- Oh shit Anthony edwards, this man is 19: https://t.co/r03n6jzDq5 4 hours ago
- Quintessential Haliburton. After the play, Petersen like, “those are the plays you kind of have to accept with DAR”… twitter.com/i/web/status/1… 4 hours ago
- RT @abovethebreak3: Metas, draft strategy and pre-drafting is LIVE (free) Why I think the draft hasn't even got close to peak inefficiency,… 7 hours ago
- RT @nwmalinowski: Never believe police version of the events. #DerekChauvin 8 hours ago
- Some fun speed from Randy Smith (pushing break) to Marvin Barnes (running like his life depends on it) in 1977-78.… twitter.com/i/web/status/1… 1 day ago
Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Category Archives: Basketball
November 25, 2020Posted by on
Andre Curbelo is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds of point guarding mastery from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, a municipality on the northern coast of the island. He arrived in the US at age-13, in Long Island to be specific, to play basketball to be more specific and to carry on some kind of basketball-playing legacy that began with his father, Joel, also a 6-1 point guard who played professionally for 18 years and was a reserve guard on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1996.
While Curbelo arrived in the states in 2014, I first saw him when he was 17, in April of 2019 playing with the world team at the Nike Hoop Summit where he was the second-youngest player in the game. His stats in a limited 16 minutes were pedestrian and don’t bare repeating, but he popped in a way that caught attention with an easy-to-remember and recognize name. So often teenagers imprint basketball games with athleticism that overwhelms or size and skill combinations that exceed their peers. For Curbelo, it was heady basketball and feel: a timely recognition on a give-and-go, drive-and-kicks to the corners, effective screening, textbook fast breaks, and occasional touch.
As I’ve seen and learned more about Curbelo, the 16 minutes at Hoop Summit foreshadowed an impressive development that bloomed throughout his senior season at Long Island Lutheran (LuHi) and flourished into something like a low key cult among some weirdo high school hoops followers on Twitter – a group I possibly belong to.
That play was from July of 2019 when Curbelo was, in my eyes, still going through growing pains which, as a just-turned 19-year-old, there are plenty more growing pains to come, but the leaps he made from July to February of 2020 when I last saw him, were significant.
There is an innateness to Curbelo’s game that is dazzlingly magnetic. His combination of anticipation and awareness make him a highly effective highlight reel despite lacking the requisite size and vertical athleticism so popularly associated with basketball highlights. As I stacked up his game tapes, and saw him repeatedly puncture defenses and beat them with wrong-footed layups, drive-and-kicks, and drive-and-dish, my brain, in its bad habited manner, defaulted to a Steve Nash comparison which is not the same as me suggesting Curbelo will become a two-time MVP who evolves into the engine of a prolific NBA offense. It’s merely a recognition that aspects of Curbelo’s game resemble the great Nash’s and when I think about how a teenage basketball player develops a low-calorie cult following, it’s because there are more than just dashes of greatness in his game.
Of course, where I thought I was semi-original with my Nash comparison was quickly smote as the announcer of his New Year’s Eve day game against St Francis and Dwon Odom said, “I compared him to Steve Nash with how he plays … his game’s a lot like Nash’s.”
If you don’t trust my highly-amateur assessment or that of an announcer from the Beach Ball Classic, perhaps Illinois’ coach Brad Underwood’s comments will come with more credence, “He is an elite passer. I compare him, and it’s unfair because he’s a high school kid, to Steve Nash in terms of his ability in ball screens to make his teammates better.”
High school seniors just weren’t seeing or imagining this pass when I played 20 years ago:
That type of pass is much more a product of a game with an open, spread floor, but to even execute from that angle takes exceptional strength, balance, and awareness. This is normal from Curbelo. In the same piece I linked above, Underwood also said, “I think he is, without question, the best passing guard in the country.”
I’ve seen most every guard in the RSCI top-100 and think the only one who can compare with Curbelo in terms of passing is top-ranked Cade Cunningham who may have an edge that’s based mostly on his height although at six inches shorter, Curbelo is able to sneak and slither into spaces the 6-7 Cunningham can’t. The innateness I referenced above in no way diminishes the work Curbelo’s put into becoming one of the top passers in his age group on the entire planet, but speaks to something flowing through his basketball brain and its articulation through playing the game: this shit is natural for him.
People who are great at their chosen endeavors tend to talk about their talents in matter of fact terms which makes complete sense because it’s their normal, their routine. Curbelo’s discovery, his ability to adapt his game to a successful output and receive praise and attention, his incentive so to speak, gives me Good Will Hunting vibes. When the young prodigy and Southie tough, Will Hunting is sitting with the esteemed Professor Lambeau in the middle of a particularly intense exchange, he shouts at Lambeau, Lambeau the genius, the MIT professor, the Field’s Medal winner, “You know how fuckin easy this is to me? This is a joke!”
In a paraphrase that makes me feel like the scarf-wearing professor: discarded, incapable, unable to see the full chessboard of the basketball court with the same clarity and ease of a young man not even half my age, Curbelo described arriving in the US and realizing the power of his pass:
I knew I was able to pass. Then when I got here, I kind of didn’t know I had that on my game. When I realized I was like, ‘Damn, this is working. I’m getting scholarships and everything. I’m going to keep playing the way I am because the coaches like it, college coaches like it, I like it. I feel great.’ I’m telling you, every time I get an assist, I feel better and happier than when I score myself.”
“Damn, this is working.”
It works for Curbelo because of an interconnectedness of skill, anticipation, and physical ability. His passing happens to be the most obvious output of a hyper awareness that fuels his other strengths: off-the-ball defense, off-the-dribble attacking, and rebounding.
Curbelo is at his best on the offensive side of the court with the ball in his hands. For a player whose jump shot is still in the work-in-progress stages, he’s remarkably able to marshal that entire side of the floor with the aforementioned interconnectedness. The reason he can beat defenses is his wild array of avenues for attack.
In the half court, he made a habit of exploiting the hell out of klutz-like defensive coverages in pick-and-roll, most frequently with Ohio State commit, Zed Key. Pick-and-roll coverages, even when drilled effectively, create decision points for defenders that involve the whole five-man unit and Curbelo, at 17 and 18-years-old, made it a point of manipulating, reading, and reacting to these coverages and the gaps they created.
It’s not just that he makes the right pass out of the P&R, but his ability to process when to make the pass versus attack the rim versus just pause and make the defense make a damn decision. The first clip here is my favorite of his P&Rs because he’s simultaneously improvising and dictating. As he comes around the screen, he intentionally gets his man stuck on his hip, the two help defenders pause when he pauses and uncertainty descends as the roll man keeps moving and his defender is compelled to drop with him (never mind the baseline defender is at least aware of his help role). In dropping, the help man fails to recognize Curbelo’s man is still in jail on his hip. But Curbelo reads the opening and drops in a floater. I’m not sure I agree, but speaking about that floater, one announcer said, “He may be as good as any point guard in the country at the floater, that’s his go-to shot.”
If the P&R is a scripted run-pass-option of sorts, Curbelo is equally adept attacking on the fly in the half court where he uses a blend of head and eye fakes, quick burst attacks, and change of direction to get into the teeth of defenses. It’s these unscripted scenarios where highlights emerge and cult fandoms are created.
Against Compton Magic in July of 2019, he effectively sold a fake dribble handoff no less than three times – two of them resulted in layups while the third, the clip below, was most impressive because the head/eye fake he put on the sell (I recognize this is an open court move, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness):
In this second version, the exaggerated head turn is all he needs to freeze the defender. Once the defender lets up for the slightest moment, Curbelo hits turbo, gets low and turns the corner. In July of 2019 at least, him finishing at the rim over a contest was the exception and not the rule.
And while adding a third variation of the fake DHO is probably overkill, the best he had (and he had a lot in the 10 or so games I watched) was against Walker Kessler’s Game Elite squad where the sell is so exaggerated that he runs the defenders right into each other while taking an easy stroll to the rim:
Alas, we’re talking about a maestro and focusing on just a portion of his oeuvre – the half court and just P&R and fake DHOs so far. These are bread and butter plays/moves that help to lay a pragmatic foundation on which Curbelo’s handle, passing, and processing can excel. As fun as they are, and seeing defenders bite his head fakes is pure entertainment, his improvisational game has touches of flair and proficiency that potentially open NBA avenues.
The sense of audacity and willingness to push passes through tight windows is part of the fun and his effectiveness. But for Curbelo, that audacity extends beyond the pass and into some wild, and occasionally suspect, realms of imagination. Here he is with the baby T-Mac off the glass:
It’s fun to ooh and ahh at these plays and while I have my doubts that he’ll try or be able to execute a pass to himself off the backboard in the Big10, the bulk of his highlights are functional plays executed with panache.
In the sample size that makes up this writing, Curbelo had an expectedly high usage rate and played primarily on-ball. In off-ball scenarios, he was quick to use the set of skills he uses to set up a dribble drive to set up backdoor cuts. Despite being a non-shooter, defenders across multiple leagues deny him the pass or overplay and Curbelo is adept at setting up defenders with hard moves towards the ball before a quick plant-and-burst for the backdoor. As much as the primary action, be it backdoor cut, fake DHO or crossover, takes center stage, Curbelo excels as the setup and the sell.
