Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Cam Reddish: Laissez-faire Basketballism

At some point, people are who we are. We have traits or temperaments that have either been hardcoded or fully realized through habitual refrain. Basketball players, as humans, are not exempt from this. Players become and evolve and settle. That doesn’t mean players can’t develop skills (Brook Lopez and three-point shooting) or become better versions of themselves (JJ Redick) or, in rare scenarios, tap into higher planes (Pacers’ Victor Oladipo). At what point the calcification occurs is hard to say: Is it age-based or experience-based? Is Karl-Anthony Towns forever a highly-skilled, but emotionally volatile contributor; fated to eternally be grasping for a potential he can’t attain?

Cam Reddish is the third banana of Duke’s Big Three freshman class (that’s not a slight on Tre Jones, but he’s not at the level of those three, not in terms of ability or perception which isn’t to say he won’t be a better pro than one of them, just that he’s not as good) which also includes Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Reddish, as a prospect, is both dependent on and exists independent of Williamson and Barrett, but I’ll scrape away at that later. He’s not third banana because he’s a lesser player or lacks their level of skill. He’s possibly the most skilled of the three. He’s the third banana musketeer (that sounds like a dessert) because of his approach to the game which has been described as passive or, in this case, as laissez-faire.

Maybe there’s something enigmatic in Reddish in the sense that for our elite athletes and basketball, even for the most gifted, hard work is a pre-requisite. Maybe a player can jump out of the gym and out-run Jon Ross in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn’t mean they can play a lick of ball. And in that hard work, there’s a baseline intensity that we expect. It doesn’t have to be Kobe Bryant, but we expect our best players to go hard and compete. Reddish has all the skill and ability: at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighing nearly 220-pounds, he already has the frame of an NBA player, but it doesn’t stop with his size. For 6-8 and 19-years-old, Reddish moves like he’s lived in this same body size for an eternity. He’s entirely graceful with long strides and great balance. In terms of skill, he plays like a kid who was taking AP Basketball courses at 14. A teenager doesn’t play this way without copious time spent in the gym, honing his game when the world and friends and kid stuff is beckoning from outside. His handle, with those swinging, loping arms calls to mind the peace of flowing water in nature, a running stream in its natural element with the ball bouncing easily, fully under his teenage control. To borrow from Bruce Lee, “be water, my friend.” His passing, probably being underutilized with Duke, isn’t just competent, it’s very good. He can see and execute a nice pocket pass and act as a primary ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. In transition, his ball handling combines with his athleticism, size, and court vision to weaponize him.

And his shot, specifically his 3-ball, which he’s launching over 7-per-game, is infinitely effortless, a casual, aligned, rhythmic toss that freezes time on aesthetic alone. That he’s shooting it at just a 36% clip with Duke on over 7 attempts-per-game and that ESPN’s Draft Express crew has him at 30% on 260 pre-Duke attempts doesn’t bother me although it probably should. I’m not concerned because it all looks so beautifully harmonic. My notes on Reddish are littered with exclamations about the ease of his jumper from distance and his pull-up. What can I say? At the end of the day, I trust his jumper – even if he doesn’t look, feel, or smell like he’ll reach that high-level volume/efficiency combo that separates the good from great NBA shooters. To be fair, most of those “good” shooters can’t handle or pass as well as even 19-year-old Cam.

It’s all very nice, but undertaken with the urgency of the collective world’s grandfather on a Sunday morning stroll in late spring when the birds are singing and he’s figured out how to finally, truly appreciate nature’s presence and has developed gratitude just for being. Cam Reddish plays basketball like that grandfather strolls (but probably without the gratitude because it’s harder for young people to fully articulate gratitude just based on volume of life experiences though there are certainly plenty of our young people who’ve seen and lived far too much in their short times on Earth). In games I saw of his in January and March, announcers had already picked up on the trend, suggesting he was occasionally “too cool” or telling us they’d “like to see a more intense approach.” In a story with the Philadelphia Inquirer from September of his senior season, Reddish responded to questions about areas of improvement with  “motor and…defense.” The Inquirer story took place before those January and March games and so while young Cam knew his areas of opportunity, he struggled to make change.

