Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

2017 Pro Basketball MVP: Russell Westbrook

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 11-15

All artwork done by Andrew Maahs basemintdesign.com

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

Fenrich: Frank Ntilikina

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

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

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

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

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

Hamilton: Donovan Mitchell

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

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

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

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

Bug: Luke Kennard

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

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

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

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

Fenrich: OG Anunoby

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

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

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

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

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

Fenrich: Justin Patton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 6-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 NBA Finals Part II: Coronation of a King

In the fervor of the moment, three different players have been anointed best player in the world over these playoffs. It’s a fascination we collectively, even the smartest, most well-informed of us, can’t possibly avoid. I’m speaking about San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, during the first round of the playoffs, couldn’t help it and said, “Kawhi Leonard, is in my opinion, the best player in the league right now.” Paul Pierce, from maybe a more provocative motivation, said Kevin Durant, “may be the best player in the world today.” And of course, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan discussion rages on out of boredom, fear, loyalty, and even rational thought.

As it has always been, this is a fluid conversation; one that will be answered today only to be debunked tomorrow. There’s a king of the mountain component to the conversation where the last man atop the hill, at the end of the season, assuming he’s in the conversation and proves himself, can seize the title – at least for the summer.

During the playoffs last year, after the hand wringing about whether James or the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry was the best, Bron demonstratively grabbed the title. Violently, sneeringly, shit talkingly. It was definitive to the point that he rode it into the 2016-17 season and all the way through to the finals where, in the dead week leading up to tip-off, the MJ/Bron debate peaked.

Now though, the Jordan/Bron debate is shelved, and quicker than a KD dunk smash, Pierce’s volley into the national TV consciousness that KD just might be the best player in the world is the topic du jour.

What actually is doesn’t even matter as much as what someone says is. If we’ve learned anything from the spectacle of Donald Trump’s ugly ascension to President of the US, it’s that reality is malleable and just because someone says something, that’s enough to make it worthy of discussion. I’m not here though, to debate who is the best basketball player on the planet.

Regardless of who you think it is, these playoffs, and the finals in particular, have become the tunnel through which the KD bullet train speeds towards inevitability in the form of a finals MVP and a first career title.

Despite amazing performances from Curry and desperate all out efforts from James, it’s KD who’s seized the media’s imagination in saving his best for last. At no point throughout his first season with the Warriors had KD scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games and yet in these three finals, he’s gone for 38-33-31 including a game-stealing three in game three.

Unencumbered from the historic model of a single star carrying an out-sized responsibility for production, the beauty of Durant’s game has flourished. He’s not forced to hunt shots or isolate. Rather, he’s liberated to exploit mismatches and fluidly find opportunities within a balanced offensive flow. Playing aside another superstar in Curry has created a parting of the defensive seas whereby KD has encountered soft paths of undefended space free for his long-striding forays into one-handed dunks. In game one of the series, seven of his 14 made shots were dunks.

Life isn’t easy just because Cleveland’s defense is poor and they lack a rim defender. Life is easy because the Warriors pack the court with deadly attacking players. KD’s first dunk of the series was a lob made possible by three primary strengths:

  1. KD’s own range which requires that Bron play him tight
  2. Steph’s range which forces the defense to attempt to anticipate a downscreen from Curry onto KD’s man
  3. Draymond Green’s recognition and passing ability which pull the beautiful read together
  4. Bonus: Bron gets roasted on this back cut

His next bucket came off a Curry screen, the following two off Curry passes and strong Durant drives against Bron. And the fast break dunk after that was probably the most clear example of the Cavs caught somewhere between miscommunication and questionable defensive strategy and, again, the presence of Curry acting as a magnet attracting both Bron and Kyrie Irving towards him while KD flies downhill for his fourth dunk of the first half.

That’s five buckets, all assisted directly or indirectly, by Curry. This is luxury, for the rich and famous. This is the rich getting richer, the basketball equivalent of a tax break for the ultra-wealthy. KD didn’t need the game to be easier, but in its ease, we’ve been able to witness a full range of his game that’s rarely uncovered in this league due to circumstance, team construction, and all the other wonky shit that holds back NBA players and teams. The ideal scenario for any of us is the opportunity to achieve our potential, whatever that may be, and playing for the Warriors has allowed Durant to ascend in ways that most players don’t experience.

We know KD can do it on his own. He won his first scoring title at 21, his first MVP at 24. His finals performances have been less a surprise and a more a Cinderella-in-the-glass slipper moment whereby the most perfect player possible for the Warriors team schemes has slipped into the most perfect offense for his skills.

As Tristan Thompson has struggled through the series and the Cavs have no rim protector on the roster, Durant is often the tallest and longest player on the court. When the Warriors stretch the floor with their shooters, Durant as a ball handler is able to attack with multiple options. He shot four of eight from three in game two and the threat of that jumper keeps the defense perpetually off-balance. Defenders can’t give him space, but if you crowd him he can beat even elite defenders off the dribble and the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with elite defenders. When he puts the ball on the floor, he beats opponents with varying attacks. There’s the slaloming dunk shots, the one-legged off-balance kisses off the glass, and the pull-up jumpers. He’s too long for most any NBA defender, but particularly for a Cavs defense that lacks length.