If we stick in the half court, but shift focus to his shot and finishing, the otherwise radiant aura of his game loses some of the sparkle.
Maybe I made a mistake in looking backwards with Curbelo, but in my tape review, I went from his 2020 high school season where he was, far and away his best, to his 2019 Adidas league and then FIBA games. This does bode well in the sense that he showed significant improvement from summer 2019 through winter 2020. What stood out in the summer of 2019 that was, to memory and notes, was a real and genuine struggle to finish against size and length. This challenge happened most frequently in Adidas and I attributed it to a few key weaknesses:
- Lack of hangtime – Curbelo is average as a vertical athlete with his leaping most effective rebounding the ball. He has (had?) a tendency to leave his feet around the rim, run out of airspace and outlets and be forced to fling up a shot that would miss wildly or get blocked.
- Rare use of jump stops – getting downhill, Curbelo’s instinct is to attack off of one foot and leave the ground. While finding effectiveness with this approach, he was frequently off-balance or, as mentioned above, ran out of air.
- Judgment – I put judgment last, because as he progressed into the high school season, his judgment was much more reliable and consistent. Against Wasatch Academy in December, he struggled against their size and was somewhat in a funk, but it’s the only high school game I saw where I felt like he wasn’t himself.
Curbelo’s shot demands our attention as well and this attention, for me, boils down to a few sources: FIBA and Adidas stats, my own completely unofficial and occasional tracking, my notes, and conversations with other people who may have a better developed eye for this sort of thing.
Within these sources, there are three additional components I want partition: Touch, mechanics, jump shot.
In 60 games worth of stats I have on Curbelo across FIBA (22 games) and Adidas (38 games), Curbelo shot as follows:
It’s not exactly inspiring any Mark Price comparisons and it’s why you can say he reminds you of Steve Nash, but caveat the hell out of it.
The above generally lines up with what I’ve seen from Curbelo which included an unofficial 1-8 or 1-9 on jumpers against Compton where the only make was a head-on unintentional banker from just beyond the free throw line. And while I don’t go too deep tracking pull-ups versus catch-and-shoots, the bulk of Curbelo’s jumpers are pull-ups. The form and release are consistent: he plants hard with his left foot and the bulk of his elevation comes from that foot/leg while the right kicks out and he drifts (typically from left to right) with an ever-present slight recline so his shoulders are always behind his hips. If he’s dribbling forward and stepping into the shot, think pull-up-three-in-transition, the drift is reduced. The release, from my view, is consistent and serviceable. And yet, his jumper is nowhere near reliable through February of 2020. In the clip below, he’s totally in-rhythm, and while the characteristic movement (kicking out right foot, drifting, leaning back) is all there, the mechanics aren’t faulty. (Also, please note how he sets up the crossover with his head/eyes – sheesh):
I’m not sure I believe there’s a disconnect between Curbelo’s mechanics and his shooting percentages, but as friend-of-the-blog, Ross Homan discussed with me, given the non-dumpster-fire state of his mechanics, combined with his free-throw percentages (consistently high-70s to low-80s with volume), relatively low-volume threes attempted, and, finally, his touch, the shooting should be expected to come around. The touch is the key and particularly on the floaters. The floater, combined with touch off the glass, has been a consistent staple of his scoring attack across competitions and acts as an alternative to (currently) less-efficient attempts at the rim.
This portion will be much, much shorter than the previous section. All the smarts and processing power Curbelo applies to the offensive side of the floor exist on defense as well. He’s a cheater, an opportunist, a sneaker who’s better defending off-the-ball than on it. Through some likely combination of preparation and pattern recognition, Curbelo drifts and rotates to general areas one or two passes away. By positioning himself towards the potential pass and interception, his closeout time is reduced and by anticipating where the pass will go, he’s often more ready for the ball than the opponent for whom it’s intended. And while not being a quick twitch athlete, he’s remarkably quick in his reactions and closing on passing lanes.
The same stalking mentality applies to dig downs on opposition bigs. He uses the element of surprise to feint-feint-dig-strip from angles that the big can’t see a la MJ’s immortal strip of the Mailman from the blindside in 1998.
Depending how you feel about lumping in rebounding as a defensive skill, I’m somewhat indifferent to. For his size and stature, Curbelo is a plus-rebounder. His hyper-awareness and focus allows him to have a nose for the ball and he’s fearless in its pursuit, never shying away from contact and showing strong hands on 50/50 contested boards. Despite not presenting as a leaper in rim attacks, off two feet for rebounds, he shows more functional lift.
A couple years ago when I started writing about high school players, one of the first I wrote about was an incoming freshman named Andrew Nembhard who I referred to as a “savant,” which is the same term I’ve applied to Curbelo which makes me think that it’s time to invest in new ideas and a new vocabulary. Self-critiques aside, Nembhard and Curbelo are dissimilar as players, but I’m drawn to them for the same reasons: beyond-their-years feel for the game of basketball expressed through the pass – basketball’s single greatest action. And I don’t denote it as such because there’s some relationship to selflessness and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the western world, but because the best passes, through slivers of space and mazes of giant limbs, are fucking dope and poetic like Walt Whitman’s best poetry and not his shitty racist ideas. Conveniently, both players are also possessed of inconsistent jumpers which lumps them into an odd family of non-shooting floor generals that includes Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and my favorite, Omar Cook, among countless others. At similar stages, based on my unreliable recall, Curbelo’s form is the best of this collection of point guards.
About Nembhard, I wrote, “I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it.” And in hindsight, I think I had that backwards: He can pass his way into it, we know that, but through his beautiful basketball mind, can he think and process ways into the league?
The same questions come to the surface for Curbelo even if, in this moment of appreciation for the pure craft, imagining a singular destination (the NBA) in such absolute terms seems simple in the extreme, the question, in its simplicity, remains: Can Curbelo reach (and survive) the NBA? I know he can pass his way in, but can the same brain/mind/body being that titillates with eyebrow-raising passes and okie-doke fake DHOs affirmatively answer the looming question of his shot and solve the riddle of giant athletes who only go under screens and don’t bite on the fake DHOs because it was clearly called out in the scouting report? In time, it will all be revealed but the answer really doesn’t matter. Curbelo is and will remain a master of his craft, be it in the NBA, the G-League, Spain, Croatia, Crete, Germany, or Puerto Rico.
Addendum of sorts:
The University of Illinois presumably is set in its starting back court with senior Trent Frazier (started 76 of 95 games at Illinois) and pre-season All-American Ayo Dosunmu although Curbelo fits the traditional “point guard” job description better than the upperclassman, Frazier.
Dosunmu will spend extended time on-ball and initially projected as a point guard. Thinking and looking long-term, Dosunmu, who dipped his toe in the NBA draft this past extended off-season, can likely develop more playing off of Curbelo, but it remains to be seen if that’s in the best interest of team-success in this basketball year of 2020-21.
Illinois ranks 8th in the AP poll as of this pre-season writing. Covid disruptions not accounted for, they will play Duke and Baylor before the Big10 season.
February 28, 2020Posted by on
This is part two of Scouting Dump #3 and includes tiers three thru 10, players seven thru 78. I’m not really sure what differentiates the tiers except there’s some level of break in skill or differentiation in ability and future potential between the players in one tier and another. It’s not based on hard science or even soft science, but rather on my arbitrary, un-copyrighted “system.”
You may also notice a trend of me suggesting that a player should be moved higher or lower and may ask, “why didn’t you just move them around instead of mentioning it. It only makes things more confusing.” Apologies for any confusion, but I kept them as initially ranked for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s helpful to understand the thought process for ranking or re-ranking a player and in some cases, I’ve explained that; 2) it’s helpful for me to see where my initial, less-thorough scrub landed players and where further investigation cast a new perspective.
Point two above is super important for me as a writer and draft “analyst” in that the process of writing and laying thoughts bare can be a revelatory process. My initial response and outside influences pushed Jalen Smith up my list (#8), but the more I poked and prodded, the less impressed I was and suggested I would drop him down to 12, behind Nico Mannion, Devin Vassell, Josh Green, and Patrick Williams. This is helpful for me to see and think through and hopefully it helps you better understand my process.