This disconnect between effort and ability is strangely insulating at Duke where Cam has comfortably settled into a third option behind Barrett and Williamson. Zion is a black hole for attention, sucking in eyeballs and mindshares and tweets and highlights with his all-consuming gravity. Barrett is the team’s (Coach K’s?) un/disputed go-to-go-guy averaging 24-7-4 and for a while had missed more shots than Williamson had attempted. Barrett’s go-it-alone ethos in a loss to Gonzaga sopped up even more bandwidth from an audience trained to be ever-eager for scandal and someone to blame. And so Cam has settled into his role as a floor-spacing shooter who sometimes feels compelled to attack off the bounce. The reason this is semi-beneficial is that anyone who’s ever seen Reddish knows his game, particularly his offense, contains more than his Duke role implies. He can grab and go, he can pass, he can create for others. And as is sometimes the case with elite college players playing in well-established systems, the question becomes one of: Is this player in this role what we can expect at the next level? Or: Is this player being pigeonholed by a coach and system? In the latter scenario, Jaren Jackson Jr and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately come to mind as players who were limited by successful college coaches. Like an agent holding a player out of the combine or out of workouts, not knowing can work in a prospect’s favor. (Back in April during the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, I asked myself in my notes, “In love w/the 3?”)

While Reddish owns his own career, the presence of Williamson and Barrett is inescapable. They are black holes, vacuums, forces of nature that both obscure and force comparisons to Reddish. Alongside Barrett, Reddish is absolutely passive, a standstill shooting specialist who gums at defenses while RJ chomps. Against the perpetually-sweating, in-motion bulk of Williamson, Cam moves in slow motion uncertainty. As a prospect, he must be compared to them by proximity alone even though he remains his own, uniquely talented prospect.

Within all this compare and contrast and context forming, we’d be remiss to not touch on Reddish’s defense. In the pre-Duke clips I watched, he was a circumstantial defender with questionable effort and technique even more so than on the offensive side where his evolved skill and size could carry him through Sunday-stroll exertions. At Duke, he’s exhibited greater effort, but within his attempts has been revealed a poor execution. Through ten games, he’s averaging over 2-steals and has three games of 4 steals, but he has trouble keeping up with shooters when screened, is quick to bite on fakes even though he has just 2 blocks through 240 minutes of play, and gets turned around due to bad positioning. There’s work to be done here, but the most important thing is that he’s trying. It’s weird, but when you try, you’re vulnerable and an object for criticism. When you coast and take plays off, there’s no risk except looking stupid like James Harden on backdoors a couple years ago.

I’ve seen or heard Reddish compared to everyone from Kevin Durant to Tracy McGrady to Grant Hill because he’s tallish, smooth with a handle, and can shoot. Even if he had a more aggressive mentality, I think those comps are overly optimistic. Physically, he most resembles Hill or McGrady, but doesn’t have the explosiveness of either. He’s not the Swiss Army Knife Hill was and nowhere near the off-the-dribble attacker McGrady was. But he’s some thing, some laissez-faire basketballing thing who one hopes or imagines is just waiting to be unlocked like the mysteries of space or the Bermuda Triangle. I tend to think Cam’s role at Duke is the outcome of several factors: 1) The superior ability and aggressive approaches of Barrett and Zion, 2) Coach K’s schemes, 3) Cam’s own comfort slotting in as a supporting piece. Seen through this lens, he has the look of a player talented enough to contribute as a high level starter, but 3rd or 4th option on a winning team. The challenge with the NBA and a finite player pool is for Reddish to land in a spot where he’s expected to push a team over any humps. Team and scheme matter and as much as I like Reddish the kid (the Jay Bilas interviews on the beach in Maui were corny but I walked away from Cam’s thinking, “I like this kid”), he doesn’t strike me as a player good enough to transcend team or scheme.

But then again, maybe he’s just a malleable, ultra-talented, humble wing waiting for his James Harden-to-the-Rockets moment to grow a great big beard and unleash his full arsenal on an unready opposition. Maybe.

Ja Morant: Boom Boom in Tuscaloosa

Sometimes when I use Chromecast to watch ESPN+ games on my TV by way of phone, the stream chops up or reverts to standard definition and I fade into the pixels of my own distracted thoughts, unable to focus, uninterested in taking notes, just a breathing, beating being on the couch in a mind of its own making surrounded by striped pillows. Other times, the toggling between standard and high-def is nothing more than a minor inconvenience and the content, the game in all its magnificence, captivates and sucks me in like a magnet for my brain’s thoughts. The latter is what (mostly) happened on the evening of Monday, November 26th, 2018, the night I bought into the myth, the legend, the mystery of Ja Morant.

