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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
July 20, 2018Posted by on
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.
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.
July 16, 2018Posted by on
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:
- #1 overall pick: DeAndre Ayton
- #2 overall pick: Marvin Bagley III (aka Bagels, aka I’m not convinced he should be on this list)
- #4 overall pick: Jaren Jackson Jr (aka JJJ)
- #6 overall pick: Mo Bamba
- #7 overall pick: Wendell Carter Jr
- #36 overall pick: Mitchell Robinson
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
June 21, 2018Posted by on
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.
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.
June 21, 2018Posted by on
Post written by Brian Foster, aka Bug. Follow him on Twitter.
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
June 20, 2018Posted by on
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?
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)
June 20, 2018Posted by on
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.
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
June 11, 2018Posted by on
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.
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.
June 8, 2018Posted by on
We pieced together our initial big board about three weeks ago which, in the world of draft prospecting, feels like it was pieced together many moons past. Between now and then was the NBA draft lottery (May 15th), the combine (May 16th – 20th), agency pro days, player workouts with teams, and finally, the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to retain eligibility for college basketball.
Less than three weeks out from the draft, we’ve re-ranked our big board. Four amateur “scouts” (I use the term oh-so-loosely) looking at 54 players, two of whom are new additions to this board (Elie Okobo and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) ranked bottom to top.
There are some massive risers: Maryland’s Kevin Huerter, Donte DiVincenzo of NCAA Championship fame, Rodions Kurucs (I’m not certain why he rose), elite rebound collector Jarred Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech’s all-world athlete Josh Okogie (it’s a soft “g” in Okogie).
As for the fallers, speaking specifically for my own re-rankings, it’s often been a rank of circumstance where a player like Huerter who happened to test, measure, and play well at the combine, rose and pushed other guys down. The same can be said for Okogie and DiVincenzo whose athleticisms were elite in Chicago. It’s also worth noting, specifically with Huerter, a lean white kid with a head of red hair, how a player’s appearance can potentially skew our perceptions. Even the redheaded NBA players that come to mind in Brian Scalabrine and Matt Bonner, while contributors to winning teams in their own right, occupied a place of self-deprecation; a jokey awareness that acknowledged their status as visual demographic outliers. There’s even a hint of this in my original notes on Huerter, where I wrote, “Not to be hyperbolic and it’s probably just a height and shooting thing, but he reminds me of Klay Thompson when he was at WSU.” The use of hyperbole wasn’t inappropriate in the sense that it’s a stretch to compare most college basketball players to one of the greatest shooters of all time. Rather, somewhere in my subconscious was probably a touch of awareness that Huerter’s pasty white complexion doesn’t have a long history of success in the NBA. Racial bias, either conscious or unconscious, is something that exists. Throughout this process, in terms of both our player comparisons and general scouting, I’ve attempted to maintain an awareness of when my analysis drifts into simplistic appearance-based comps, but the truth is that I have frequently found myself, with players of all sizes, slipping into this lazy approach and have had to intentionally make attempts to avoid it.
Then there’s the wrinkle of information dissemination. If you follow ESPN’s Jonathan Givony or Mike Schmitz on Twitter, you’re privy to a steady stream of firsthand reports on how players are performing at agency pro days. I get anxiety just watching these clips: basketball courts surrounded by NBA scouts and executives, all crowded shoulder to shoulder with their phones, clipboards, notebooks. They whisper to each other, seeming to be above it all, maybe even annoyed by the young men shooting, dribbling, and executing basketball maneuvers with their futures hanging in the balance. (And if you believe that landing spot, coaching decisions, team culture, and player development matter in how these young men evolve through the NBA, then yes, for the many of the kids participating in these pro days, whether or not they make a career out of the NBA is contingent on decisions made by the men [and I think it’s almost 99% men] watching them. Meanwhile, the kids, in their late teens and early 20s, exhibit a poise that makes me wonder how in the hell I would’ve performed in a similar setting at the same age. Of course, they’ve been groomed and trained for these moments for their entire lives, but that doesn’t diminish the pressure or largeness of the moment.) As we see Givony and Schmitz (and the Givonys and Schmitzes of the world) tweet out that Moritz Wagner “has been drenched in sweat every workout I’ve seen this pre-draft process. Goes Hard” or that Rodions Kurucs “helped himself after a tough year in Barcelona,” a few things can be taken away. First, it seems like every player is shining. The recaps of the pro days that I’ve seen are exclusively positive. Nowhere in the streams of tweets from Givony or Schmitz are critiques of ability or effort which isn’t to say their scouting reports, a more static piece of content, isn’t more well-rounded. But, for some players, there is silence. And silence in this setting, for me as a consumer of information that is exclusively positive, is akin to criticism.