- 2/15/20: DePaul @ Creighton
- 2/15/20: Maryland @ Michigan State
- 2/6/20: USC @ Arizona
- 2/8/20: Kentucky @ Tennessee
- 2/1/20: Arkansas @ Tennessee
- 2/9/20: Alabama @ Georgia
- 1/30/20: Baylor @ Iowa State
- 2/3/20: UNC @ FSU
- 1/22/20: Rutgers @ Iowa – in person
- 2/11/20: Alba Berlin @ Ulm
- 2/19/20: Indiana @ Minnesota
- 2/20/20: USC @ Colorado
7. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, trending up, Tier3: In case you didn’t know, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did know, Kira Lewis Jr. a college sophomore, doesn’t turn 19 until April. For age purposes, he’s essentially a freshman who happens to have two years of college experience including one (this season) as the engine powering new coach, Nate Oats’s run and gun offense. Listed at 6-foot-3, 167-pounds, Lewis is wispy. Not quite Trae Young wispy, but the young man could possibly hula hoop through a proverbial cheerio. The thinner frame is most noticeable as a disadvantage on the defensive end where the slightest protruding hip or butt or screen is enough to throw him off his on or off-ball tracking. Off ball and away from screens, Lewis’s speed and quickness are his greatest defensive strengths and with a 6’6.5” wingspan, he has enough length to be a disrupter on that end. For the season, he’s averaging nearly two steals/game with a 2.6 steal percentage. On-the-ball, I’ve seen Lewis struggle to guards like Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, a speedy pocket rocket of a guard the likes of which can make a killing at the collegiate levels, but struggle against NBA size. It’s not just that player type that has success against Lewis, against Iowa State earlier in the season, their 6-3 off-guard, Rasir Bolton, a solid player who doesn’t project as an NBAer, was able to frequently get by him. More than strength or physical limitations, I get the sense on-ball technique is the area he can improve on: staying in ready position, taking better angles, these will help him contain. Coming into the season, I wasn’t completely sold on Lewis as lead guard and I’m still not necessarily convinced he’s a starting point in the NBA. And despite somewhat of a flat statistical development (TS same, 3Par down, FTr down; steals, assists, rebounds, and points up), he’s significantly improved. The frequency of quality passes seems to have exponentially increased specifically with drive-and-kicks and over-the-shoulder one-hand passes out of pick-and-roll. The skill improvements are bolstered by video game-like speed and quickness. Lewis is a blur in the full or half court. He changes directions so suddenly my own knees ache at the sight. The speed and quickness will absolutely transfer to the NBA, but where Tyrese Maxey’s base allows him to play at high speed with body control and balance, some of Lewis’s faster forays feel a bit out of control or off-balance. Strengthening his lower body, continuing to develop his passing and reads, and ultimately improving as a three-point shooter (35% on 282 attempts) are keys to NBA effectiveness. ESPN has placed him in the 30s on their big boards and mock drafts. Without having built out my own, I’d likely rank him higher than that based on upside and having a clear attribute (speed/quickness) that is NBA-ready.
8. Jalen Smith, Maryland, trending up, Tier3: Smith is another sophomore and ranks as the second-highest big behind Onyeka Okongwu in this player set. Without taking away from the man they call “Stick,” it’s worth noting that he’s over a year older than Kira and if we consider the leaps Smith has made from his 18 to 19-year-old season, it’s easy to see why Lewis supporters will beat you over the head with his age as a sign of development to come. But we digress and take away from the goggle-wearing Smith. He’s lean-ish at 6-10, 225 with a listed wingspan of 7’1.5” although it sometimes seems like he’s longer. I enjoyed him as a freshman alongside current Atlanta Hawk, Bruno Fernando as he showed flashes of being able to hit the jumper (27% from 3 on 71 attempts) with good rim protection and rebounding. In his second season, everything has improved: he’s over 62 TS, his block percentage is up to 8.1, his shooting splits up from 49-27-66 to 53-36-75. Even his at-the-rim numbers are up from 67% to 71%. Improvement is always a positive (I think), but it’s not to say Smith has entered a realm of flawlessness in this draft class. That leanishness I referenced earlier was on display against Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman (#17 on this list) in mid-February. Numerous times, Smith had Tillman boxed out, only to have the 6-9, 245-pound Tillman use swim moves and superior upper-body strength to dislodge the younger player. Some NBA box outs look like rugby scrums and while Smith will absolutely get stronger, packing functional strength on that frame is going to take time and work – it’s not enough to out-jump and out-reach guys for loose balls. If strength is an area of improvement, being physical isn’t. Smith won’t win all the positional battles, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and typically puts forth effort. Defensively, he shows good technique staying vertical in rim protection and bodying up potential drivers. Offensively, he has touch from the perimeter to the interior, but is somewhat limited on that end. He’s best shooting the three off the catch and while I don’t have the data, his accuracy seems to drop when he rushes or has a quick release. A lack of awareness and vision limit his passing impact as well. He misses open teammates, and like his shot, he has occasion to rush the play. If he finds a path to being effective as a pro, it’ll be driven by consistent shooting, rim protection, and improved understanding of NBA team defense. A part of this exercise that’s revealing is how the under-the-hood view of a prospect can skew your valuation more than you expect. If I were to do this over again, I would likely drop Smith down to 12 and bump up Nico, Vassell, Josh Green, and Pat Williams.
9. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending down, Tier3: I ranked Mannion atop a list of 45 players back in December and while I believe he’s improved since then, the combination of other players revealing more and me placing more scrutiny on Mannion’s strength and limitations have put him on a downward trajectory. I watched him against USC earlier in February in a game where he scored 20 on the strength of 12-18 free throw shooting with seven assists to four turnovers and kept thinking that he has this base of great fundamentals, vision, and anticipation that are somewhat muffled by an average-to-below-average physical profile. This feels kind of lazy in terms of race-based analysis, but his inability to get the slightest of edges on defenders prevents him from fully accessing his passing and vision. If he’s lacking somewhat in burst and vertical athleticism, he finds other ways to play bigger than his size. Like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, he’s a great screener who uses his smaller size to set solid screens on bigs. Arizona runs a lot of screen the screener actions from which he benefits. Offensively, his passing his far and away his best skill. Despite strong mechanics and mostly good shot selection, he’s shooting just 33% from deep (that number drops to 30% in 14 conference games) with a 44% 3PAr. Mannion’s been at his best when attacking aggressively – seeking his shot, attacking off the bounce, and not letting defenses settle in. I still believe in the shot, but he’ll have to shoot it better and develop more skill and craft off the dribble in order to unlock his full scope of ability. If I’m projecting out, I’d have him as a reserve guard in the NBA which is great, but a far cry from what I expected back in November.
10. Devin Vassell, Florida State, trending up, Tier3: I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched a ton of the lengthy 6-7 sophomore from FSU this season. He’s an advanced stats darling with one of the top BPMs (10.2 as of this writing) in the country, 59 TS on 43% three-point shooting, a 4.4% block rate and 2.9% steals. In two seasons at Tallahassee, he’s shooting 42% from three on over 150 attempts, but unlike a lot of college shooters, he incorporates a pull up mid-range game and while his handle isn’t tight enough to create space with frequency, his length and high-release point allow him to get shots off without a ton of room. He’s a plus-defender who second naturedly navigates screens and switches with a high defensive IQ that allows him to anticipate play development and act/react quickly. Like most Leonard Hamilton players, he stays active and engaged on the defensive end with his length and anticipation game helping him to rack up those steal and block rates. Like many players in this draft, he’s a very good complimentary piece who can plug into a role without needing to be a high usage (19.4%) focal point. Bonus: per barttorvik, as of February 26th, he’s one of only three players (as of Feb. 26) in the country with over 20 dunks, over 20 threes made, and above 40% from three.
11. Josh Green, Arizona, trending up, Tier3: Like Mannion, I wrote about Green back in December and not a ton has changed. He’s a plus-athlete who can pass, and competes defensively. At Arizona, he’s probably been a below-average shooter (42-32-77 with a 52 TS), but I kind of buy his shooting a bit more than the current output and believe he’s lacking some confidence on the perimeter as he sometimes catches and hesitates before letting an open catch-and-shoot fly. Ultimately I see him as a fringe level starter who plays hard on both ends of the floor, doesn’t shy away from physicality, and has shown a willingness to buy into a role which I probably value higher than others. Like so many of these prospects, he desperately needs to find consistency in his shot in order to be a regular contributor. Bonus: per friend of blog, Spencer Pearlman, Green has two left handed finishes over the last two years counting AAU and Arizona (not IMG). Two.
12. Patrick Williams, Florida State, no change, Tier3: I initially had Williams as the first player in my T4, but given his age (turns 19 in August), size (6-8 with 6-11 wingspan), and defensive versatility (3.5 stocks/40min and can defend both interior and perimeter – more on this), I bumped him up to T3. I’ve seen a handful of FSU games this season and given Williams’s propensity to be deployed in the corner as something of a floor spacer, I was surprised to see him second on the team in usage (among players with actual minute volume) behind senior point, Trent Forrest. While he’s far from an initiator with FSU (9% ast rate with 1.7 TOs to every assist), he’s shown a little mid-range ability in multiple games. These are usually one or two hard dribbles into the pull-up or into a jump stop with the occasional fade mixed in. There’s not a ton of passing or creation off the bounce and this dates back to his 2018 EYBL season as well (1.8 assists to 1.5 TOs). His physical ability, the lanky, muscular frame, best percolates on the defensive end. I’ve seen him defend shooters like Florida’s Noah Locke and point guards like Indiana’s Rob Phinisee and harass the hell out of these smaller, in theory quicker players. His size, bend, and lateral mobility allow him to sit deep in a defensive crouch and mirror dribbler movements. His length and push off power allow him to quickly cover ground both vertically and laterally. And this is apparently a theme of this player set, but as I write this, I realize I’d likely swap Williams with Green. His defensive versatility and shooting, albeit on low volume, have a higher likelihood of seamless transition to the NBA.