Morant is a point guard for the Murray State Racers, a college basketball team based in Murray, Kentucky near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, a couple hour drive from Nashville. The school has produced current NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan (recently cut by the Suns) and Cam Payne and based on the 40-plus scouts that attended the Murray-State/Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, Morant is a lock to join them as pro basketball representatives of the Racers.

This wasn’t my first experience with Morant. The Racers made the Tournament last season when Morant was a sophomore and draft heads have been gushing about him for a while. But impressions (first or otherwise) still matter and the lithe guard, who’s built like a shorter version of Jamal Crawford with equally supple limbs and joints, didn’t bother waiting to impress himself upon the ‘Bama faithful and NBA scouts on Monday night:

The defensive read and react is helping to push him towards 2 steals-per-game and is an example of risk-taking instincts that can be both a weapon and a hinderance. What’s not a hinderance is Morant’s ability to get it and go, to survey the floor, the speed, the opportunities and make optimal decisions. After the game, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said, “Oh he’s really good, he’s a problem solver.” If open court situations are problems or opportunities doesn’t really matter though “opportunity solver” is an awkwardly apt descriptor of the 6-3 Dalzell, South Carolina native. In this case, Morant doesn’t push pedal to metal, instead he takes an almost leisurely but intentional pace, looking, reading, and then accepting the screen which buys him the slightest edge against defender Kira Lewis Jr. The beauty happens at the next level when Bama’s Donta Hall steps up to help. Instead of attacking the big man immediately, Morant waits for Lewis Jr. to scramble back before hitting him with two moves: first the shoulder turn which forces the defender into a second scramble and then a left-to-right crossover which the defender overruns and creates space for the funky clutching jumper.

In the first 10 to 15 seconds of game action, Morant firmly impressed and imprinted himself upon the game and predictably, didn’t stop there. The subsequent 39 minutes and 45 seconds (of which he played every possession), were flush with highlights and not just the style-over-substance variety, but purely functional, occasionally improvisational. Morant is an athlete at work, the court some kind of stage on which the unchoreographed dance unfolds.

Basketball has blessed with a medium for the long, graceful, and athletic among us to soar, pirouette, and breath life into our imaginations. Morant does these things with what appears to be casual ease which isn’t to question his effort or the work he’s put into his game. As a freshman last season, he shot 52% on 2s, 30% on 3s. Just a season later and he’s cranked his 2s up to 67%, his 3s up to 33% while nearly doubling his attempts in both measures. He makes playing hard and effectively look easy.

Again, with Lewis Jr. defending him, Morant uses the screen as a decoy before explosively changing direction with a right-to-left crossover that easily beats the younger defender. Once the second level has been attained, Morant has a few choices: release valves in the corner and wing, a dump-off to the big, or take the shot himself. In this play, Morant’s speed both works for and against him: It forces the help defender to commit, but it also forces Ja to make his decision sooner and by the time he leaves his feet, it’s either dump-off or shoot. The pass itself is perfect, a laser like zipper into the waiting hands of his teammate. That ‘Bama’s rotations anticipated the dump and shot don’t take away from the read and execution.

These plays are borderline commonplace for Morant who makes a living beating first defenders. The combination of handle, quickness, speed, and pressure make for a difficult cover for any opponent. ‘Bama’s defensive stopper is a 6-7 sophomore wing named Herb Jones who has prototypical NBA length. As a freshman, Jones helped harass present-day Atlanta Hawk, Trae Young, into a 6-17, 5 turnover game last season and ended up matched against Morant a few times. On the switch below, Jones’s positioning is great: he’s low, moves well laterally, and seems ready for the challenge. Morant is too quick though and gets too low. For a moment, it seems he might go right, which is the side Jones has opened, but instead he smoothly goes right-to-left between his legs at which point he makes his first step, shoulders so low Jones can’t recover. The scoop shot finish is largely unmolested:

In the limited documentation we have of Morant, adaption appears to be a recurring theme – both in game and in role. Against Alabama, after proving indefensible in man-to-man coverage, Johnson began throwing double teams at the lean point guard and watching him change tactics in-the-moment made for a great study in his ability to adjust. The first pair of doubles he saw, he didn’t panic, but didn’t attack either, rather he just passed out. On the third double, he attempted to dribble out of trouble, but quickly passed out. By the fourth double, he put the ball on the floor and attacked before the second man could ever get there, leaving ‘Bama scrambling. His quick reaction didn’t create a basket, but it showed his ability to read and adjust on the fly.