If game one was a chance for KD and Golden State to show just how easy it can be, for KD at least, game two came with slightly increased degrees of difficulty as he had a stretch of play where he shot 14-straight jumpers from all over the court. Pull-up jumpers, step back threes, one-legged horse shots, fadeaways … it didn’t matter. He had a true shooting of 71% in game two. And when he wasn’t carving up Cleveland’s defenders from the perimeter, he joined Curry on the same backdoor cut off screen motion that he opened the series with. Again, Green with the pass, Curry with the screen attempt, and KD with the cut:

For the finals in the restricted area, Durant is shooting 16-21. He’s at 11-21 from three. I can only imagine Daryl Morey of MoreyBall fame watching this games salivating, fantasizing at the obscene efficiency and concocting crazy schemes to acquire the man. My focus here hasn’t even been his defense (two blocks and over a steal-per-game), rebounding (10-per-game), or passing (six assists-per-game). Despite his ability to both assimilate into the fun-loving Golden State infrastructure while still standing out with his precedent-setting combination of length, size, and skill; despite the fluidity of the socialist democratic team approach of these Warriors, Durant has been a one-man avalanche living in a new world with cool new friends, but doing the same old things and suddenly, somehow viewed differently because of it.

Jordan was a me-first ball hog before he won his rings. LeBron a choker who had to team up with other superstars to win (this narrative still pervades). Curry a gimmicky player who couldn’t possibly have survived the rough and rugged NBA of the 80s. The long list of denigrations and narratives are pre-packaged, ready to be consumed and spewed out at anyone who has the audacity to try and be the best. (How dare you?) But KD was always this guy, his head has always been shaped to wear this metaphorical crown. Between the boos and the cheers, between KD and Russ blowing a 3-1 lead last year and being on the verge of a playoff-sweep this year. Between it all, KD the player has remained steadfastly deadly; a Frankenstein amalgam of Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowtizki. That he is or isn’t the best doesn’t matter, for a moment of some immeasurable transience in the summer of 2017, the crown is his.

2017 NBA Finals Part I: Thawing and Acceptance

Two games into these NBA Finals of this year of our lord, 2017, and most of the familiar faces are the same, but the game itself, its tone and long-built drama, are from another time, three years past.

In the first two games of last year’s finals, the Cavs lost by 15 and then 33 for an average margin of defeat a cringe-inducing 24-points. A year later, they’ve lost by 19 and 22, or 20.5-points-per-game. Yet somehow, with the presence of seven-foot giant basketball scorer machine man, Kevin Durant, it all feels different. Feel is one of those real stinking human traits that is often debunked by science and data. But it does, it feels different. It’s born out in the data too where the Warriors are over seven points-per-100-possessions better than last year’s playoffs while holding opponents to five points-per-100 less than last season. They’re healthy, they’re better, and there’s Durant.

But it’s still more about the feel for me; the data just conveniently backs that up I guess. Things felt different right at the start of game one during the pre-game inspection of game balls. Stephen Curry and LeBron James stood across from each other, pounding and slapping and squeezing the prospective game ball to test its readiness and durability. Their Hall-of-Fame hands and fingertips likely more qualified than any system or gauge to get a sense of whether or not the ball felt right. Then there was a dap or a nod or something, something agreeable without any mutual dislike or disdain. Not that those things are necessary for competitive basketball, but for all the buildup and the sub-tweet sniping between these teams, I hoped for a hint of the tense edge, but it was absent.

Then there was a brief exchange between Bron and Draymond Green in game one when their bodies tangled, and opportunity arose for conflict. Instead of sneering or pushing or shit talking, there were pats. “We’re good.” We’re friends. I don’t write this and I don’t over-examine the pre-game ball check to advocate for something other than sportsmanship. Rather, a healthy dislike can often create an edge. If you’re pulling on a steel mask of impenetrability and your opponent goes in for the hug, which you reject, suddenly there’s a wedge and disagreement. One man says, “it’s just a game, let’s compete.” The other says, “I’m not here for games.” These are the most minute of psychological edges, but possible edges nonetheless. (Or, possibly petty displays of machismo.)

After game one’s 22-point defeat, Bron’s podium tone was something that had the appearance of honesty. For a man who’s been sitting in front of camera lenses, cell phones, and microphones for the past 14 years, he has the ability to turn on a poker face, to deliver messages, and be deliberate in his word choice, and while some of that was at play after game one, it appeared to be genuine and thoughtful.

When asked if “there was one thing that stands out tonight,” without thinking, without blinking, with even a matter-of-fact expression and tone, he said, “KD.”

This was one small piece of a seven-minute podium appearance. It’s simple, two letters, one man, but in all its simplicity, I can’t help but wonder if losing to KD is somehow more than losing to Steph. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that it’s just easier to accept defeat when the deck is stacked so high against you – and the rest of your league-mates.