Givony reported that there were “100 NBA reps expected” at the CAA pro day. NBA teams are plenty capable of drawing their own conclusions from full bodies of work just like the rest of us, but Givony/Schmitz actively influence the market valuations of these pro prospects and to some degree, have a likely hand in shaping where players land. It might be a the slightest of touches, the most delicate of nudges, but how we all land our assessments is influenced by both our own eye and the din of the chorus in all its varied forms and pitches.
Without ado and further meanderings, here are our revised big board rankings:
June 2, 2018Posted by on
This is the third installment of our 2018 NBA draft coverage where we focus on players ranked 13th to 18th on our Big Board. With the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to keep college eligibility passing on Wednesday, May 30th, we saw just a few guys from our big board head back to school. Most notably was the less popular Porter brother, Jontay. Our big board put him at 18th overall with a high of 16 (me) and a low of 24 (Maahs). It’s fair to say that after the combine where Porter had the highest body fat percentage, the lowest max vertical (tied), and the slowest three-quarter court sprint, that NBA scouts and front offices had him lower than our lowest rank.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have tentative plans to update the big board; likely in the upcoming week and I think there’d be quite a bit of movement. My guy Kevin Huerter from Maryland (I ranked him 37th) has been a high riser as has Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. Bug and Maahs are high on Mitchell Robinson and I’m still vacillating on my feelings on DeAndre Ayton which mostly boils down to effort and consistency. I even have trepidation about my number one overall player, Luka Doncic (mostly around his handle).
We’ll explore all of the above and maybe even get into the meaning of life as viewed through the NBA’s annual scouting and drafting in our next several posts. For now, we’ll focus on players 13 through 18 with an empty spot for the still-Missouri Tiger, young Jontay Porter.
Zhaire Smith’s unexpected rise could mean he’s either a late bloomer cut from the Russell Westbrook cloth, or, more simply an athletic standout whose skills won’t ever catch up. In his freshman year at Texas Tech he came out of nowhere both literally and figuratively. He was projected to play only 10-12 minutes per game but instead logged 28 on his way to 11 points and five rebounds with 58% eFG. This wasn’t your run of the mill Texas Tech team either. The clear number-two in the Big-12 ended up a three-seed and made it all the way to the Elite 8. Smith came out of nowhere literally by flying in for tip dunks and rebounds over bigger players. A 6’4” guard getting almost three offensive rebounds-per-game is impressive. He pops up around the ball a lot on both ends and plays hard. That effort combined with elite physical tools can carry a player a long way. Smith told the ESPN combine crew he played center in high school and didn’t shoot threes until his senior year. My fellow Iowan Ricky Davis had a similar career at Davenport North. He’s another NCAA/NBA wing with elite athletic gifts that didn’t get to adequately develop his perimeter skills in high school. Ricky transitioned quickly to the wing at Iowa, but I always had the feeling his development was a stunted a bit by playing out of position during formative years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for battling big players and learning to play in the paint. That may be even more useful in the modern NBA with all the switching and defenders guarding pretty much everyone at one time or another. Jimmy Bulter and Jae Crowder both played a lot of center at Marquette and have turned into two of the toughest and physical perimeter defenders in the NBA. Smith’s rebounding ability and instincts around the hoop show he picked up some things that may help him at the next level. A few of his weaker performances came against tough college defenses like Villanova (seven points, 3-8 shooting) and West Virginia (four points 1-4; nine pts 3-7). He’ll need to improve his ball handling, passing, and most of all shooting from outside to come close to the ceiling his athleticism has set for him. At this point he is just figuring out what do to with his powers and looks like a player teams picking between 10 and 15 will be afraid to take and afraid to pass up too.