In the below clip, we see Morant gathering the defensive board and pushing the pace but slowing it up for just long enough for a defensive miscommunication. When John Petty (#23) and Lewis Jr. (#2) mistakenly turn away from Morant, he immediately crosses the ball over and accelerates into the lane. This wouldn’t have been there if he had pushed the ball full speed. By the time he reaches the paint, Jones (#10) is sliding into position to take a charge. On the previous play, Ja had picked up a charge on a dribble, but this time he simultaneously dumps it off to Jones’s man while easily avoiding the stationary Jones:

Morant’s adaption doesn’t appear to be limited to in-game adjustments, but is inclusive of his role within the team. As a senior at South Carolina’s Crestwood High School, he was a 27-point-per-game scorer, but with last year’s Murray State squad, he played the role of facilitator with seniors Jonathan Stark (over 2k points in his college career) and Terrell Miller Jr. carrying the team’s scoring responsibilities. Now, as a sophomore, Morant is the undisputed go-to-guy, probably shouldering too great of a load with a usage rate over 37%.

His role is strikingly similar to Young’s with Oklahoma last season even if the players are strikingly different in aesthetic terms. Circumstance dictates that both players carry an outsized load and the outputs almost mirror each other:

Morant through 6 games: 34.4 minutes, 27.2ppg, 8.4apg, 6 turnovers, 37.3% usage, 52.4% ast, 22.6% turnover

Young 2017-18: 35.4 minutes, 27.4ppg, 8.7apg, 5.2 turnovers, 37.1% usage, 48.6% ast, 18.2% turnover

With Young last season, there were questions about whether Oklahoma Coach Lon Krueger was helping or hurting Young by giving him so much freedom. Was Young developing bad habits? For me, it was always about his decision making: How adept was Trae at deciding when to shoot, when to pass, when to leave his feet? 24 games into his NBA career and Young’s showing an ability to assimilate into a team structure while still filling the role of lead guard. Krueger didn’t stain him or lead him astray.

I doubt Morant will be faced with the same questions as it appears his physical abilities will transition to the NBA much more smoothly than Young’s did. And given that we’ve already seen him flex his style from his freshman to sophomore seasons, there appears to be a willingness to adapt.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream for Morant in Tuscaloosa. He had 10 turnovers and was 0-4 from three and his team lost by six. The turnovers were a mixed bag of losing footing or handle on dribble drives, bad passes, and being out of control and maybe this is me showing my bias, but I chalk a lot of this up to growing pains; particularly given the overall talent disparity between the teams. Morant’s body control and elusive slithering are Crawford-like. His handling and explosiveness are serpentine and unexpected. This is a kid who drove into the chest of West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, a shot blocking extraordinaire who has a solid 75 pounds on Morant, and neutralized his length in last year’s NCAA Tournament. At Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp over the summer, he caught a lob and his head was easily above the rim. He casually dismissed the efforts of ‘Bama’s version of the Plastic Man in Herb Jones. He’s not a perfect prospect (jumper, strength), but his kinetic, electric, poised fury has me maybe more excited about him than any guard prospect in this draft class (Kevin Porter?). I’m giddy, I’m geeked. Murray State’s home court is less than 600 miles away and I’m ready for a road trip.

Matisse Thybulle: The Condor Soars … and blocks shots, lots of them

As of the morning of November 25th, 2018, University of Washington senior and NBA draft prospect, Matisse Thybulle has nearly as many steals and blocks as he has points scored. This strange inversion of accumulated stats is simultaneously distressing and impressive and also unlikely to continue, but such is the evolution of Thybulle’s game.

Thybulle is listed as 6-5, 190 pounds, but he looks a little bigger than that. Maybe it’s because he appears to have the wingspan of a condor (listed at 7-0, but he looks longer) or maybe it’s because accurate measures (see LeBron’s weight) are harder to come by than they should be. Whatever the case, the UW wing plays much larger than his size (6-5 or whatever he is). Six games into his senior season, he’s averaging a ludicrous 2.7 blocks alongside 2.2 steals which, when combined, is just a hair beneath a paltry 5.5 points.