Game two, while a completely different complexion with Golden State committing 20 turnovers and Klay Thompson finally finding his rhythm, ended in a 19-point Warriors victory. The details were different, but the outcome was largely the same.

The Cavs cut the lead to four points with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, only to see that four-point deficit mushroom to 14 at the end of the quarter, and 22 midway into the final period. Somewhere in this blitzkrieg, Bron, whose face bore the appearance of fatigue late in the third, suddenly looked like it was all sinking in; that while he may be the best player on the planet, capable of putting forth bruising, forceful efforts enhanced by that beautiful basketball mind, could not beat this version of Golden State. There was too much firepower and his own teammates weren’t capable of making plays with the frequency required to win.

I’ve seen this face from LeBron James before. Back in 2014 when the Spurs met Bron’s Heat in the finals and played what David Thorpe has referred to as the greatest basketball he’s ever seen. Back then, there were moments where it was obvious that Bron was on one level and his teammates another. He shot 57% from the field, 52% from three, 79% from the line with a true shooting of 68% while putting up 28-8-4. His running mate, Dwyane Wade, had never looked older as he shot 44-33-69 with 15-4-2. The Spurs, in all their socialistic team play, were collectively on another plane. Bron knew this and as Wade and the rest of his teammates were torched, the grim awareness was drawn nakedly across his face, visible for the whole world to see. Fast forward to 2017 and through two games, James is averaging 28-13-11 with 63% TS and that ice-cold realization that defeat is inevitable is back again.

Standing shirtless and conducting an interview in the locker room after game two, Bron’s tone wasn’t one of defeat. He answered the questions as they were asked (even if the focus has been his impatient, frustrated answer to a single question) and provided his own team-centric analysis. He took accountability and didn’t point any fingers. But in the midst of it, the KD theme popped up again as he reiterated, “They’re a different team… you guys asked me ‘what was the difference’ and I told you so, they’re a different team.”

A few days ago, Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry appeared on ESPN’s The Basketball Analogy podcast with Kevin Arnovitz. One of the topics they touched on was how race and class both impact how Curry is viewed in the league. At around the 15:40 mark, Arnovitz raises the issue which Thompson immediately seizes.

Arnovitz: “Is he culturally different from the rest of the league?”

Thompson: “That was the most fun part to write about; those cultural implications … especially for the current player and previous generation, their paradigm is based on the ruggedness of blacktop, and playing with hardened type (of) hood people and that’s how you gain that credibility … Steph doesn’t get the inherent credibility of being a tough guy.”

Arnovitz: “More than toughness … I don’t want to say resentment, but, look, we gravitate towards people, and we endow people with respect, who can relate to us; who we’ve shared that experience with. Is he seen at a distance from the rest of the NBA?”

Thompson: “I think only because he rose to a certain level and become part of an exclusive club … the issue with Steph is that he has risen to a level and he doesn’t share in their similar story and background … When he’s been put in that class … because now he’s up there with LeBron and them and there’s that question, ‘did you earn this?’”

Arnovitz: “An NBA veteran suggested to me that his skin tone had something to do with it.”

Thompson: “Yes. I agree one thousand percent. Color is a longstanding thing in the black community, this is not something new … The embrace, the rampant and widespread embrace of Steph Curry is partially attributed to the fact that he’s light-skinned which means that he’s more digestible to the white media and white masses.”

If we accept Thompson’s idea that class and skin color are, in some part at least, at play in how Cleveland, and LeBron specifically, compete against Golden State, then the presence of KD as the centralized figure within the Warriors’ dominance begins to take on a different appearance. Going back to last year’s finals, there was a visible tension between Bron and Curry and emanated primarily from James. The same tension is nowhere to be found between James and KD. Yeah, Bron and KD are friends, but to take it back to Thompson’s point; they share similar single-parent and cultural backgrounds. Bron’s comments on KD in these finals deviate from anything he’s said about Curry. With Durant, James has gone out of his way in post-game interviews to pinpoint him as the key differentiator despite what has been elite play from Curry. He’s averaging 30-8-10.5 with five threes made-per-game and 66% TS. Comparatively, he averaged 22-5-4 in last year’s finals on 58% TS. Curry is clearly a different player from the ’16 finals.

But, maybe it’s just more palatable to lose to KD. Maybe KD, in looking the part of what we’ve come to expect from our superstars, is less threatening and challenging than Curry. Wrapped up in all of this are subconscious allusions to masculinity and losing to a darker, taller, more traditional star is just easier to accept than losing to a shorter, scrawnier, lighter-skinned non-traditional star. This isn’t limited to James though. In his interview with Arnovitz, Thompson mentions that there’s a notion that players can stop Curry whenever they want; a sentiment echoed notably by TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal who have long advocated for a more physical approach to Curry. As Thompson says during his comments on skin color, the perspective of many darker players is that “he’s not built like us.”