Robert Williams (Hamilton):
Robert Williams has the physical profile of a contemporary NBA center. He’s a quick leaping big(ish) player who runs well and has great balance. He plays kind of like a smaller DeAndre Jordan but moves like Rudy Gay. He lacks the handle or shooting to be a wing player in the NBA, however. But there’s a nice career path for true small ball center offering legit rim protection. He tries to dunk everything around the hoop and many of his shots come in the paint and go up quickly via dishes, lobs, and rim runs in transition. He attempted an underwhelming 70 free throws in 30 games, only attempting more than five in four games. This could be due to how and where he operates but could also be a concerted effort on his part to not get himself to the line. I’d probably try to stay off the line if I shot 47% too. Defensively, he works himself into nice positions for blocks, often coming over from the weak side. For how well he moves around in tight space he probably should have rebounded better in his second season at Texas A&M. 9.2 is good but it just looks like he should be getting more. That sort of thing is the knock on him – he’s not consistent and leaves you wanting more. There were two significant stretches, one at each end of the season, during which he failed to get double digit points. It doesn’t seem that he lacks an NBA motor; instead he just doesn’t keep it in a high enough gear consistently. For reasons like this he’s just a little too feast or famine to be worth taking early. The fit matters even more for players like him whose engagement and effort are fleeting. Landing on a team with good culture that genuinely cares about player development is going to be key for Williams to get off to a positive start and could determine how long and how successful his pro career turns out to be.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a rare blend of height and length for a point guard at 6’6” with a huge seven-foot wingspan. Gilgeous-Alexander uses his wiry 180-pound frame to slither to the rim, finishing well with either hand. Despite his slender build, he’s a solid finisher in traffic and doesn’t get bumped off his spots very often. He shot a very respectable 40% from 3, but only took 57 attempts, so the sample size is small. Shooting 40% from deep at least shows he can be a threat from that distance. On the defensive end, he uses those long arms to bait opponents to throw passes that are well within his reach. That length also causes a lot of disruption for smaller point guards getting into the offense. The most noticeable flaw in his game is his lack of burst and explosiveness. He plays with a slow pace, and for someone with his length, he doesn’t seem to finish above the rim very often. Gilgeous-Alexander will need to add strength at the next level as well, but that is typically the case for most freshmen jumping to the pros, so it isn’t a huge concern. He seems destined for the late lottery where the point guard-needy Clippers have two picks at 12 and 13. He would be a good fit with undersized shooting guard Lou Williams to build a new core in Clipperland.
I’m uncertain why I’m somewhat enamored with Lonnie Walker IV, but since I saw him donning the orange and green of the Miami Hurricanes, I’ve been fond of him. He’s just under 6’5”, but sports a “pineapple” hairstyle which he describes as “its own person this point…people have been calling it a pineapple” that pushes his peak height up around seven feet. Imagine this kid, 6’4” or 6’5”, pineapple do’ bouncing atop his head, arms stretching out like a bald eagle (over 6’10” wingspan), sprinting, reading the arc of the ball, crouching and coiling in mid-step, and ba ba ba BOOM exploding into tip dunk motion with those long arms reaching and powerful legs propelling (40” max vertical) him into the rim. This is just part of Lonnie Walker allure. I’m not too big on coachspeak, but his Miami coach, Jim Larranaga, described him on a broadcast that he, “might be the nicest person I’ve ever coached.” Watching his NBA combine interview, I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying he’s the “nicest,” but that’s not really the purpose of the interview. He’s not quite Mo Bamba polished, but he was engaging and thoughtful, referring to himself as a “knowledge freak” and oddly suggesting “earth is an illusion.” A questionable statement, but not one that takes away from a jumper that looked good at Miami (31% from three on 3.5 attempts/game in his first 15 games at Miami coming off of a meniscus tear suffered in July versus 36% on 6.5 attempts in his final 17 games), but looked great at his agency’s pro day in late May. In