If we go back to the high school hoops class of 2015, the year of Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, and Brandon Ingram, Thybulle doesn’t appear on ESPN’s Top 100 and is ranked somewhere between 104th and 126th nationally on 247sports.com. (For what it’s worth, 247 lists him as 6-7.) He came into UW with current NBAers Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss and has started 104 of his 105 games for the Seattle-based school. Even as a freshman, he projected as 3-and-D wing and his play has become borderline synonymous with the type. Through his first three seasons, half of his shots came from behind the arc while he stacked up multiple UW defensive records. As a junior, he was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year with per-game averages of 3 steals and 1.4 blocks; his steal (5.2%) and block (4.8%) percentages are rare and elite for any college player. The only other player in Sports-Reference.com’s database (dating back to 2009-10) to appear in at least 600 minutes with these block and steal percentages is Gary Payton II.

Thybulle’s junior season coincided with the hiring of former Syracuse assistant and Jim Boeheim right-hand-man, Mike Hopkins whose go-to defensive scheme is the ol’ Syracuse’s 2-3 zone with Thybulle up top. UW’s previous and long-time coach, Lorenzo Romar employed a man-to-man switching defense that, by the time Thybulle arrived, had deteriorated into sieving unit that ranked 337th (2016) and 332nd (2017) nationally and that’s despite having Thybulle, the wiry, quick Murray, and a long rim protector in Malik Dime. Defensively, the whole was much weaker than the sum of its parts and Romar ultimately lost his job as a result.

With Thybulle at the top of the zone, his defensive strengths and instincts are being fully weaponized. With a wide stance and long strides, he covers more ground than opponents anticipate and fluidly moves between the paint and perimeter or side-to-side. At his best, he can shut down an entire quarter of the half-court not unlike a shutdown corner. Where he’s at his most dangerous is in his aggressive collapses into the paint to attack would-be shooters. In a way I haven’t seen many top men in a 2-3, Thybulle uses the element of surprise to drop down and block the shots of unknowing, blind-spot-having opponents: they make their move into the paint or towards the rim and the second they turn their head in the direction of the basket and elevate to shoot, Thybulle, who had already started creeping in the direction of the ball, is swiping out with those long arms, swatting a shot that never had a prayer. His length and timing allow him to exploit this blind spot the way most guards or perimeter defenders can’t or wouldn’t even think to and it’s driving that near-3 blocks-per-game. It’s not all roses though as he’s developed a habit of winding up and swinging at the ball – not quite wildly, but in a way that leaves him vulnerable to fouls or slightly off balance. That said, his timing is so good that he typically avoids contact. Against Santa Clara, this drop down technique was happening so frequently that I found myself wondering if UW’s backline defenders were funneling the offense into the lane to take advantage of the Thybulle drop down.

A comic, possibly, likely, almost certainly inspired by Matisse Thybulle; re-produced from the original by Steve Moore

To be an effective defender at the next level, the shot blocks don’t need to carry over. With his length, positioning, and ability to slice through screens, he should be able to close space and make it a little harder for shooters to get clean looks at the hoop. I have seen him open his hips and bait ball handlers into driving so he can set them up for the shot block. He this against Minnesota’s sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington, but the savvy Washington took a scoop shot with the ball well out of Thybulle’s reach. This is the type of adjustment pros will use against his baiting tactics.

Where his defense has become an all-harassing one-man-gang, his shooting from distance has descended into ugly inaccuracy. Through his first 99 games, Thybulle shot 38% on over 380 three-point attempts. He was remarkably consistent as a standstill, catch-and-shoot option who could be utilized by Murray or, for a single season, Markelle Fultz. As a senior, he’s made just 3 of 22 attempts (13%). He’s perfect from the free throw line (6-6), but getting there with less frequency than his previous seasons and his two-point attempts are also down. UW has more options to score this season than previous years, but you have to wonder if his struggles from the perimeter are negatively affecting the rest of his offense. At a glance, his shooting mechanics don’t look to be fundamentally changed. He’s always had somewhat of a tall, erect form with a higher release point and I’m much more comfortable trusting his previous 358 attempts than his most recent 22.