None of the above is to imply that the Cavs have mailed in this series or that James has acquiesced to Golden State’s dominance. And after last year’s finals, it would be strange to write-off the Cavs when facing a 2-0 deficit. It’s also not to discount the absolutely torrid play of Durant as something that’s happening due to him looking the part. The Warriors are, by any measure, one of the most dominant teams in NBA history; a fact that’s made possible by the overwhelming skills of Durant, Klay, Steph, and Draymond. Much of my approach here has been to probe at what I noticed early on in this series as somewhat of a thawing and I believe that varying degrees of all of the above (collection of overwhelming basketball ability, color, class, culture, relationships, perceptions) are at play in these finals. Even in spectacular defeat, the nakedness of vulnerability, that moment late in the fourth quarter when LeBron looked like he wanted to skip the bench and walk straight back to the locker room, will always be a bridge to something we can feel.

2017 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 1-5

The charts below are pretty straightforward to read with each prospect’s ceiling, middle ground, floor, red flag and player type projection (all-timer, HOF, all-star, above average starter, average starter, below average starter, rotation player, and bench player) ranked my me (Fenrich), Andrew Maahs (also the creator of the fine graphics below), Bug Foster, and Hamilton. This is the second in a series of 2017 draft-related posts. The first of which is a top-20 big board with an explanation on how woefully incomplete a top-20 big board is in the modern NBA; it can be found here.

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

 

Fenrich: My Markelle Fultz relationship feels more complex than it needs to be and I can blame myself, Don MacLean and my buddy Matt for that. Myself, for not trudging a couple miles from my apartment to UW’s Hec Ed Pavilion to see Fultz play in-person. MacLean, for going overboard questioning Fultz’s intensity in some random game against an Arizona-based opponent and doing it in that oh-so-MacLean tone. And Matt, a Huskies season-ticket holder, for banging the Fultz drum in my ear all season. As I’ve gone through this Big Boarding process, the combination of warts on other players and the relatively unblemished game of Fultz has created a widening gap. The kid just turned 19 a few days ago and his measurements (6’4″ with a nearly 6’10” wingspan) make me think Dwyane Wade (measured nearly 6’5″ in shoes with a nearly 6’11” wingspan back in his pre-draft camp) as another big guard predisposed to scoring, but more than proficient in the ways of playmaking. That said, his game is nothing like the strength and force-fueled attack of Wade. His measured unfolding is more Brandon Roy or James Harden, more languid, deliberate, and paced. That he’s just 19 with an already advanced understanding of timing, great length, and a three-point accuracy north of 40%, and Fultz, for me, is the most NBA ready prospect in this class with a higher ceiling than any of his peers.

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

Bug: I’m a believer in the theory the great Isiah Thomas put forth in Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, “the secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” The secret to Lonzo Ball’s game is not about the stats, it’s about being a floor general that puts his team in the best position to be successful. Zo doesn’t have stats that jump off the page, but his presence on the court instantly transformed a floundering UCLA program into an offensive juggernaut. It’s easy to get lost in the buffoonery of his father, Lavar Ball, but the talent of the kid is undeniable. Yes, he has an ugly shot, but if it goes in (41% from 3 on 194 attempts at UCLA), who cares? Everyone immediately thinks of Jason Kidd when watching Lonzo: big guard, great decision making, makes everyone around him better. In addition to the Kidd-like qualities, Zo can also go up and finish above the rim with ease. There is much debate about who should be the #1 pick in this year’s draft, but for me, I’m taking the point guard with the infectious style of play that uplifts an entire team. It’s not just about basketball, this kid will impact the entire culture of the organization that drafts him.

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

Bug: With the way the NBA is evolving to a smaller, up-tempo game, Josh Jackson seems to be a perfect for today’s game. When you watch him play, the thing that stands out is the variety of ways he can impact the game. He is able to do a bit of everything on the court, both offensively and defensively. The way Kansas used him ranged from post ups to slashing to running the break and giving the ball up to teammates for easy finishes. Mr. Jackson also shot a respectable 37.8% from 3 during his freshman season on one of best teams in the nation. While his offensive game has a good foundation and room for growth, the thing that has many scounts salivating is the equally tantilizing potential on defense. The kid flat out gets after it on the defensive end (1.7 spg & over a block a game), while also possessing the ability to guard 2-3 positions. The lackluster FT shooting (57% at KU) and unconventional shot mechanics could hold him back early in his career, but his impact in other facets of the game will get him a fair share of floor time as a rookie. Versatility is the name of the game for the modern NBA wing, and Jackson has it in spades.