Tier 4: Not quite lightning round, but let’s get it moving:
13. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana, trending up, Tier4: Only a freshman, TJD is already 20-years-old and plays like he has some grown man strength. He’s listed at 6-9 or 6-10, 245-pounds and he makes opponents feel it. Physical player with no problem elevating. Prefers back-to-basket camping on right block, but can face up as well. No three attempts on season, but strong FTr (65%) and hits 70% clip. Struggles to defend in space. Kind of poor man’s Okongwu, projects as rotation 4/5 in the NBA. Has bit of an edge, will dunk on you.
14. Tyler Bey, Colorado, trending up, Tier4: Lanky 3/4 or 4/3, listed at 6-7 but seems taller to me with ton of length (listed at 7-0). Uber efficient Mr. Do Everything type of player for Buffs. Can hit unguarded three (13-26 on season) at low volume; lot of garbage man work on offensive end; 64% of his shots come at the rim with 59% being assisted; over 8 FTAs/40 with a 69% FTr. Roughly three TOs to every two assists; not a playmaker, but can make basic passes/reads. Plus on rim protection, able to make himself a massive obstruction at the rim with sound verticality, good lift, and long arms. Somewhat of an intangibles guy that maybe comes from a similar family tree as Shawn Marion, Shane Battier, and/or Andre Roberson.
15. Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change, Tier4: At the lazy, surface level, Nnaji reminds me of Jordan Hill: both big-haired Arizona big men with high motors. Beyond that, the comparison pretty much falls apart. I bring this up to say that Nnaji is not Jordan Hill. Against USC in early February, I wanted to see how the Minnesota native who grew up playing piano would matchup with noted ass kicker, Onyeka Okongwu. It took some adjusting, but Nnaji, was able to match USC’s big man through effort and positioning, using tireless footwork to gain position on box outs and post deflections. Offensively, he used a blend of skill, strength, and quickness to create good looks including a post catch into a shoulder fake, then immediately following the shoulder with a quick shot fake that Okongwu bit on before attacking for the finish. This is the type of move Okongwu would use himself and is the type of advanced post play that rounds out Nnaji’s strong offensive arsenal. He has range out to 18 to 20 feet and is a threat to roll, pop or slip screens. He’s also at 78% from the line on a 65% FTr which greatly aids his already efficient game – 65 TS. If he can extend his range to the NBA three-line, he can become super interesting as a pro prospect. He doesn’t have the rim protection of TJD, but he’s nearly a year younger and given his shooting, it’s not a stretch to see him as the better long-term prospect.
16. Santiago Vescovi, Tennessee, trending up, Tier4: I took a weird route to put the 6-3 Uruguayan point guard this high. After watching him against Kentucky (2/8) and Arkansas (2/11), I walked away thinking he’s not dissimilar from Nico Mannion. Both are cerebral, pass-first point guards. Mannion probably plays a tighter, more controlled game whereas Vescovi has more improvisational cleverness. Mannion is stronger with more burst as well. Vescovi was granted eligibility midway through the season and has struggled at times to adjust to NCAA officiating; most noticeable in his ball control and 5.2 turnovers/40 (1:1 ast:TO rate), much of which are travel and carry violations. He has good length, decent-sized hands, range out to NBA level, runs a good P&R game, and is active and aware as a team defender. Finishing at the rim and developing better decision making on dribble drives are areas for improvement, but I like him longer term as a potential NBA rotation piece and it’s worth noting that he doesn’t turn 19 until September. Bonus: Tennessee has two McDonald’s-level players coming in at guard next season in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson which has some interesting potential implications if Vescovi is still there.
17. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State, trending up, Tier4: I’ve gone back and forth on Tillman since the season-opener against Kentucky and despite him being undersized as a pro five, I always come back to him just knowing how to play the damn game. He’s solidly built at 245-pounds with a thick neck and a +4 or 5” wingspan and has an extremely efficient economy of movement that allows him to quickly close space and make quick, decisive movements. He’s hell on the defensive end and has made life difficult for Maryland’s Jalen Smith and Iowa’s Luka Garza among other Big 10 bigs. As of this writing, he’s at 3.2 stocks/game. He has a habit of overplaying, over-helping and cheating on the defensive end that leaves him susceptible to back cuts, but this type of thing can be coached up. Offensively, he’s less impressive as a shooter/scorer (53-28-66 shooting with 58 TS), but exceptional as a screener with above average positional awareness, and capable of making somewhat advanced reads. He seems like he’d be an excellent fit on the KG Celtics and maybe that’s because he kind of reminds me of Leon Powe, but his intangibles, feel, fundamentals, and build make him feel like a reserve big with the potential to contribute to a winning team.
18. Paul Reed, DePaul, trending down, Tier4: Paul Reed is the only player in the NCAA D1 this season to average at least 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks and is the first player in six seasons to do it. He kind of looks like Hakim Warrick with a long, lanky frame and a fluid gait with long strides, but he wrecks shit in ways Warrick could not. Reed is possessed of good hands, a high motor, and quick leaping ability. Multiple times a game, he’ll catapult into the screen from some unknown place (the bench? Dunkin Donuts?) and snare a rebound or aggressively swat a shot off the board. He can make basic reads passing out of the post, but can be rushed into mistakes with double teams. Reed has touch around that hoop that includes jump hooks and Steven Adams-like push floaters and while he can make threes, there’s a lot of movement in his form and it’s not a shot I trust in its current form (shooting 33% on 102 attempts for his career). Given the lack of bulk and what is, to me, somewhat of an unreliable shot, I like him as a dive man playing the 4/5 in an end-of-bench role with his defensive potential opening up more avenues to playing time as he physically develops.
19. Aaron Henry Henry, Michigan State, trending down, Tier4: Fairly certain Henry is ambidextrous. He shoots jumpers with his left, but attacks with the right and has a variety floaters and finger rolls from close range. He has pro size at 6-6, 210-pounds with a +4” wingspan, doesn’t shy away from contact, and is aggressive in attack although mostly average as a shooter (35% on threes, 42% on non-rim twos, 72% FT). Good as a team defender like most Michigan State guys and capable of defending the one thru three spots. May be able to defend smaller fours, but it’s not something I’ve seen. Pretty clearly behind Josh Green, Patrick Williams, and Devin Vassell for me. They each offer greater athletic and offensive upside with similar defensive potential.
Tier 5: More ranking, less writing, please:
20. Cassius Winston, Michigan State, no change, Tier5: Good enough passer, floor general, role accepter that I believe he’ll stick if he can hit the pull-up and three-ball at average rates. I do question his defensive ability; particularly on-ball.
21. Joe Wieskamp, Iowa, trending down**, Tier5: **had been trending up, but recent shooting slump 6-27 FG, 1-12 from three including missing wide open, high-leverage looks have made questions about mental toughness resurface. Completely disappears at times and looks confounded in quest to find effective contributions. For his player type (shooter), he needs to be better.
22. Romeo Weems, DePaul, no change**, Tier5: **had been trending down, but recent run of aggressive attack rebalanced him. Great physical profile with massive defensive upside has struggled mightily to find offensive consistency. Inconsistent shot and inability to create space off the dribble mean he’s only really effective as a cutter. I blame some of this on what appears to be an abysmal DePaul offense and team approach in general, but Weems is collateral damage. If he comes out, I’d absolutely gamble on him in the second round and if he wound up better than Vassell, Green, and them, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
23. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota, trending down, Tier5: Weird scoring big man at 6-10 with 7-2 wingspan, always looking for his shot. Likes to turn and face off the catch and capable of hitting mid-range or putting it on the deck and attacking. Gaudy 28% usage with excellent 62 TS, but more than two TOs for every assist. Decent defensive timing and length. Screams G-League to me.
24. John Petty, Alabama, trending up, Tier5: Far and away one of my favorite players in this class. After a ho hum first two seasons in Alabama, under the tutelage of Nate Oats, Petty is flashing the ability that made him a top-35 recruit in the class of 2017. He’s always had some J. Smith pull-up confidence, but this season has cranked up his efficiency (45% on 189 3s vs 36% on 413 previous two seasons). What’s been more impressive though is his improved rebounding and assists with declining turnover percentage despite more minutes and lower usage. He’s made leaps and bounds as a passer, able to create off the dribble and find teammates on drive-and-kicks or drive-and-dumps with one-handed whip passes or more conventional dump offs.
25. Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: Like Petty, Quickley has enjoyed a breakout season. He’s a lanky 6-3 guard with a 6-8 wingspan and wiry strength. He’s rightly been recognized for his shooting this season (91% on over five FTAs/game and 43% on five threes/game), but has rounded out his game with passing creation, quickness, and defense which make me think he can spend time as a combo guard in the NBA or play alongside bigger point guards and take the point guard matchup defensively. More compelling as a prospect than Winston, but maybe bit more risk.
26. Ashton Hagans, Kentucky, trending down, Tier5: Hagans is a real MFer and I mean that in the most positive sense. He’s a floor general who competes on both ends, has strong hands he uses to strip bigger (or smaller) opponents, has a high BBIQ, and is above average as a college facilitator. But he can’t shoot (28% on 108 3s in two seasons), is average at the rim, and poor from non-rim twos (30% on 73 attempts). Every guard I have ranked above him in this set shoots the ball better and unless he can make improvements there, it’ll be hard to stick at the league’s most competitive spot.