His usage rate is down to 13.7% which is its lowest since he was a freshman playing just 24 minutes/game. His assist percentage (10%) and free throw rate (16%) are the lowest of his four years at UW, but watching him, he doesn’t appear to be tentative. Rather, UW’s offense is frequently stagnant and heavily dependent on sophomore Jaylen Nowell as its only creator off-the-dribble. Nowell is an off-guard whose primary instincts are to score rather than distribute. And when it’s not Nowell attacking, the Huskies dump the ball into senior forward and part-time blackhole, Noah Dickerson who sports a 36% usage rate. There just haven’t been as many opportunities for Thybulle who frequently ends up standing still on the wing. There’s very little cutting in Hopkins’s system which is unfortunate, because Thybulle, who looks more explosive this season, could be better utilized with more movement. When he does put the ball on the floor, it’s powered by a long and strong first step and not much wiggle. He goes one direction at a single speed,  taking what the defense gives him and primarily looking to draw in defenders to kick out or dump off. If the daylight’s there, he’s more than able to smash dunk on the heads of unprepared opponents as he did against Auburn earlier this season.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has Thybulle ranked 45th on his big board and going 39th in his most recent mock draft. Between his game tape and measurements, Thybulle looks like someone who can defend at least the one through three and potentially small ball fours or even lesser-skilled big fours. In the NBA, that defensive versatility is slobber-worthy right now and is present across the league’s top teams. How well his defense translates at the pro level will be fun to see as UW’s zone is just bizarre as a defensive measuring stick. But if you find yourself watching a UW game this season, clear the clutter of the court and watch Thybulle operate at the top of that zone and you’ll see a master, hard at work, swinging, swatting, blanketing, blotting out an entire side of the court. And maybe watch the him on the offensive end as well and hope, with me, that his jump shot returns to form.

Andrew Nembhard: A Passing Savant in Florida

When I first saw Andrew Nembhard participate at basketball, I was oblivious to him – his game, his story, existence. I tuned in to some Montverde Academy game to see all-world Canadian basketball phenom RJ Barrett, the current Robin to Zion Williamson’s Batman. Montverde is essentially a D1 college program. In addition to Barrett and Nembhard, the team featured Mike Devoe (now at Georgia Tech), Filip Petrusev (Gonzaga), Morris Udeze (Wichita State), Jermaine Cousinard (South Carolina), Josh Roberts (St. John’s), Kevin Zhang (Tulane), and Karrington Davis (Nebraksa) – and that’s just counting players that graduated in 2018, not to mention the D1-level underclassmen. This is an elite basketball factory that has helped to produce current NBA players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

And there was Nembhard, a high school senior playing ball at Montverde near Orlando, Florida by way of Aurora, Ontario. In a college freshman class that features a generational athlete like Zion, a prototypical wing athlete in Barrett, and a James Hardenesque manchild in USC’s Kevin Porter Jr, Nembhard actually looks like the 18-year-old he is. He’s 6-4 or 6-5 (depending on where you look), somewhere around 190-pounds. Among you or me, he’d be a tall kid; not big or physically imposing. On Montverde’s collegiately-sized team and on the Florida Gators’ actual college team, his appearance merely blends into the kids and young men wearing same-colored jerseys, most taller, some shorter.

It was against this embarrassment of riches that Nembhard somehow stood out. Playing point guard for a stacked team, he wasn’t faster or quicker, didn’t jump higher and reach longer than opponents or teammates. In the multiple games I’ve seen of his now, I don’t recall him ever dunking and my notes don’t indicate anything about a dunk. Yet, there he was in medium-sized glory, tall by point guard standards, splitting playmaking duties with the wunderkind Barrett. Point guards, for all the unselfishness that we associate with passing and facilitating, can be brutally ball dominant and taskmasterish, insistent on being the engine through which an offense runs. Nembhard, by contrast, has proven a modern awareness of positionless basketball. Alongside Barrett, he willingly shared playmaking duties and in his brief, three-game career at Gainesville, he’s shown comfort playing on and off the ball.

Nembhard’s overall feel for the game is what pops. I don’t believe passing and court vision are genetically passed on though some of the root abilities are likely transferred genetically. Despite my beliefs, Nembhard has the so-called passing gene. Next to his Montverde All-Stars, he combined sound fundamentals (head up, always kept his dribble, always knew where teammates were) with the occasional flair required of playing with an ensemble cast: no-look passes, lobs, and pinpoint outlet passes to streaking gazelles wearing basketball uniforms.