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

Hamilton: Playing on national TV twice-a-week made it easy to catch Malik Monk in action. There was plenty to watch too. On a typically loaded team Monk routinely stood out. His incendiary offensive outbursts were certainly attention-grabbing (30 pts in 2nd half points vs Florida; 47 vs UNC on 16-28 FG). This wasn’t lost on many folks as he was named 1st team All-SEC. He plays with a sense of timing and understands when his team needs the offensive lift he’s always happy to provide. While his measurements aren’t great for a SG (6’3, 6’6 wingspan) he makes up for it with a quick release and legit NBA leaping ability. The release on his shot is consistent while the rotation and arc of the ball give most of his attempts a chance. This is evident in his 40% from 3 on 8 attempts per game. As most modern small-ish guards, he showed nice touch on his floater and uses a quick deciesive first step to get to the paint and get it off. Looks to get all the way to the rim for the dunk when he can do it off one or two dribbles. Whether he can do that against NBA defense with his slighter build remains to be seen. That quick first step from a standstill allows him to create space for pull up jump shots off the dribble. As most right-handed players, he’s more comfortable going to his left when shooting, but he’s very capable pulling up going right. He showed the range to shoot off the bounce from deep and should be able to eventually be a very reliable NBA 3 point shooter. Has a decent amount of what I like to call slickness. Slickness is a spectrum with Harry Barnes on the low end, while Jamal Crawford is the slickest. Monk leans toward JC at this point, which is a good thing. This is an area I would expect him to spend significant time on by developing more compex dribble moves and attacking tight gaps going toward the basket … Doesn’t strike me as much of a combo guard at this point, and I have my doubts he ever will be one. He’s far more comfortable coming off screens or attacking off a catch than running high pick and roll or finding open guys on his drive. WIth a great shot and relentlessness on the attack, Monk should be a good pro. How good may be very situational. Playing alongside the right PG may matter, which isn’t necessarily a knock on him. In other words, I’m not sure how he’d fair in Philly during the Ben Simmons PG experiment. But a John Wall or Mike Conley type would set Monk up nicely (to be fair those guys would set me up nicely). He seems to really enjoy playing baskebtall and competing, which will serve him well in development. It may take a couple years for Monk to figure out how to use his skills effectively in the NBA but I suspect he will do that and have a nice career.

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

Fenrich: I have so much confusion about Jayson Tatum. He has a ton of offensive skill and a game that’s well-developed beyond his 19 years. He’s comfortable in the post with a turn-and-face game and pretty much dogged out college defenders there. His range extends out to NBA three-point distances, even if the consistency isn’t there yet — he shot just 34% from deep on four attempts-per-game. The mechanics on his jumper look good and his form doesn’t breakdown much. Tatum looks the part of an NBA wing with his size, length, and athleticism. And maybe that’s part of the problem. His game reminds one almost immediately of Rudy Gay though Gay’s longer (7’3″ vs. 6’11” wingspan) with more bounce. There are hints of a Carmelo Anthony-type attacker which is seen in that post and face-up game. Tatum doesn’t have nearly the strength of a young Melo, but the refinement is there. JZ Mazlish of Wingspan Addicts did a great job of identifying the crux of the Tatum conundrum of the problem with scouting Tatum. It is a break in the value placed by traditional scouting approaches against the progressive approach of a numbers/analytics based community. If Tatum spent a decent chunk of his time at Duke playing power forward where he was able to abuse slower defenders, it doesn’t appear something that will translate against NBA fours. So if he’s a natural three, can he guard starting wings on a nightly basis or even score against them? At a first glance, the answer seems to be no. He looks like he’ll be better-suited as a rotation forward who can play the four in some small ball lineups. The skill is there, but the ceiling looks low and if I re-did my big board rankings, he’d likely drop down a bit. For some reason, the more I see and think about him, the more he becomes the wing version of fellow Dukie, Jahlil Okafor — a talented offensive player who probably would’ve been better-suited for the NBA of the 1990s.

2017 Dancing with Noah NBA Draft Big Board

Malcolm Brogdon, Josh Richardson, Norman Powell, Jordan Clarkson, Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Jae Crowder. Since the 2012 draft, the previous players have been taken in the second round, well behind players who are less effective as NBA pros. The draft isn’t a crap shoot, but with a crush of 19-year-old freshmen leaving college every season (11 of the top prospects in 2017 are freshmen, five of the top eight were freshmen in 2016, 11 of the top 13 in 2015, six of the top seven in 2014), the sample size to scout these players against top competition in a competitive setting is small.

Against that backdrop, I’ve teamed up with a few friends (Bug, Hamilton, and Maahs) to create a Big Board of the top-20 prospects in this year’s draft and over the next four weeks, scout these players in a series of posts. I lay out the above premise, that projecting NBA prospects has become an exercise that runs 90-players deep, to show the depth to which the league goes now in finding productivity and value. In the 2016-17 season, 88 different players who saw time on an NBA court were classified as rookies. The number was 73 in ’16, 82 in ’15, 78 in ’14, 78 in ’13. The draft is just 60-picks so what we’re seeing is close to an entire round worth of new players coming into the league each season.

The introduction of G-League-to-NBA team affiliations is up to 22 for 2016-17 and will rise to 28 by 2019. Combine that with two-way contracts (creates two additional roster spots and adds both team and player benefits that allow G-League players to make more money while giving the team flexiblity in bringing a player up to the NBA team without having to commit to an NBA salary until after 45 days – stipulations apply) that were created with the latest CBA agreement and there are more domestic pro basketball opportunities available.

