in college four years, but strength is something relatively easy to fix once he is on an NBA strength and conditioning program. He’s expected to come off the board somewhere in the 7-10 range of the draft and I believe he’d be a good fit on almost any team, but particularly on the Sixers at #10. They are already a defensive-minded club that will need shooting help if JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli walk in free agency. Overall, Bridges is one of the safest picks in this draft as he’s ready to step in and play right away. It’s unlikely he will ever develop into a star, but at worst he will be a high-level 3-and-D guy that will have a long career in the NBA.

Collin Sexton (Bug): Collin Sexton is one of the toughest players in this draft, both mentally and physically. Sexton’s signature moment from his short time at Alabama came in a crazy game in late November when he found himself playing 3-on-5 against Minnesota after a tussle left his entire bench ejected from the game. Facing a 13-point deficit, Sexton took over, scoring 17 points in the last 10 minutes of the game on his way to a 40-point night. ‘Bama didn’t win the game (they lost by five), but Sexton’s grit and will to win were on full display when most would have folded. Sexton is a blur in the open court, putting a ton of pressure on the defense as he pushes the ball. He uses elite quickness to get pretty much wherever he wants. He does a great job of attacking and getting to the line as evidenced by his 252 free throw attempts (7.6 attempts/game) on the season. At the next level, I would like to see him use that same attacking style to create more for his teammates instead of getting himself buckets, but I think that comes with a better supporting cast in the NBA. Another area for improvement is his outside shot. Sexton shot just under 34% from three on 131 attempts, and if he can be just a little more consistent from outside he will be a nightmare for defenders to stop. The fire and intensity he plays with should also serve him well on the defensive end of the floor, so there aren’t many concerns there. The low steal numbers (0.8 steals/game) are kind of surprising for someone with that much athleticism, but he’s not a bad defender by any means. I think the Eric Bledsoe comparisons are pretty spot on for what we should expect from Sexton in the league which makes him a worthy mid-to-late lottery pick. As far as fit goes with lottery teams, I think Sexton would make the most sense with the Knicks. They need a point guard that isn’t going to be afraid of the bright lights, and Sexton has the grit and toughness that the New York fans will love and appreciate.

Miles Bridges (Hamilton): Miles Bridges is one of the most explosive athletes in this class. He has great hang time when he goes up on drives, pull ups, or for blocks and contested shots. A physical player on both ends who is not afraid to challenge people, Bridges gives effort and competes. He dunks with ease in traffic and when putting back offensive rebounds. He is a capable three-point shooter, but has a tendency to settle for contested looks. His quick, lefty release with only a small elevation allows him to get these off but they’re not always good. He has good fundamental footwork upon catching the ball but appears a bit robotic in this regard. Bridges has some tunnel vision, looking primarily to score. While his ball handling improved in his sophomore year, his moves are still pretty basic and choreographed. One of the biggest negatives of his offense is he frequently stops the ball and holds it before attacking or swinging a pass. He seems to have a habit of using a lot of jab steps (Carmelo style) and looking to go one-one, when the better play is to quickly attack or pass. Despite the improvement he is still not a great ball handler as evident by his one- and two-dribble pull ups, and general lack of playmaking for others. Negatives aside, Bridges looks like a modern NBA forward who will eventually be able to play both spots well enough. Although he lacks the 7’0 wingspan of some of the best small ball forwards, like Draymond Green, PJ Tucker, or Harrison Barnes, he is a better leaper thus possibly minimizing his lack of length. As a small ball four on offense, Bridges’ shoulders should help set good, hard screens and shed bigger players to create space. His aforementioned footwork on offense should help him develop into a nice pick-and-pop screener. Physically he is ready to play right away, but his offensive skills will need to develop before he can be counted on to be a major contributor.

Kevin Knox (Hamilton): Kevin Knox has good size at 6’9 with 7’0 wingspan. He’s a natural scorer, with an array of shots from all over the floor. He’s crafty inside the three-point line, using floaters, short pull ups, and both hands to finish. He moves without the ball and finds open space to get his shots off. He has pro range on his jump shot with a high release and good rotation. Knox looks like the type of player you can go to late in a shot clock or broken set. Like Miles Bridges, thinks score first, second, and third. This may be an indication of his feel beyond scoring, which would be kind of weird because that comes so naturally to him. That mentality can create problems for him and his team. He frequently drives into multiple defenders in transition even when at a numbers disadvantage. When he finishes in those situations, there’s no harm done. At the NBA level he’s less likely to finish those plays, and we know missed layups in transition often lead to quick layups at the other end. Knox will have to be more measured in this regard or he will put his team in bad positions a lot. Scoring is his thing. The rest of his game is far behind his scoring. He’s a below average rebounder for his measurements; 6.7 boards per-40 minutes isn’t great. That and his defensive effort and awareness make me question how well he will ultimately fare in today’s NBA. It’s not uncommon for a player to come into the league with either offensive of defensive abilities far ahead of the other. But it is a bit concerning for a player to give great effort on offense while being almost nonexistent on defense. Knox could be coached up on that end and, if he buys in to the level of effort it takes, be a real impact player in the NBA. Otherwise, he could end up being the kind of player who gets buckets early in first and third quarters but isn’t playable during crunch time.

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