27. Nick Richards, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: 22-year-old junior with a 7-5 wingspan, runs floor hard, plays within himself, probably slots in as a roll man with bit of potential for elbow pick-and-pops. Good rim protector is a better fit for pro style than Oturu despite being less skilled.
28. Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton, trending up, Tier5: Listed at 6-2, but not convinced he’s that big. Looks smallish, but has no issues getting his shot off against taller opponents and is 64% at the rim. Plays with good speed despite lacking quickness, has clean handle, and good offensive awareness. Shoots it well from all over the court (42% on 301 career threes, 44% on non-rim twos), struggles to contain penetration at times on defensive side as is lacking lateral quickness.
Tiers 6 and 7: Lightning round-ish
29. Ron Harper Jr. Rutgers, trending up, Tier6: Thick at 6-6, 245 with long arms with shot potential (33% on 101 attempts this season). If you told me he winds up in Houston or Boston, I would say, “Yes, that makes sense.”
30. Jared Butler, Baylor, no change, Tier6: Have seen very little of him.
31. Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton, trending up, Tier6: Bit undersized to play off-ball at 6-4, but shoots it well 59 TS and 40% from three on over 175 attempts. Does bit of everything and makes me think of more well-rounded, but worse shooting Quickley. Big fan of his.
32. Luka Garza, Iowa, trending up, Tier7: Massive physical evolution, monster motor, back-to-the-basket player in mold of Al Jefferson is up to 36% from deep on nearly 100 attempts this season after 31% on 118 attempts previous two combined. Still runs awkwardly and lacks agility required to defend pretty much anyone in space. Potential to be end-of-bench big or Euro MVP.
33. Malik Hall, Michigan State, trending down, Tier7: 6-7, 215 pound combo forward, plays up in position in Izzo’s scheme and shown more flash than consistency as a 19-year-old freshman.
34. Keion Brooks, Kentucky, trending up, Tier8: I know what was going through my head when I had Brooks trending up, but I believe it was an overreaction: over the course of the season, I believe he’s gotten bigger, is moving more fluidly and generally looks a bit more confident on the floor, but none of it translates in the numbers and given that the bulk of games I saw from him were pre-conference season, I’m trusting the data here. He should be lower, my bad. (The more I think about this, the less sense it makes.)
35. Yves Pons, Tennessee, no change, Tier8: freak athlete at 6-6, 205-pounds with 7-foot wingspan. Third year at Tennessee and he still can’t shoot a jumper, but is the only player in the country 6-6 or shorter with a block rate of 8% or higher per barttorvik. Feel like he’d be amazing at parkour.
36. McKinley Wright, Colorado, trending up, Tier8: Pit bull of a point guard with a nose for the rim, plus-speed, handle with either hand and stays low with it, touch on floater, but just average from deep (34% on 292 career attempts) and solid at the line (78%). Size on defense and lack of high level vision/passing have him behind guys like Zegarowski, Butler, and Hagans.
37. Mark Vital, Baylor, no change, Tier8: 23-year-old redshirt junior fascinates me because he’s built like a middle linebacker (6-5, 230, thick neck) and jumps out of the gym. Can’t shoot to save his life (14% on 49 career threes, 43% on 60 FTAs this season) should be behind some of the guys I have him ahead of.
38. Nick Ongenda, DePaul, trending up, Tier8: Impossibly long freshman looks like baby giraffe, but surprisingly fluid movements; reminds me of Stephen Hunter based on build, but he’s probably skinnier. He’s a two years away from being two years away kinda guy, but the length and mobility offer hope.
39. Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up, Tier8: Great size at the point, good passer, pushes with pace, and (mostly) plays under control, can defend on-ball, average shooter. Positional size probably greatest strength, but doesn’t strike me as pro level guard.
40. Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia, trending up, Tier8: Ehhh, maybe empty calorie four man. Likes to shoot and can attack off dribble, but below average defender and inefficient shooter. Probably would not be trending up on a redo.
Tier 9: some mistakes; probably punch drunk
41. Johnny Juzang, Kentucky, trending up, Tier9: looks better than start of season, willing and capable defender with strong lower body, and decent looking shot. Mostly incomplete though.
42. Toumani Camara, Georgia, trending up, Tier9: all effort garbage man hits o-glass, probably ranked too high here.
43. Mitch Ballock, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Impressive shooter with decent size (6-5, 205); 40% from three on 552 career attempts with quick release off catch or dribble. Should be in Tier8.
44. Christian Bishop, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Another impressive Creighton kid; plays up at 6-7, active defender (3.3 stocks/40) with plus BBIQ, and impressive athlete. Not a shooter, probably too small for player type.
Yooo! This pass from Christian Bishop (#13) is too much: pic.twitter.com/rb2p3iJ9Ez
— fendo (@dancingwithnoah) February 4, 2020
45. Mason Jones, Arkansas, trending down, Tier9: 32% usage, weird guard with somewhat of a throwback, ground-based game built on craft. Not good enough to warrant high usage in NBA and doesn’t do enough outside of scoring to be effective in league.
46. Charlie Moore, DePaul, trending down, Tier9: smallish player with plenty of scoring and passing ability, but wind up questioning his reads and deep forays into the paint with nowhere to go. Not a DWN favorite.
47. Trent Forrest, FSU, no change, Tier9: Plays point guard, but don’t believe he’s a point guard. If he could play defense only, he’d be more valuable.
Tier 10: getting late
48. Christian Brown, Georgia, trending down, Tier10: long wing, probably more combo forward than wing, good athlete, incomplete.
49. Anthony Cowan, Maryland, no change, Tier10: Big shot maker, average shooter, probably deserves to be a bit higher, but is he really going to be a scoring guard in the NBA?
50. Donta Scott, Maryland, trending up, Tier10: Burly, banging Maryland four-man who can shoot a bit. Not scared.
51. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending down, Tier10: 6-11 soph with a 7-5 wingspan who shot 43% on 14 threes as a frosh, but is 5-27 (18.5%) this year. Better in theory than practice.
52. Armando Bacot, UNC, trending down, Tier10: Supposedly Cole Anthony’s wingman, rebounds ball well, narrow shoulders with ok length, ok around rim, but doesn’t shoot it well anywhere else. Turns 20 March 6th. Bonus: Same birthday as Shaq.
53. Aaron Wiggins, Maryland, trending down, Tier10: Has regressed as a sophomore who showed 3-and-D potential as a frosh. Not good enough to regress.
54. Raiquan Gray, FSU, trending down, Tier10: Fun player, kind of built like Zion, but with maybe half Zion’s vertical and efficiency. Cool spin move.
55. Marcus Carr, Minnesota, no change
56. Isaiah Mobley, USC, trending down
57. Christian Koloko, Arizona, no change: super long, fun shot block disrupter, missed two free throws to seal fate in loss against Oregon. It’s ok.
58. Balsa Koprivica, FSU, no change
59. CJ Fredrick, Iowa, trending up: Probably not an NBA player, but carries himself like he is and it matters.
60. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, no change
61. Davonte Gaines, Tennessee, trending up: super long and skinny redshirt frosh. Has defensive upside.
62. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending down
63. Jaden Shackelford, Alabama, **trending down: Should probably be trending up.
64. George Conditt, Iowa State, trending down: had higher hopes for him; seems to struggle against first units.
65. Sahvir Wheeler, Georgia, no change
66. Jaylen Butz, DePaul, trending down
67. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, **trending down: Had career game against Iowa on 2/25 and played with uber confidence. One game can flip flop a freshman, I guess.
68. John Fulkerson, Tennessee, trending up
69. EJ Montgomery, Kentucky, trending down
70. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down
71. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down
72. Darious Hall, DePaul, trending up
73. Eric Ayala, Maryland, trending up
74. Rasir Bolton, Iowa State, trending down
75. Shereef Mitchell, Creighton, no change
76. Joe Toussaint, Iowa, no change
77. Matthew Mayer, Baylor, no change: Should probably be 8-10 slots higher.
78. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: I’m a sucker for hoopers who look like they live in the weight room.
October 27, 2013Posted by on
I’m a Lakers fan. Make no mistake about it. Beneath all my demands for fairness and bridging the rich-poor gap acrimony, I still cheer for the Lakers and their “see money, throw a problem at it” philosophy. So you can imagine my curiosity last year when I’m watching the Lakers slowly implode like a basketball version of an ugly, slow, painful deterioration of something or someone you know. Maybe it’s like when Brittney Spears fell off the rails in public and her fans just sat there and watched and they probably wanted to help her … “If I just had a chance, I could help Britt.” I can see some Lakers fans convinced they had solutions to the incurable problems the team had last season. But not me. I wasn’t one of those fans. I sat back and watched in enraptured entertainment. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol. So many of us presumed that the star power alone would blind opponents, leaving them defenseless to an onslaught of well-aged skill and Howardian beastliness down low. And when the reality of age and fragility set in and the team underachieved for so many games, those shining stars dimmed to a cynical glow and Lakers fans frowned and grunted through an extended shit show where nothing made sense and everything went wrong.