All of the above means that the 20-player big board we’ve put together below is not comprehensive. We’re four people, three of us have children, and we’re all gainfully employed. Effective scouting, even with the copious tools that Draft Express puts out, isn’t just about identifying talent. The combination of team and scheme, opportunity, chemistry, player commitment and discipline – it’s a complex equation with few, if any, guarantees. And even if a team lands on a player and tries to cultivate him through the G-League, there’s still no guarantee they’ll figure out how to best tap that player’s potential in their particular system. Hassan Whiteside and Seth Curry are examples of players who were both late NBA bloomers and squandered by NBA teams. Whiteside was drafted 33rd in 2010, found himself out of the league in 2013 and is arguably a top-five player from his draft class. Curry wasn’t even drafted and played on four teams before latching on in Dallas as a productive member of NBA society this past season.

Caveats and qualifications aside, at the aggregate level, there’s not much variation from Draft Express or The Ringer’s big boards. This isn’t to say there’s not individual deviation, but collectively that our views converge with status quo. As we get into deeper analysis over the next few weeks, we’ll go into more player-specific detail. And because a cap of 20 prospects is woefully inadequate, where time and life allow, we’ll explore deeper cuts like DJ Wilson, Jawun Evans, Semi Ojeleye, Kobi Simmons, Sindarius Thornwell, Monte Morris and others.

Kyrie Irving had It

On May 23rd, Kyrie Irving’s delightful basketball art was once again on full display. The 25-year-old Cavs guard saw an opportunity when reigning GOAT-candidate and teammate, LeBron James, sat midway through the second quarter with his fourth foul and to paraphrase Steve Winwood, he saw a chance and took it.

His final line: 15-22 from the field, 4-7 from three, 8-9 from the free-throw line, a career playoff-high 42 points with 81% true shooting, and the type of third quarter performance that makes you want to support the National Endowment for the Kyries to cultivate this type of genius in all fields of expression. It was the kind of joy and declaration that simultaneously uplifts the audience to new levels of consciousness and reduces us to slack-jawed holy incantations in the same breath.

Take the third quarter which the Cavs went into with a ten-point deficit. Kyrie scored 21 points on ten shots. There was the buzzer beater three that dotted Terry Rozier’s eye. There was the scary rolled ankle that made guts bubble up and cringes rise in basketball fans across the globe. But, there was Kyrie nearly outscoring Boston for the entire quarter (he lost 23-21) with a series of improvisational acrobatic slaloms into the clutches of a green-hued opponent. I say improvisational because there’s so much reading and reacting, but there’s a choreographic element to Irving’s slicing drives almost as if it’s all premeditated. And there he was exploiting mismatches like Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (very poor souls, how I relate! How I empathize!) for layups. But these Kyrie layups aren’t your dad’s layups. It’s not Earl Monroe or Tiny Archibald or Rod Strickland, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash or anyone else. They’re elegant, funambulist, time-stopping. It’s beauty. For Kyrie, when it’s cooking like it was on this Tuesday night in May, it feels magnetic. You could cover the man’s eyes with a thick black cloak of midnight and he could sniff out the basket with the right amount of English and some preternatural understanding of geometry.

The crescendo really began at the 4:48 mark in the third when Cleveland was down 69-66. JR Smith found Kyrie in transition for a contested layup against Avery Bradley to pull the Cavs within one point at 69-68.

On the next possession, Kyrie was isolated above the corner against Olynyk, of Kelly Oubre-infamy, who he tortured with jab step threats before calmly sinking three. Score: 72-72, Kyrie at 25.

A minute later he caught Zeller on a pick-and-roll switch going downhill for a layup. Score: Cavs, 75-72, Kyrie at 27.

Less than a minute later, he caught a transition pass from LeBron and easily laid it in. Cavs, 77-72, Kyrie at 29. That’s four straight makes.

Off the ball moments later, he caught Rozier napping for slightest of moments, got just a hair behind him and used his underrated size advantage for a backdoor lob-into-a-layup. 79-74, 31 for Kyrie and five straight makes in about three minutes.

As if to prove he can do more than score in transition or against slow-footed sacrificial lambs, he then found himself on the right wing (his preferred area of operation – he took just one shot from the left side all night) against badass Bradley. Again, with the same fake jabs he used on Olynyk in the corner, he feints baseline and Bradley shifts his stance. In these split seconds of shifting and countering the counters, Kyrie gets over the defender’s top foot, has him beat, and careens downhill where Zeller awaits. Kyrie anticipates, adjusts, re-balances, makes the shot and draws the foul. Cavs, 82-76, Kyrie up to 34 and six straight.

Isolated again on the right wing, this time against the game, but overmatched Rozier, Irving does the exact same thing he just did to Avery: fake right, catch the defender off-guard because the defense must respect the dribble drive and in this case, Rozier nearly trips over his own feet, go left to the center. This time it’s Al Horford waiting and Kyrie casually leaps, brings the ball down and scoops it from a lower angle over Horford’s outstretched hand. And does it all at top speed with grace. Cavs, 84-78, 36 for Kyrie and he’s now hit seven straight.