the limited, non-competitive setting of the pro day, Walker’s form was refined and his range easily extended to NBA distance. But I’m not convinced what type of player he’ll be at the pro level. His handle was sufficient for the college, but he seems to struggle to shift speeds on dribble drives. His passing (1.2 assists to 1.2 turnovers in first 15 games versus 2.5 assists to 1.1 turnovers in his second) is similar to his ball handling in that it was fine for Miami where they had two other competent ball handlers, but will need work to be a secondary NBA ball handler. Physically, the foundation is there for a strong pro, but it’s the outside shot that already looks to be NBA-ready that lifts his ceiling so much higher. I put his ceiling comparison as Bradley Beal, but I’m not convinced Walker has the same instincts as a scorer. In high school, he averaged just 18-points as a senior and during his best stretch at Miami (an eight-game swing in the winter), he averaged 18 which was better than his 11.5 during the season, but still not indicative of high level scoring. I was probably over-ambitious in seeing Beal or even Eric Gordon (his mid-level comp) in his game, but given the league’s shift towards the three-ball, it’s not inconceivable that Walker is a better scorer in the pros than he was in either high school or college. That he’s engaging and appears willing to work at his craft only increase the likelihood that he can near his potential and are probably part of the attraction to the kid with the pineapple hair.
Troy Brown (Bug):
Troy Brown Jr. didn’t dominate the competition his freshman year like some of his colleagues near the top of the draft, but he still put in a solid campaign at Oregon with averages of 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Prior to his time with the Ducks, Brown had a decorated amateur career that earned him a spot on the 2017 McDonald’s All-American squad. He’s one of the few players in this draft with the size of a small forward that can also run point for his team if needed. Standing just under 6’7” with a 6’11” wingspan, Brown was blessed with a late growth spurt in high school after playing point guard his entire life. That’s a huge advantage from a fundamental/basketball IQ standpoint, and you can tell that he has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor. Some of the passes he finds his teammates with while he is attacking off the dribble are reminiscent of LeBron’s precise skip passes to wide open shooters. I’m not comparing Troy Brown Jr. to LeBron James, but he has an awareness of where all his teammates are on the floor that is similar to King James. The only glaring weakness Brown has is his outside shot, where he struggled at just 29% from three on 110 attempts. That lack of a consistent outside shot reminds me a lot of Evan Turner when he was coming out of Ohio State. Brown is expected to go somewhere in the 12-20 range in the draft, and still has a ton of untapped potential as one of the youngest players in this class (turns 19 in July). His NBA development is going to hinge on that outside shot progressing. He still has a high floor as a solid rotational player, with the chance to become a solid starter if the three-point attempts fall at a higher rate.
This spot will remain empty for 2018 and hopefully be filled by its rightful owner in 2019, Jontay Porter, an American teenager who strangely plays like a seasoned European and absolutely nothing like his older, and more highly-touted brother, Michael Porter.
May 26, 2018Posted by on
Welcome back to the second installment of the 2018 Dancing with Noah NBA draft big board where we’ll dive into players 19 through 24: Aaron Holiday, Khyri Thomas, Mitchell Robinson, De’Anthony Melton, Anfernee Simons, and Melvin Frazier. There’s a weird glut of tough defensive guys (Thomas, Holiday in a way, Frazier though I’m suspicious of his shooting, Melton who’s more like a non-scoring young Dwyane Wade) and mysterious kids in Simons and Robinson who didn’t play college ball this past season. As a group of scouts (I use that extremely loosely), we had the greatest variation on Melton who had a standard deviation of 6.3 and the least on Simons at 2.3. In some ways, the lack of footage and up-to-date scouting makes it more difficult to develop strong perspectives on Robinson and Simons who both look like world beaters in their YouTube clips. The college guys, by contrast, have reams of tape which leave them vulnerable to having their weaknesses picked at until a narrative feedback loop develops. Try as we might to avoid these feedback loops, the truth is that they likely infiltrate in ways we’re not even aware.