All the while I sat bewildered, but unexpectedly entertained. In the NBA more so than the NFL or MLB, you can pick a handful of contenders at the beginning of the season and be fairly confident in your assessments. For all of us to whiff so badly last year; including the Kupchaks and Busses of the world … well, it was like watching a Hollywood blockbuster with one of our favorite action heroes as the star, but only the script goes off somewhere. The hero doesn’t fit the prototype we’re trained to recognize. Superman can’t change into his blue spandex in the phone booth let alone fly through the air. The Batmobile catches a flat and Bruce Wayne has to wait for Alfred to show up and change the tire. Meanwhile, Lex Luther and the Joker are taking a big ol’ dump on Metropolis and Gotham. That was the Lakers we saw last season.
Now in the fall of 2013, on the cusp of another NBA season, I’m all settled in, prepared for a crummy Lakers campaign that rivals the miserable outcomes of the post-Shaq Lakers like 2005 when Kobe “led” the team to 34 wins. But the difference is obviously that we’re prepared for it now. That preparation or expectation is the critical piece. When we know what to expect, we can maintain an even keel while still experiencing fluctuations in emotions. It’s the unexpected that challenges our conditioned responses.
You might be wondering why I’m just now drifting back to these Lakers memories. After all, we’re several months removed from the realization that the Lakers were not who we thought they were. A couple of my other favorite teams are presently walking through their own purgatories of expectation and I’m reflexively flashing back:
The current Manchester United team, another team I support (go ahead, make your front-runner jokes, but know I’m a long-suffering Cubs fan as well and experience both sides of the winning/losing of fandom), is enduring a challenging season with their new skipper, David Moyes. Moyes is replacing the living legend, Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed the world’s most recognizable sports franchise for over 26 years. In that span, he etched out a profile for himself that, on a global scale, exceeds that of Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and all the rest. Ferguson was an anomaly in the English Premier League where clubs cycle through managers more frequently than most of us go through a pair of jeans. United has mostly the same roster they had last year when the dominated the league and secured the title with multiple weeks still to play. It was fantastically anti-climactic and Ferguson left the new manager with a sturdy foundation on which to build a new legacy for himself and his new club. Instead, nine matches into the new season and United has struggled with a miserable defense that is regularly outplayed and compounds their shortcomings with knuckleheaded decision making and lapses in discipline. Yet … as I watch the team, I’m taking a strange satisfaction in the struggle. It’s not a sporting masochism. In the case of United, there’s this part of me that’s enjoying the uphill climb of this underachieving group. Maybe it’s because it’s still early in the season and I have faith that they’ll figure it out, that patience will win the day. Or maybe it’s just the feeling of stepping into a different, less comfortable role. Maybe I feel better being on more relatable terms with my friend who’s a Tottenham supporter? Or maybe I’m just a confused elitist who’s confusing the struggle with a footballing equivalent of slumming. Either way, it’s a more engrossing feeling than the anticlimactic sprint away from a pedestrian pack.
At home, my Seattle Sounders are flailing through the final few weeks of a grueling MLS regular season. Where the team was riding the natural high of an eight-match unbeaten streak that saw them climb to the top of league standings, they’ve now lost four straight matches by a 2-12 deficit. The Sounders haven’t won a match since mid-September. Players are hurt, the defense is in shambles, luck favors their opponents and yet, I find their matches more magnetizing than ever. I tune in or go to matches wondering if this is the game they turn it around. I anticipate the euphoria that must come with a break from these autumnal doldrums. With the MLS playoffs a week away, the Sounders somehow backed into the playoffs, and instead of drinking myself to sleep or crying tears of blue and rave green discontent, I’m cautiously hopeful that things will turn and we’ll look back on this rough stretch as nothing more than a funky smelling aberration. Something to share a beer over and thank the soccer gods it’s passed.
Let’s be real here … maybe I just don’t know how to be a fan. Maybe there’s some twisted gene hiding in my DNA that’s afraid of the pressure that accompanies a winner. Maybe I just don’t get what it means to be a fan, because I’d expect a different reaction. I’d expect to be pissed off or pouty about these things, but I just accept it with curious observation. The 2013 Lakers, Sounders and Man United teams have stumbled into strange playoff positions with dust-covered aging rosters and defenses that can be exploited by younger, less-skilled opponents. And I sit back and take it all in with a chuckle at the unexpected deviation from the narrative and the strange satisfaction I feel from not knowing what’s coming next. The Lakers, Sounders and United … my teams, my disappointments, my entertainments through winning, losing, and all points beyond and between.
April 30, 2013Posted by on
On the eve of Dancing with Noah’s two-year anniversary, I’ve been through a Monday (4/29/13) overflowing with reverberating NBA news:
- Jason Collins came out of the closet – this is a beautiful thing and people who don’t realize that or see this as a non-story would be wise to take some time to listen to the struggles faced by anyone who’s ever had to hide a part of themselves for fear of being judged, blackballed, ignored or rejected. You don’t have to be thrilled about it, but this is one more person who’s making a massive leap into the world. Be happy for him.
- The NBA’s Relocation Committee voted unanimously to deny the Kings request to move the franchise to Seattle. For whatever it might be worth, the NBA Relocation Committee is made up of: Clay Bennett (the NBA can’t not see this as a terribly ironic placement), Peter Holt (Spurs), James Dolan (Knicks), Herb Simon (Pacers), Larry Tanenbaum (Raptors), Glen Taylor (Timberwolves), Jeanie Buss (Lakers), Robert Sarver (Suns), Greg Miller (Jazz), Wyc Grousbeck (Celtics), Ted Leonsis (Wizards) and Micky Arison (Heat).
So here we sit with a day that will reverberate throughout the NBA’s near-term, and potentially long-term, future. I’ve lived in Seattle since 2004 and I attended around 10-15 games per season when the Sonics called Key Arena home. It’s a progressive city, one that promotes diversity and supports alternative lifestyles. You can find anything from thriving art and music scenes to reenactments of medieval battles. It’s a populace that takes full advantage of the gifts nature has bestowed upon it which include the Cascade Mountain range, Mount Rainier, Olympic National Park, the San Juan Islands, Lake Washington, Lake Union and a million other outdoor activities enjoyed by Pacific Northwesterners year-round.
This past summer I read Jim Bouton’s classic insider account of life in Major League Baseball: Ball Four. Bouton was a 30-year-old knuckleballer who pitched for the then expansion Seattle Pilots. In a nod to the city’s long-standing struggle with pro sports franchises, the Pilots lasted a single season in the Emerald City before relocating to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers. It wasn’t until 1977 that the Mariners came into existence. Bouton spent the spring and summer of 1969 with the Pilots and I recall a small portion of the book touching on the lukewarm support from Seattleites. This is dating all the back in the late 60s. A forward-looking view shows the city’s often strained relationship with the pro franchises they simultaneously support:
- In the mid-90s, the Mariners owners threatened to relocate the team if a new arena wasn’t built. In 1995, voters defeated a ballot to pay for a new stadium. Then the M’s made the playoffs and the state Legislature capitalized on the momentum to come up with an alternate funding plan which included a .5% tax on restaurants, taverns and bars and a 2% tax increase on rental cars. Disaster was averted and the M’s got the stadium they demanded. The balance came out to $340mill from the public in the form of tax increases and $75mill from the M’s owners.
- In 1995, there was a proposal to issue county bonds to pay for a remodeling of the Kingdome (the Seattle Seahawks stadium at the time). The proposal was rejected (not surprising given the Mariners had just asked for public money as well). At the time, Seahawks owner Ken Behring did what comes so naturally to businessmen and sports franchise owners: He threatened to sell or move the team. Microsoft founder and billionaire, Paul Allen stepped in and committed to buy the team if a new stadium could be built. After some legal/political wrangling, there was a final public/private partnership that included the public contribution capped at $300million and Allen’s company First & Goal Inc. to contribute up to $130million.
- On June 16th, 1994, construction began on what was then called Seattle Central Coliseum and would eventually be renamed as Key Arena. The city picked up $74.5mill while the Sonics covered ~$21mill. The intent of the makeover was to bring the then-32-year-old arena up to par with other NBA arenas.
- And of course, the Sonics/Howard Schultz/Clay Bennett clusterfuck that resulted in the Sonics being sold to an out-of-town group on October 31st, 2006—so strangely appropriate that the deal was consummated on Halloween.
It’s no surprise that pro sports teams make threats and cities respond. In many cases, new arenas are necessary and the threats are nothing more than negotiation tactics that happen to play on the hearts and minds of local fanbases. But in my limited experience as an observer of these scenarios, it’s somewhat unique for a city to face three of these threats in just over a ten-year span. For a city that was already lukewarm on supporting pro teams with public funds, the Bennett/Stern false ultimatum was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For me personally, this was a watershed moment. I initially sided with the “Save Our Sonics” contingent and would cringe at the numerous editorials telling Stern and Bennett to pound sand. Over the next three years, I would reverse that stance.