Finally, the icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The gravy on the mashed potatoes. Whatever you want to call it, young Rozier was stuck all alone on Kyrie yet again with the quarter winding down. The previous slice and dice fresh in his mind, Rozier’s too reactionary on the balls of his feet jumping back nearly three to four feet when Kyrie fakes a dribble attack. At the same time Rozier backs up, Kyrie calmly, cool as you will, steps back creating a good six-plus feet between them. The shot is up, the shot is good and Cleveland goes into the fourth up 87-80 as the buzzer sounds.

Over the final four minutes and forty-eight seconds of the third period, Kyrie scored 19 points and hit eight straight shots.

And as I finish this, what I think I’ve realized is that Kyrie captured a moment, captured the crowd, and captivated us all. It reminds me of a section Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when his main characters Dean and Sal end up at a jazz club in San Francisco and end up under the spell of a tenorman who captured “IT.” As Dean explains it:

Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it…. Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas…. And then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives…. He has to blow across bridges and come and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT

For all of basketball’s team-sport ethos, these moments of individual greatness can tilt thousands of people sitting in an arena towards palpable frenzy. You can imagine, or at least I can imagine, a crowd rising to riot levels in these moments. The rising giddiness, the euphoria, the open-ended question imploringly asked: how far can we go? How far will he take us? To which only Kyrie can answer. He owned the time and the moment. For that blissful stretch of the third, he had IT.

Swee’Pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and other Playground Legends – a review

Lloyd Daniels entered my consciousness sometime in the early nineties. I don’t know if it was in 1992 when he made his NBA debut with the San Antonio Spurs as a 25-year-old rookie or if it was sometime before when he flirted with NCAA eligibility and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV program. As a 12-year-old, I was perplexed about why there was this hoopla around a guy who averaged under ten points and hadn’t played on any college team I knew of. Whenever I first heard of Daniels, it was absent awareness of John Valenti’s 1991 book (co-written by Ron Naclerio), originally titled Swee’Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball; later republished as Swee’pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends.

It’s a not a radical title makeover, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow as the original title and the content within Valenti’s book is flush with the drug abuse and violence that rolled like an avalanche through American cities in the 1980s in the form of crack. Not immune from the drug game and its accompanying violence were New York City basketball players from Earl “the Goat” Manigault in the 1960s to Len Bias and Lloyd Daniels in the 80s.

Valenti and Naclerio are perfectly qualified to tell Lloyd’s story. Valenti, a nine-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and Naclerio, one of the most decorated coaches in New York’s famed Public School Athletic League with over 700 wins, have the requisite skills and firsthand knowledge (Naclerio had been a Daniels confidant and supporter since the early-80s) to tell Lloyd’s tragic story.

It’s a story that is as much a sociological study of the impact of drugs on the inner-city boroughs of New York as it is an exploration into the city’s playground basketball legends. Unfortunately, the two have been tragically intertwined. In my reading, I wanted more basketball, more stories, more myths, more descriptions. But the narrative we want isn’t usually the one that was lived. And in the 18-to-20 hours each day that Lloyd Daniels wasn’t aweing basketball coaches or fans from Brooklyn to Mount SAC, from a young age, he was skipping school, sleeping in and getting high. That reality wasn’t unique to Daniels and it’s the story Valenti tells here which is why the title shift feels disingenuous.

Daniels was a 6’7” wing player born in 1967 so he came up around the same time as future NBA players J.R. Reid, LaBradford Smith, and Dennis Scott. His mother died at a young age, and his father wasn’t in the picture, so Daniels was passed back and forth between grandmothers. By age seven, he could navigate the city’s boroughs by public transit and by ten he was selling coke and weed and toking up daily. Ten-years-old, no mother, no father, unable to read with undiagnosed dyslexia, a well-developed con necessary just for survival. That same boy who was failed by the education system and failed by his family, was sneaking out night to play basketball in the dark. As Valenti writes,

He taught himself how to dribble on those darkened, glass-strewn courts. Taught himself how to pass, bouncing the ball off the chain-link fences. Taught himself to shoot jumpers in the park, which had no lights, banking them home in the dark. He said it developed not only his eye for the basket, but his feel for it. He’d take a hundred shots. After a while, despite the darkness, he could make 98, 99.

This balance, the drug hustle and basketball, is the delicate tightrope Daniels kept falling off throughout his life and is the backbone along which the content of the book strides. From the time he’s a young kid, barely a teenager, Daniels is swarmed by hangers-on, people who genuinely care for him, but are also pulled in by his prodigious talents. They let him get away with on and off-court crap because he’s just so freakishly talented. This extremely human conflict, a self-vested interest, is a recurring theme in Lloyd’s life where we see these older, typically well-off white men constantly drawn to Daniels’s talent, his likability, and they develop genuine relationships with the young star. Simultaneously, Daniels picked up pretty early that he was a hot commodity because he was good at basketball and developed terrible habits. He used people to get what he needed and into his 20s, had a teenager’s inability to take accountability for his actions.