Enough of our foibles, let’s get on with the future:
Hamilton: Aaron Holiday put up consistently solid numbers in his three years at UCLA proving himself a reliable shooter and scorer. He made over 40% of his threes in each season and wasn’t afraid to put them up there. He had an interesting tenure in Westwood, starting all 32 games as a freshman, then zero as a sophomore (behind Lonzo), and then all 33 his junior year. That’s a unique career arc and one that a lot of college players don’t follow. Holiday could have left the program when Lonzo and Big Baller Brand came in, but he stayed and proved he could still produce off the bench. Getting back into the starting lineup in his junior season helped propel him to the first 20ppg season at UCLA since Ed O’Bannon in 1995. He has a pro pedigree and a quick shot with plenty of range. He doesn’t elevate much on his threes but releases shots quickly – like a slightly smoother-looking Eric Gordon. He plays sort of like his older brother, Jrue, but he’s much smaller. And that’s probably going to be most limiting factor for Aaron Holiday. He’s only 6’1” and 185 pounds. On offense, he makes up for this with a good hesitation move and the ability to split defenders and knife through tight spaces with his dribble. He navigates pick and rolls situations pretty well and is comfortable pulling up from well beyond 22-feet. Defensively is where he could be in real trouble as teams go after players with physical limitations and hunt for switches. He’s likely a backup PG for the foreseeable future, and more likely, for his entire career. His sophomore year at UCLA provides evidence he’s comfortable in that role.
Bug: From the moment Khyri Thomas stepped on campus at Creighton, he was already a problem for opposing teams on the defensive end. Tazz, as he is affectionately known by friends and family, is the reigning two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year and one of the premier perimeter defenders in this draft class. He’s a bit undersized for an NBA two-guard at 6’3”, but he more than makes up for his height with a 6’10” wingspan that will allow him to contest shots against bigger guards in the league. Although he doesn’t have the high steal numbers that you would expect from a DPOY, he plays a lockdown style of defense without gambling for steals and putting his teammates in a bad spot. Tazz is capable of guarding both backcourt positions and may be able to matchup with some small forwards in small ball lineups. His defensive accolades are well known, but it’s his steady improvement on the offensive side that has NBA circles buzzing. Khyri jumped his scoring up to 15ppg his junior season on only ten attempts-per-contest, while also shooting a 41% clip from three on 4.6 attempts-per-game (40% career from deep). Much like on the defensive end, Thomas is poised and smooth on offense, taking what the defense gives him. From a style of play and size standpoint, he compares favorably to Avery Bradley. He’s going to give everything he has on defense, while also being capable of knocking down the open shot or getting to the rim and finishing if he’s run off the three-point line. The thing impacting Khyri’s draft slot the most is his age. Already 22, Thomas spent a year in prep school before his three seasons at Creighton, making him the age of a college senior. That will raise questions about his ceiling, but he’s somewhat of a late bloomer who still has some room to grow. Creighton coach Greg McDermott refers to him as a “zero maintenance player” and overall, he’s one of the safest players in this draft. He’s ready to play immediately as a 3-and-D wing and has the potential to work his way into a starting role down the road if he finds the right fit on the right team. I’m projecting Thomas will go in the 20s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team falls in love with him in the late teens.
Bug: Almost every college basketball recruiting site in the country had Mitchell Robinson pegged as a five-star, top-10 recruit in the spring of 2017. Everything was going great for Robinson, who not only destroyed overmatched high school competition (25.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, and six blocked shots per contest), but he also shredded the Nike EYBL circuit as well. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that Mitchell Robinson had the highest Nike EYBL player efficiency ranking (40.5) in the history of their database. Robinson was being mentioned in the same breath as Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, and Deandre Ayton as future NBA lottery picks, as well as being selected as a 2017 McDonald’s All-American. Everything took a turn when Robinson reported to campus at Western Kentucky the summer before his freshman year of college. Former UNC star Shammond Williams, who is also Robinson’s godfather, resigned from the Western Kentucky staff. Coach Williams was probably the sole reason Robinson went to WKU, so there was immediate tension that eventually led to Robinson asking for and being granted his release to transfer. Robinson decided to return to Western Kentucky, only to abandon his team a second time shortly after. Although Robinson has immense talent and potential, the way he handled the situation at WKU has really put a rain cloud over his draft stock and raised maturity concerns. Just when NBA execs thought they were going to get a look at how hard Robinson had been working while sitting out the entire season, he threw everyone another curveball by withdrawing from all NBA Combine activities the day the combine started. One thing NBA scouts do not like when investing millions of dollars into a player is flying blind on their evaluation. I’m assuming Robinson will hold his own private pro day, but the red flags have already been planted.