Kevin Durant’s rookie year in 2007 was a disaster. The Sonics had been gutted in a way that reminded me of the plot from Major League where widow of the Cleveland Indians’ owner builds a crappy team with the purpose of moving to sunnier climes in Florida. The 2007 Sonics were in full blown rebuilding mode in a city they’d soon be saying goodbye to. They finished with the 2nd worst record in the league and ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance. The “save our Sonics” chants that would randomly ring out throughout the season were painfully pathetic; pathetic in the sense that it was a futile chant from a half-empty arena of half-enthused fans. As a regular ticket buyer, I would get promotional emails every few weeks offering lower bowl seats for $15. I’m talking 10 rows back at an NBA game—for $15! No one else was going to the games, so they damn near gave tickets away. Every Durant jumper or glimpse of success was lifeline of hope for Seattle fans that somehow, someway the team would remain here. There were lawsuits, talks of Steve Ballmer buying the team, dreams of investors who preferred Sonics jerseys to shining suits of armor. But it was all for naught and over time I accepted that the team would relocate. It certainly helped that from the time the Bennett group purchased the team up to the release of Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team in 2009, evidence mounted revealing what most people suspected already: The Sonics had been purchased with the intent of relocating to OKC. After so many months of being lied to, the confirmation of these assumptions at least validated the anger. And with that in mind, please forgive the people of Seattle for not rallying with a Kings-like battle cry.
Watching Durant and Russell Westbrook thrive in OKC didn’t enflame the ill feelings I felt for Bennett or Schultz or Stern. Rather, it hardened me to the cold reality that sports are a business; a chillingly merciless business that, as a collective, isn’t concerned with fans beyond the amount of money they spend or demographics they fall into. This was the end of the child-like innocent fan that lived inside of me. Maybe being 26 or 27 is too old to come to that obvious conclusion, but it reshaped the way I watch and interact with sports and to some degree, I’m thankful for it.
Fast forward to 2013 when the owners of the Kings agreed to sell the franchise to Seattle-born billionaire Chris Hansen. The Seattle streets were covered in throwback Sonics hats, shirts and jerseys. Oskar’s, a local bar just a few blocks from Key Arena, owned by former Sonic icon Shawn Kemp, has been aglow in the potential return of the team. Sonics fans and Kings supporters have sniped at each other on blogs, Twitter and in comments sections. It was a petty, trite game being played; as if mutual love for basketball teams was reason enough to fight with a stranger. Meanwhile, the actual men in control of the situation (Stern, Hansen, Kevin Johnson, the Maloofs, the Kings new prospective ownership group) skated by with minimal criticism outside of Seattle and Sacramento. All of us sat and waited anxiously for the verdict of a 12-man jury; the aforementioned Relocation Committee. They voted unanimously to keep the Kings in Sacramento. For once they voted to eschew the money in favor of doing the right thing; of doing what they should’ve done six years ago when Clay Bennett purchased the Sonics. For once, this money grubbing association got it right. With any luck, the league’s setting a new precedent for itself; one that will see it work more closely with local politicians instead of divisively as we saw with the Sonics situation. (The Sacramento arena deal breaks out like this: the city takes on $258mill [primarily from parking fees and ticketing fees] while the investment group would account for $189mill and be responsible for all capital improvements.)
In the process of the vote, the NBA changed the rules of the game on the people of Seattle while simultaneously getting it right for the fans in Sacramento. For the people of Seattle who supported this team and league uninterruptedly for 40 straight years, this vote is grossly unfair. The league created an environment where inconsistency exists and it’s within that environment that they should have alienated a market, but sadly that won’t be the case. People will still invest time, money and emotion in getting pro basketball back to Seattle and I do respect their resilience; their ability to separate the anger from their passion.
As for Jason Collins … I’m happy for the man. I find it amazing that this is still a topic for discussion. Part of my amazement may stem from the fact that I’ve become an adult in ultra-liberal Seattle where terms like “social justice” and “white privilege” stay on the tips of tongues; where marijuana and gay marriage are both legal. I spent my Saturday night at the Seattle Poetry Grand Slam where young, creative, expressive, strong poets stood vulnerable on a stage and expressed themselves and, in some cases, their sexuality in front of a packed Seattle Town Hall. They expressed their struggles through beautiful emotive words with a raw, but harnessed energy, but their descriptions of their love didn’t escape my realm of knowing or comprehension. The pain and sadness of not being accepted rang through their voices and met the crowd who groaned in painful understanding. And I think about Jason Collins alone in locker rooms, on buses and planes, surrounded by homophobic slurs that stung; sometimes more than others. That loneliness is so unbelievably unfair. For this man to finally reach a level of comfort to expose himself on the largest stage in the world makes me want to hug him in acceptance and support.
After John Amaechi came out in 2007, I think there was a hope that his revelation would lead to more gay athletes following suit, but in terms of the major sports leagues, that hasn’t been the case. With gay marriage gaining nationwide support, the issue has again risen to the forefront of athletics where former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recently commented that four NFL players may come out on the same day as a way to relieve the pressure of going it alone. Whether or not Collins’s decision is based in large or small part on the current climate of improved gay rights awareness, his coming out is nothing but a positive and it feels good to see an NBA player leading the way and getting the overwhelming support he received today.
It’s a good day to celebrate the two-year anniversary of a blog and it’s a good day to honor what this game has brought me not just over the past two years, but the past 25 years of my life where basketballs have been bouncing, nets splashing, struggles struggling—be it labor wars, substance abuse, homophobia, media, marketing, or the actual on-court product. Basketball has provided me an outlet from the stresses of being a living human being in the 21st century and given me a lens through which to see the world unfold in a most a familiar context. I’m thankful for days like this when the league gets it right even if they’re jobbing my city in the process.
November 26, 2012Posted by on
We’re not even a full month into the season, so it’s not like there’s this deep well of meaningful observations on this toddler of a season, but given that I’ve spent so much time watching games in standard definition, questioning how League Pass chooses which games are shown in HD, watching multiple games on League Pass Broadband and reading/posting nonsensical NBA observations on Twitter, I decided to meditate on things I’ve actually seen or noticed. The following list isn’t in any order of significance, just some cold November observations of teams and players I’ve watched at some point this month:
- Tim Duncan as Kareem. He’s 36 now and will be 37 by the end of the season and he’s plugging away with his best per/36 numbers since … since he was 28. I’m not naïve or knee-jerk enough to even halfway believe that 16% of a season (13 games out of 82) constitutes sustainability, but Duncan’s putting up a career highs in PER and win shares per 48 minutes. Despite his longevity, people still, after all these years, love to sleep on Duncan and the Spurs for being boring. Duncan fans respond with their own brand of godly hyperbole, but wherever you fall on the Timmy spectrum, do yourself a favor, put your prejudices aside and spend a couple hours one night just watching Duncan; he’s still (somehow, even at 36) an underappreciated NBA treasure and the best shot blocker/shot alterer I’ve ever seen.
- The (re) emergence of Jamal Crawford. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Big JC and it makes sense since we have so much in common: We’re both 32, he’s from Seattle while I live in Seattle, we both went to Big 10 schools and both of us can play each guard position. Commonalities aside, Crawford’s always been a free-form, improvisationalizing chucker and it’s refreshing to see his game out-perform his reputation. Like Duncan, he’s easily putting up career bests in PER, TS% and eFG% and like Duncan, it’s likely unsustainable. But while it lasts, there’s not much more entertaining than putting on a late night Clips game and seeing JC’s silly putty limbs stretched to their limit with the ball and his defender at his mercy; a shake of the hips, his elastic joints casting spells and oops, there’s the quick-release jumper splashing through the net and of course, no follow-through. If a Keith Haring painting or drawing came to life as a basketball player, it would be Jamal Crawford.
- Hair. The second Free Darko book had an appropriately random section dedicated to the league’s eternal fascination with follicle fashions. And while they focused primarily on the 70s, just watching a month into the 2012-13 season, I’m like: DAMN, the hair game is back! Just a few guys who are uniquely expressing themselves through hair styles:
- Spencer Hawes: Steady rocking the mullet in Philly.
- Andrew Bynum: Hasn’t even played a game for the Sixers, but he’s already becoming notorious with a series of hairstyles we’ve never seen grace an NBA player’s head.
- Kosta Koufos: Male pattern baldness isn’t anything to joke about; rather it’s something to make money off. Jokes aside, Koufos is just 23-years-old and getting pretty thin on top. The common solution for this is to snag the clippers and just take it off, but not Kosta. Nope, he grows it out and combs it forward. We’re not fooled though.
- Anthony Davis & James Harden: The Brow and the Beard … these are kind of losing their intrigue.
- Deron Williams: He’s been rocking the same look his entire career and it hasn’t gotten any better. Maybe shave that shit?
- Harrison Barnes: No, I’m not including Barnes next just because his name is phonetically made up of “hair.” I’m including him because in just a few short weeks, he’s already shown more athleticism and aggression than he did in two years at Chapel Hill. Instead of settling for jab steps and jumpers, he’s attacking the rim with and without the ball. Oh, and in 14 games as a pro, he already has more double digit rebound games (three) than he did in his final year as a Tar Heel (two).