Where the passing gene has been forced to take on a different lens at the NCAA level has been a skewing towards functionality and Nembhard is nothing if not functional. Against bigger, faster college defenses, I haven’t seen the no-looks or even many lobs. That doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. He’s averaging nearly 6 assists and just two turnovers. Before he even played his first game at Florida, head coach Mike White said, “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program.” His offensive awareness, with head up and darting eyes, continues to be a weapon that takes in and computes the entirety of his surroundings: cross-court passes to unguarded teammates made easier since he can see over most college guards, wrap-around passes to players he can’t possibly see, transition passing to leaking runners, and of course the penetrate and kick or dump after drawing in help defenders. And that head up habit? His dad, who coached him since he was three, “taught Andrew to keep his head up when receiving a pass,” and said, “when Andrew catches the ball, his first tendency is to look up … to see if someone is open.”

He doesn’t quite have old man game, but you can see intention in the tactics he employs that call to mind more veteran players. Already at Florida, I’ve seen him beat defenders off the dribble and instead of straight line, single speed drives, he slows down, gets the defender on his hip and forces the defense to make a decision: switch over to help or stay home. This quick-read and upshift/downshift ability leverages his size, strength, and decision making. And when the help defender stays at home, Nembhard has a nice floater and can attack with either hand.

Photo: FIBA

While he’s competent with both hands, his finishing around the rim is still developing. Against Charleston Southern, he attempted three lefty layups from the right side of the rim and missed all three. In each case, it didn’t look like he gained any advantage by going with the left hand. When he finally switched to a more natural right side/right hand attempt, he drew a foul. Given his feel for the game, these types of forays seem exploratory more than symptomatic of larger issues and 14 shot attempts on two-pointers is hardly statistically significant, but it will be telling to see how he adjusts as competition gets better.

On the defensive side, the Canadian’s court and spatial awareness translate. He keeps a wide base and slides his feet well though he appears to bend more at the waist at times instead of at the knees which likely limits his quickness. He’s not the longest guy (close to 6-6 wingspan) and he doesn’t present as a disruptive force on defense, but not everyone needs to be Robert Covington or Kris Dunn to play defense. Nembhard seems to always be in the right place – rotating at the right time, moving his feet to the right spot. There was a play against Charleston Southern where an opponent beat one of Nembhard’s teammates on a basket cut. Anticipating the defensive breakdown, he checked the cutter which slowed him down enough for his teammate to recover and for the window of opportunity to close. It was a small, micro-moment, but it showed how he’s able to both diagnose and react to plays as a defender.

ESPN had him ranked 28th overall in the recruiting class of 2018, but he doesn’t appear in their mock draft or on their top-100 big board for players draft eligible in 2019. At present, the point guards ahead of him just do more things better than he does: Darius Garland is quicker and a better shooter, Ja Morant is longer and more athletic, Ayo Dosunmu more explosive. This doesn’t imply Nembhard isn’t a pro prospect as his overall game is on par with any of the aforementioned prospects, he’s just not as athletic or efficient enough with enough volume from the perimeter to push into that upper tier of current prospects. But this is a kid who’s already competed with the Canadian men’s national team where he’s made two appearances and averaged 5 assists in just 15 minutes/game. Against the University School at the Geico High School National Championships, he scored 8 points and racked up 13 assists to zero turnovers. He’s a confident, selfless player who can pass his ass off. I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it. Whether that happens in 2019 or beyond, his ability to develop and persevere (look up volvulus) are both good indicators that his arrival in the NBA is question of when rather than if.

Naz Reid: Sometimes Magic Happens

I first saw Naz Reid sometime back in March or April of 2018 during the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage which takes place a day or two before the actual event and might be more a competitive exhibition. Reid, a 6-10, 250-some pound teen from New Jersey was chucking threes and asking for lobs. He was graceful on his feet the way offensive lineman are and took up the same kind of space. He stole my attention by snatching the ball off defensive rebounds and gallivanting down the right side of the court, his shortish braids blowing in the Philips Arena breeze and then, when a defender had the nerve to impede this graceful giant’s progress, instead of a cartoonish collision or some uncoordinated big man bumblefuckery, he channeled an internal 6-4 Dwyane Wade and swiftly, balletically sidestepped the challenger for a soft lay in. I don’t think I took my eyes off him the rest of the game.

There are hints of Andray Blatche in Reid: near 7-feet, a bit soft, with an unexpected lightness of foot. One of his coaches at Louisiana State compared him to Chris Webber, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant saying, “He’s not at that level yet but he’s got that size, he’s got that athleticism, he’s got that mind to him.” It feels a bit hyperbolic to make those connections, but Reid inspires hyperbole.