That said, I’ve had to resort to pouring over every YouTube highlight reel I could find to get a good read on Robinson’s game. After a few clips, it’s easy to see why college coaches and NBA scouts were salivating over him only a year ago. There are two things that really stand out as elite talents that Robinson possesses: 1) he can finish with authority on everything around the rim, and 2) he is an elite shot blocker. Robinson’s dunk and block radius around the rim are insane. Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson are ranked at the top of the draft based on their defensive prowess, but this kid might be better than both of them on the defensive end. We see him step out and hit the occasional three, but that isn’t going to be his thing in the NBA. Robinson appears to be extremely raw when it comes to post moves and footwork, but there’s a role for him in today’s NBA as a defensive-minded rim-runner in the mold of Clint Capela or DeAndre Jordan. The dilemma for NBA execs is whether or not the talent outweighs the red flags. Robinson has the talent to be a lottery pick, but you can’t help but question whether he is playing the game because he is good at basketball or because he loves the game. I think there will be a team in the late lottery or just outside the lottery that is willing to take that gamble.
Hamilton: Good players normally develop a lot between freshman and sophomore years. So De’Anthony Melton’s draft stock might very well be higher if he had played for USC this season. Unfortunately, Melton missed his potential breakout year after his name came up in the FBI’s investigation into NCAA basketball. The offensive numbers in his freshman year were average. Indeed, 28% from three and 70% FT is nothing to write home about. Eight-ppg is pedestrian too. It’s reasonable those numbers would have been better this year. How much better, we’ll never know. What you know for sure watching Melton is that he is all over the court and puts an imprint on games. On defense, he reads and reacts quickly as the ball moves getting his hands all over passes, loose balls, and rebounds. A 6’3”ish player getting seven rebounds and 2.8 steals per-40-minutes isn’t messing around. College players tend to gamble on defense and Melton isn’t an exception. But he is instinctual in his gambles and quick enough to recover when he guesses wrong. He loves to push the ball on steals or rebounds, and keeps his head and eyes up looking to attack the basket or pass ahead. He has good feet and balance which helps him attack on both ends. His shot itself doesn’t look bad and if he can become an average three-point shooter and better than 75% from FT, there’s a path to becoming a top guard in this class. Markelle Fultz had a disappointing rookie year, but during his lone NCAA season when he proved himself to be the top pick, Melton got 16 points, six rebounds, six assists, and six steals in a head-to-head matchup. If he can’t realize his full potential, some team picking in the mid-late first round is going to get good value and be really happy about it.