Original photo posted by twitter.com/JoeMcKinzie here and partial photo here.
That’s Lloyd wearing the hat and former-NBA player Rod Strickland is 3rd from left. Lou d’Almeida, a controversial Lloyd benefactor is the lone white guy.

People don’t take interest unless you’re one hell of a player and that’s what makes Lloyd’s story so damn compelling. This is a player who, as a junior in high school, averaged 31-points, 12-rebounds, ten assists, and five blocks per-game and was named to the 1986 Parade All-American team. He was regularly compared to Magic Johnson and George Gervin because his feel for the game was so natural, the execution so smooth. Just watching this clip from 1996 when Lloyd was 29 and had beaten his body up with years of drug and alcohol abuse and survived a drug-related shooting that nearly killed him, you can see the fluidity and talent that were so magnetizing when he was a teeThat there is so little video of Daniels playing ball is part beauty, part tragedy. Beauty in the sense that myths and legends are food for the imagination. You can choose to believe or not and even among those who saw Daniels as a teenager and then saw him in his mid-20s when he was well-past his basketball-playing prime have waffled on how good of a talent he really was. It’s tragedy in that a talent so vast and unique was underutilized to the point that, despite the availability of video equipment, a relatively small number of people were able to appreciate his gifts. His greatest lives on via oral tradition or in the locked-up memories of those who saw him when. Valenti, via high school recruiting expert and Daniels aficionado, Tom Konchalski captures this fleeting essence in religious tones:

Stories of Lloyd Daniels and his immense and immeasurable talent, remain like those of apparitions of the Virgin Mother at Lourdes and La Salette, at Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe and even Syracuse. That is, that most nonbelievers don’t believe those apparitions existed. But for those who were there, who saw with their own eyes, well … they believe, because they know in their hearts and in their minds what they saw. Truly saw.

Valenti uses a colorful cast of New York ball players to show that, however talented he may have been, Daniels being failed by family and schools and succumbing to temptations was not the exception, but the rule. He uses Tony Bruin III to show that even young men who grew up with a strong family presence and made it to college were still vulnerable to the pull of drugs. There’s the Goat, Richie Adams, Fly Williams, and how many other players who traded the ball for the rock.

On the flip side, there’s Lefrak City’s Kenny Anderson whose uncle was a well-regarded ballplayer caught up in the streets and killed at 27. Anderson’s older brother Ricky, another ballplayer who made a name for himself, but quit in exchange for “other interests.” Anderson is a background character in the broader story, but serves a purpose as a contrast to Daniels. From before he entered high school, Anderson was surrounded by a support team that included Kenny Smith’s brother Vincent, and Archbishop Molloy’s legendary head coach Jack Curran who helped insulate Kenny from all the shit swirling around. It wasn’t different from Daniels having Naclerio, Konchalski, Lou d’Almedia or Arnie Hershkowitz trying to help steer him to places like Oak Hill or Laurinburg; places where, in theory, Lloyd could thrive with discipline and a break from the temptations of the city.

It’s hard to point specifically to what made Anderson and Lloyd different though Valenti, through the stories of Mark Jackson and John Salley, repeatedly points out the steady and influencing role of family that helped some players avoid the street temptations. But it’s not that simple as the Tony Bruin case shows. There’s not always an explanation to why some people succeed and others fail. What makes Lloyd’s story so compelling, and this is no doubt part of the problem, was his rare talent. In July of 1989, just after he had been shot, Lloyd attended the Mike Tyson-Carl Williams fight in Atlantic City and was the toast of the celebrity-filled afterparty. He’s buddy-buddy with Mike Tyson, cool with Rick Pitino and even artist Leroy Neiman, friendly with Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley. He was a defacto celebrity without ever having played in the NBA or the NCAA – that’s how prodigious his talent was.

Swee’Pea is a sociological survey. It’s also a basketball story. It’s a study of human psychology and power dynamics as the substance abusing Lloyd, who was let down by his family and the New York schools, who can’t read, can’t be relied upon for work, can’t commit to putting forth consistent effort, can’t do the basic shit all of us try to do just to get by, is gifted chance after chance at redemption because he has a set of skills that can be packaged up and sold for millions of dollars. On its surface, that’s a miserable, transparent, and heartless exchange. But what makes Swee’Pea worth reading is that it’s not as simple as a heartless exchange. Administration and bureaucracy lead to cold, unfeeling exchanges and on the outer rims of high level basketball, you’re not finding much in the way of administration. It’s not just Jerry Tarkanian using Lloyd to try and better his program or Lloyd conning the owner of his CBA team who took him into his house.

Beyond the brutal zero-sum game of drugs and high caliber basketball are humans worth giving a damn about. That they’re engaged in the endless pursuit of self-interest doesn’t make them different from the rest of us. It makes them more relatable; just sitting at a different table with different stakes, playing games we can all relate to in one way or another.

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