- The Battle for Los Angeles is Real: It’s kind of an incestuous rivalry since Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes have been on both sides, but these teams don’t like each other and follow the lead of their uber-intense competitors: Kobe and CP3. Everyone keeps singing the same refrain about the Lakers: It’ll take time to gel (especially given the coaching change and Steve Nash missing in action), but meanwhile the Clippers are reveling in depth and developing their own chemistry. Despite a recent three-game losing streak, the Clips have improved from last year thanks to the development of Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, the addition of Barnes, Crawford and (maybe) Odom. And they’re still waiting on the returns of vets Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill who may not have much left in terms of athleticism, but can definitely help LAC win free throw contests or knockout tournaments. While I’m part of the Lakers chorus, I’m also seeing a Clips team that can match up with the Lakers superstars and go a lot deeper than LAL. As for the coaching advantage? The jury’s still out for D’Antoni and Del Negro. Can we just have Kobe and CP3 as player/coaches?
- Plateaus: DeMarcus Cousins, Javale McGee, Evan Turner (maybe not as much here), Blake Griffin, Ty Lawson. With the exception of Javale, I don’t believe these other kids have reached their ceilings, but in terms of the eye-test, none of these guys appear to have improved from last year. The stats (per game, per 36, and advanced) show declines for Cousins, McGee, Lawson and Blake (Blake’s statistical declines look like a result of the Clippers diversifying their attack, but that’s an investigation for another post). Just because the sun comes up every morning doesn’t mean it’s always going to be a beautiful day.
|**As a sidebar, can you imagine how frustrating it would be to regress? Let’s say you work for a Senator or you’re a manager or you’re a salesperson, a teacher, a statistician, a firefighter, a writer, anything and all of your colleagues are high on you because you have a proven record of performance and then one day you show up and you’re unable to do your job as well as you’re used to. Maybe there’s some external life events getting in the way or perhaps you’re just struggling to focus, but you know that everyone’s watching and wondering what happened. If you exponentially multiply the intensity of that lens, then you’ll start to have an idea of the struggles faced by the players listed here.|
- Falling Down: Josh Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Lamar Odom, Washington Wizards. Every time I’ve watched the aforementioned, I’ve ended up shaking my head in disappointment. Mid-range jumpers are to Smith what heroin was to William S. Burroughs—irresistible, enchanting, holding so much possibility. Bargnani and Odom are exceeding optimal weight limits and it’s preventing them from fulfilling roles their teams need. And the Wizards … oh, the poor, poor Wizards are the league’s only winless team at 0-11. I’m a John Wall fan, but in cleaning house of the Arenas-era characters, the Wiz have built a strange, slow-to-form supporting cast around their franchise player. If these downward trends continue, I’m going to start new series titled Essays in Exploration: Identifying the Early Signs of Decay.
- Princes of the Fall: Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, Chandler Parsons, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker: In the three-plus years I’ve been watching Jennings in the NBA, his biggest asset has consistently been his speed. So far in 2012, it looks like he’s found ways to harness said speed on the defensive end where he leads the league with an Alvin Robertsonian 3.5 steals/game … and yet Milwaukee didn’t extend him before the October 31st deadline. DeRozan, by contrast, was extended by the Raptors. It was kind of strange since he’s appeared to be a mostly one-dimensional scoring slasher without a reliable jumper, but in the Sunday day games and random weeknight games I’ve seen him in, he’s more aggressive, more confident, more purposeful. Whether it’s the addition of Kyle Lowry or the struggles of Bargnani, DeRozan’s a better, more mature player this year. Maybe I’m still on a high from seeing Parsons light up the Knicks the other night, but the Rockets are rewarding his versatility and he’s playing over 37 minutes/night and thriving as their starting small forward. After seeing him at Florida, I knew the kid was a strong ball handler and playmaker, especially for his size, but I didn’t believe it’d transfer over to the pro level. (I’m fairly confident this isn’t unique to me, but American-born white college players are difficult to project as pros … or maybe the smaller number of these players just makes it seem like they’re more difficult to project.) Anyhow, Damian Lillard’s not white. He’s a black point guard from Weber State who apparently learned the fine arts of the pick and roll during his undergrad studies and arrived in Portland with nothing more than basketball gear, online devices and gym clothes. He lives at the Blazers practice facility and is as NBA-ready as any point guard since … well … I guess Kyrie Irving.
Of course there are other observations from November, but these were top of mind. I haven’t seen all 30 teams and I’ve seen some teams I wish I hadn’t. We’ve already been subjected to surprises, pleasantries and disappointments and if this first month is any indication, we’ll be happily swimming a pool of confusion wondering how we got there come Christmas.
Community (aka, connecting the dots between Reggie Miller, Springfield Mass and pickup hoops at lunch)
September 9, 2012Posted by on
A week ago, I had the good fortune of passing through Springfield, Massachusetts and stopping off at the Basketball Hall of Fame where I spent a couple hours acting like a kid in an interactive Toys’ R’ Us museum. I gawked and stared at the memorabilia and basked (no joke) in the memories the photos brought to mind. I took a picture of the player photos that surround the interior dome of the BHoF and sent it to my basketball-loving amigos and in the same manner I was drawn to the game back in the late 80s, the focus orbited around Michael Jordan.
On the ground floor of the BHoF is a full court with baskets at each end, a couple ball racks with an assortment of basketballs available for the old and young alike to shoot hoops to their hearts’ content. Most people start the journey at the top floor and work their way down to the court and of course the gift shop. On each level as I worked my way down, I saw males of varying skill levels shooting around on these hoops. Some enjoyed the monasterial qualities of the setting while others seemed oblivious to their surroundings and shot with a freedom of awareness. And the reason I specifically call out males is because I didn’t see a single woman nor girl shooting on this day which isn’t meant as a commentary on the gender ceiling of the sport as women’s photos lined the dome above. Of course I arrived at the ground floor and while my wife sat on the bleachers with other wives, girlfriends and parents, I peacefully shot jumpers—in jeans and flip flops. Just like any other court I’ve ever been on where multiple people are shooting, there was an understanding, a common courtesy that you’d grab a stray ball for another shooter if it came your way and they’d do the same for you. This pre-knowledge automatically creates an unspoken agreement between people shooting around. So without even knowing the guys I was shooting with, I already had a relationship of sorts. And it was a peaceful shoot around even though I was admonished by one of the Hall’s employees for stepping to the half-court line and taking a few dribbles in preparation of a half court heave, “No half-court shots!” he shouted from the sideline. I laughed a bit realizing that I’m a 31-year-old man who was about to fire up a half-court shot at the BHoF. If that’s not enough evidence that basketball and the BHoF specifically can bring the little boy out of the grown man, then this exchange I witnessed as I was walking off the court should do the job: A man in his late 20s or early 30s was enthusiastically chucking up jumpers. Like me, he wasn’t wearing something like jeans and a button down and as I passed, I heard a woman standing near him (she was clearly his significant other) say in jokingly motherly tone, “OK, one more shot and then we’re leaving.” But he wasn’t ready to go, because we never are.
Here I am now, just over a week later watching a recording of the BHoF speeches from a few days ago. Reggie Miller’s speaking and referencing inside jokes that I kind of get. He calls Magic “Buck” and jabs him in the ribs about teaching him how to “lie and cheat” (at which point my thoughts uncomfortably jump to Magic’s legendary promiscuity that led to HIV)—that’s the backhand; the compliment comes when he articulates that lying and cheating are actually virtues of a “win by any means necessary” attitude. We get it because we’re on the inside and have read or heard about Magic’s compulsive competiveness in books and interviews, blogs and podcasts. Reggie gave a genuine, if not brotherly, credit to his sister Cheryl for raising the level of his family’s name and his basketball game. For the basketballiteratti, we already knew this and can judge and assess whether or not Reggie or Cheryl was the more relevant or greater Miller. We’ve heard the famous story about Reggie coming home from a high school game, pumped up because he scored 30 or 40 points and then he asked Cheryl how her game went and she’s all modest, “I scored 105 points.” We’re in the interpretive inner-circle; we know and nod or shake our heads.
And so many of these feelings of inclusion, of being a part of the inside joke or reference, were on display at the BHoF. I walked through the halls of the hall with my wife and pointed out random facts, stats and moments. I showed off out of childish enthusiasm: This is my area of expertise, this is what I know. Watching this induction ceremony with a sense of the physical space and history binds me into the knots of the game that continues to give and teach me so much. As I consider the infinite reach of basketball, I connect the aforementioned history to weekly pickup games with co-workers at Denny Park in Seattle where the quality of play falls in the bottom 50% globally (that’s not a good thing); I play with fellow cubicle dwellers shooting 35% from the field and averaging something like 13 turnovers per-36 minutes. We blame the shabby performances on things like age, ethnic and genetic athletic limitations and of course those impossibly sturdy symbols of American industry: The Double Rim. But excuses aside, we play and participate in a massive global community that was celebrated in Springfield, Massachusetts less than a week ago. We celebrate our physical possibilities, not our limitations, through our participation in this great, Naismith-given game. Our games at Denny Park on Fridays are tiny threads in the fabric of global basketball and at some level come with an awareness in all of us of the history that inspired and motivated us to step onto the court in the first place and continues to do so, week after week, year after year, in Seattle, Springfield and all points in between.