Fenrich: Anfernee Simons of the great state of Florida, home of the mighty Seminole and infamous stand your ground laws, will turn 19 in a couple weeks and he’ll be drafted into the NBA in about a month. He’s a 6’3” two-guard and pretty much every clip I’ve seen of him is scoring-related: he’s shooting deep threes with his feet wide apart, pulling up for jumpers off the dribble with a comfort and calm that makes you forget he can legally buy cigarettes, but not wine coolers. He dunks with ease off two feet or one foot, capable of gathering and going straight up through the rim which was supported by his 32” standing vertical and 41.5” max vertical at the Chicago combine. His handle is summer breeze cool even if he’s been a little right-hand heavy. At almost-19, he looks like a professional scorer, but he still looks 19 with a soft babyish face, high cheekbones, and a lean frame. The knock on Simons, and you don’t see this in his high school clips, is that he’s lacking strength and you can see it on that still-developing body. I’m a little less-concerned about his strength and probably more about his tweener size and the lack of playmaking I’ve seen from him. Simons spent the 2017-18 season at IMG Academy where he trained as a prep year without actually playing for the IMG team. This blind spot of an entire, development-heavy age-18 season is a big one. If and how he’s been able to develop any playmaking skills as an undersized off guard is going to impact his ability to see the court as a young player. Measurement-wise, he’s like a leaner Victor Oladipo or a shorter, more explosive D’Angelo Russell, but I don’t get the sense he has the playmaking skill of either of those guys which isn’t to say it can’t be developed. Oladipo’s made strides in his creation, so it can definitely be done. Malik Monk comes to mind as an undersized scoring guard who compares well, at least physically, to Simons though Simons has a bit more Brandon Roy whereas Monk had a bit more Monta Ellis or Kevin Johnson punch to his game. With his still-developing physique and youthful face, it seems like it’s easy to forget that Simons is in the same peer set age-wise as DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Wendell Carter. What he’s lacking in stature though, he accounts for in skill and it’s not like he’s a Kyle Anderson-level athlete – his vertical is 41.5”! There’s a player here with a mega upside; one that only intensifies if he realizes the finer arts of defense and playmaking. Patience, as is often the case with our precocious savants (there I go again painting him as younger than he is), is the key and his landing spot is critical to his evolution and success.
It feels a little dehumanizing to refer to athletes as “freaks,” but in basketball parlance, Melvin Frazier is a freak. He’s a Jordanesque 6’6,” but has the wings of a predatory creature of flight at nearly 7’2”. At the combine, he registered a max vertical over 40”. Defense is Frazier’s meal ticket as his offense has been a work-in-progress since Tulane hired former NBA player and coach and the father of Mike Dunleavy Jr, Mike Dunleavy Sr, before Frazier’s sophomore season. Guarding the ball, he covers a ton of ground with his defensive slides and strong lateral movement. Even if his opponent is able to get a step, he’s long and quick enough with enough explosiveness to recover and at least harass the opposition. He reminds me a bit of Andre Iguodala in that he often keeps his hands down while playing defense. With the arms down, Frazier is frequently out of position on box outs. In Frazier’s case, this feels like a bad habit he’s been able to get away with in the American Athletic Conference. Despite his defensive impact (2.2 steals and nearly a block-per-game as a junior), he seems prone to defensive lapses. In limited tape I reviewed, he was beat off the dribble by a lesser attacker, gave up on a play after making an initial stop, and was beat backdoor because he wasn’t paying full attention. Multiple times he broke on a pass like he was playing defensive back, only to mistime the ball and leave his team at a disadvantage. Maybe more disconcerting, for me at least, was his critiquing a teammate on a miscommunication a switch. It’s minor, but his body language sometimes leaves a little to be desired (slumped shoulders and the teammate critique).
So how is a player with all these little defensive warts and an offensive game that, while showing flashes of feel (particularly on his court vision), has a long way to go being considered as a first round talent? His measurements, reflexes, and defensive instincts are pro level. With just a little discretion and accountability on the defensive side, Frazier could give quality minutes to an NBA team today. His shooting has significantly improved each year at Tulane with his true shooting going from 47% to 53% to 63% as a junior. This is all well and good, but the mechanics, both on his catch and shoot, and even more so on his pull up jumper, have a ways to go. Given that he has just 91 three-point attempts at the 38% clip versus 169 attempts (soph and frosh) as a 27% shooter, I’m not convinced that he’s fully turned the corner as a shooter, particularly as the range extends in the NBA. My issues with Frazier are primarily things you can teach: defensive habits, jump shot mechanics, interpersonal communication. The things you can’t teach like length and athleticism are already prevalent. If Frazier is willing to work and learn, he has the tools to be a long-time NBA player. But for every Kelly Oubre or Josh Howard (players who have comparable measurements to Frazier), there’s a lot more of the Lenny Cooke, Adonis Thomas, or Renaldo Balkmans; players who had the tools, but not the wherewithal to use them to the best of their ability.