At the McDonald’s game, the official one, Reid led all players with 11 rebounds while pitching in 15 points and despite the shift in formality from scrimmage to game, his open court ball skills were still at the fore. There were pull up threes (missed), spin moves, finesse layups with both hands. He’s proven to have a penchant for showing up on the biggest stages like he did in the New Jersey state Non-Public B state title game against Ranney which featured two five-star 2019 recruits in Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova). He rejected a shot from Antoine which triggered a fast break that led to a hard-running Naz catching a game-winning lob. Reid’s Roselle Catholic won their state class and went on to win the state’s Tournament of Champions. It helps to have multiple high-level D1 players like Kentucky’s Khalil Whitney, South Carolina’s Alanzo Frink, and UNLV’s Josh Pierre-Louis, but Reid was the straw stirring Roselle’s beverage.

Sometimes it’s a player’s stats that overwhelm you. When I was a youth in Iowa, I remember seeing a then-high school junior named Raef LaFrentz on the All-State team and he averaged roughly 36 points, 16 rebounds, and six blocks-per-game. He played in one of Iowa’s smallest classes, but with numbers like that and a commitment to Kansas, he had cache and credibility. Reid couldn’t be further from LaFrentz’s statistical supernova. As a senior he averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds. His assists, threes, and defensive stats are far from overwhelming and even reviewing Roselle’s clips on Youtube, there are developmental warts. Reid’s concepts of rim protection vacillate between statuesque, entertaining (wild swipes for shot blocks he could never get), and motivated (usually in the form of weak side blocks against smaller players). His knees aren’t always bent which leaves him unable to react, his arms are prone to dangling at his sides, and his ball awareness is inconsistent. Maybe this is just youthful inattention and lack of discipline, or maybe it’s Reid carrying an extra 10 to 15 pounds. It’s hard to say, but trying to map out some kind of developmental trajectory, defensive effort is the primary point of concern.

So his stats are pedestrian and his defensive intensity is lacking. And yet, he still finished 12th on ESPN’s Top 100 recruits for 2018. LSU’s head coach Will Wade was quoted as saying, “Naz Reid, 6-10. Best way I can put it would be, is wait till you see him. He’s something else. He’s like having Tremont (Tremont Waters, LSU’s point guard) at the center position. He can pass, he can shoot, he can do everything. Enjoy him, you won’t see him long.” Way back in 2015 when Reid was just a sophomore, Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press wrote, “Reid is clearly positioned to be the Garden State’s next Karl-Anthony Towns.”

I don’t see KAT or KD or Webber or Draymond in Reid, but it’s striking that others do. My first thoughts when I saw him at McDonald’s was touches of Lamar Odom’s game in Blatche’s body, but the more I think about it, the more he has shades of present-day perimeter player Boogie Cousins including the willingness to bully opponents. The touch and offensive IQ are bursting are like rainbows trailing behind the cross-court passes he whips with NBA velocity. In the clip below, he sticks a heavy-footed, outmatched defender with a lefty inside out that a lot of NBA big men would bounce off their feet. Effortlessly exhibiting pro level abilities as a soft-bodied teen sparks imagination and allows seasoned eyes to draw connections to all-time greats. And for as much as his defense is a royal mess, the Baton Rouge-bound Reid easily runs the floor with long strides and is a bludgeoning weapon filling the lanes with or without the ball. The motor is there, it just appears to be selectively utilized.

Reid’s not the only high-profile recruit heading to LSU this fall. Their 2018-19 class is ranked 4th in the country by 247sports.com and includes Emmitt Williams (26th), Ja’Vonte Smart (35th), and Darius Days (62nd). Being surrounded by this much high-level talent should create some familiarity for Reid who’s been playing with elite teammates dating back to his freshman year at Roselle when Isaiah Briscoe was his teammate. Whether Naz’s optimal set of teammates, the hardcore backing from his coaches, or his own copious talents lead him to a one-and-done college career and springboard him toward pro success is hard to say. He could be a beefier Odom, a taller James Johnson, or an American Kevin Seraphin. That his future paths are so undefined doesn’t unnerve me, but of course I have nothing at stake. Rather, not knowing what will happen, but knowing something magic could happen on any defensive rebound is at the crux of sports as entertainment and at the core of why Naz Reid is the player I’m most intrigued by in college basketball this season.

All the way home, the rain didn’t stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Letter to Kawhi Leonard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

July 18th, January 18th, and Other Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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