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Category Archives: College Basketball

Scouting Dump #4, Part II: You have tools, but do you know what to do with them?

I had intended this to be just a two-part dump, but here we are, nearly three-thousand words on five players who fill me with uncertainty and maybe even doubt, well yes, lots of doubt.

Part I can be found here and includes the 11 games that were scouted during this dump. Through nine players, here’s the overall ranking:

  1. Usman Garuba
  2. Deni Avdija
  3. Kira Lewis Jr.
  4. Aaron Nesmith
  5. Theo Maledon
  6. Grant Riller
  7. Jahmi’Us Ramsey
  8. Devon Dotson
  9. Precious Achiuwa

5. Theo Maledon, ASVEL, trending up, Tier2:

As a narrow-shouldered 18-year-old playing among grown men in the competitive world of the Euroleague, Maledon exhibits a remarkable poise, maturity, and leadership. In my viewings, he’s shown himself to be surprisingly capable and competent as an on-floor communicator willing to direct older teammates into position on both sides of the ball which speaks somewhat to what I heard an announcer earlier this season describe him as having “a certain arrogance, confidence.”

Moxie matters and it translates to a calm, evenly paced style the 6-foot-5 18-year-old plays with. Positionally, he has great size and on the defensive side, he knows how to utilize it. Against Real Madrid, it was fun to see the contrast in defensive approach between Maledon and ASVEL’s younger Matthew Strazel. Strazel, a 17-year-old who looks like he could be the French cousin of Tre and Tyus Jones, played up in the jersey of Madrid’s veteran Facundo Campazzo with overactive hands bordering on recklessness while the more seasoned and mature Maledon opted for effectively sliding feet and bodying up the smaller Campazzo. ASVEL as a team plays a full court, aggressive defense that Maledon appears to be more than willing to adapt to. His defensive effort: moving his feet, sitting in a stance, navigating screens, are all present. I wonder about the long-term defensive upside given his slighter frame and OK quickness, but the effort and size will help.

Offensively, he plays a mostly clean game with a fluid handle, understanding of how to utilize screens and angles, and an ability to make basic, pre-packaged reads. He incorporates subtle hesitations and unexpected crossovers that help to keep defenders off-balance. Off these dribble moves, he’s adept at driving and kicking to open teammates. His ability to keep defenders guessing on ball screens is one of the more impressive traits I’ve seen. He’ll go away from screens with a quick first step or setup opponents one direction against a screen before hitting them with change of direction on compact crossovers. There’s something unorthodox to some of these directional changes and I wish I would’ve recorded a couple of them.

In my limited sample, he’s shown touch around the rim and ability to finish over length. I haven’t seen him play through contact as much, but he’s consistently operated around 40% FTr and is at 36% this season.

His catch-and-shoot three is more of a toss than a good, tight snap off the wrist. Off the dribble, his form looks more natural, but at present he’s just an average-to-below-average shooter which is fine given he’s not even 19 yet. Across 162 games in Europe and FIBA, he’s shooting 34% on nearly 500 threes.

The size and ability to change speeds remind me somewhat of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the three-inch difference in wingspan, the strength, and shooting all lean heavily to SGA’s favor to the point that comparison doesn’t add up. Per ESPN, his physical profile is similar to Delon Wright’s and I can see potential similarities there, although Wright was 23-years-old as a rookie and Maledon will be just 19. That four-year difference is massive and speaks to the Frenchman’s upside as a potential low-end NBA starting point or combo guard.

6. Grant Riller, Charleston, trending up, Tier3:

The 6-3 Riller is a better pro-ready prospect than Maledon, but he’s also more than four years older. With all due respect to Aaliyah, age is more than a number and thus Riller is behind young Theo.

Like watching N’Faly Dante devour 6-7 Terren Frank in EYBL competition, Riller the senior just seemed a class above his Colonial Athletic Association opponents. And as such, it created a handicap of sorts when checking in to see him cook on a nightly basis. For the game viewed here (hosting Drexel on Senior Night), Riller nonchalantly kicked ass in myriad ways: NBA range threes, head fakes, spin moves, pull-up jumpers, threes on the move, running jumpers, slashing with efficient angles, post-ups, side-step step backs, floaters, rinse, repeat ad infinitum. The breadth of unforced offensive skill was something to behold and the ease with which he fluidly read and reacted to the defense was surgical. Between catching the ball and shooting it, Riller has as much craft as anyone I saw in college basketball this year and some of that is out of necessity. He has a good frame at 6-3, 190 pounds with good shoulders and lean muscle, but he’s not a twitchy athlete. He’s not blurring past opponents like Kira Lewis Jr.or bulldogging defenders like a focused Anthony Edwards. The combination of handle, deception (via fakery), shot/touch, and understated strength/body control are deadly and Riller knows this. He plays to his strengths; which is a lot easier to do when your strength can be described as just getting to your spots.

In my viewing, Riller has shown himself to have some ability to read the floor and create for others, but it’s nowhere near as natural as his scoring instincts. His ability to anticipate and make advanced reads is heavily skewed towards scoring the ball. Some of this can be attributed to team need: in most scenarios, a look from Riller is more efficient than anything else Charleston is getting. He has a high basketball IQ, it’s just a matter of spreading it beyond scoring.

Defensively is where I was least impressed with him and where the level of competition appeared to be most evident. Against Drexel, he seemed put out at having to defend, was caught ball watching, and wandered off his man without communicating to teammates. His IQ and ability to anticipate plays was evident as he had a highlight help block thanks to an early rotation, but overall the effort uninspiring. In a small sample, it’s hard to hold this against him, but it was by far his least impressive attribute.

He’s not the player or shooter that CJ McCollum was in college, but he looks to be from the same family tree of undersized scoring twos/combo guards.

7. Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech, no change, Tier3:

The 6-4, nearly 200-pound Ramsey has a June 2001 birthday and in terms of age, would slot perfectly into the high school class of 2020. Instead, he’s a young freshman with buckets of talent on a team with an outsized role, and a misunderstanding of how to harness said talent in said bucket.

I first saw Ramsey as a junior in 2018 going head-to-head with Cam Reddish, late of the Atlanta Hawks, and walked away thinking of him as a twitchy defender, a competitor, a secondary initiator, an ultra-confident player capable of falling back on his physical ability if the world otherwise tipped sidewise.

Then the Mega Bemax pre-season game happened and Ramsey dropped 44 on the Serbian club made most noteworthy for producing Nikola Jokic and Goga Bitadze. This game and Tech’s faulty roster funneled Ramsey into the role of primary scorer, a role he wasn’t, and probably shouldn’t have been plugged into.

Scout: good length and athleticism for a two-guard, but probably lacking in height which, in some situations, he can make up for with his athleticism, particularly vertical. He’s twitchy, he’s strong, fluid as an athlete. Capable as a shooter (42% on 141 threes), handler, and passer including out of the pick-and-roll despite not-so-good Synergy numbers; vision translates in transition and half-court; lot of drive-and-kick to his game. Seamlessly and effectively utilizes head fakes and shot fakes as part of offensive attack. BBIQ is strong with improvisational give-and-go’s, flare outs off screens, and dump-offs/wraparounds off penetration. Some truly awful decision making on pull-up threes. For a 42% three-point shooter, it’s remarkable how many bad shots he takes. Some of this I attribute to shouldering too great a role in Tech’s point guard-lacking roster. There was no reliable creation for Ramsey or Davide Moretti. Senior Chris Clarke was their best passer, but as a non-shooting initiator off the bench, his creation ability was under-utilized. This lack of creation put the ball in Ramsey’s hands more than it should’ve been and the result was a lot of J.R. Smith-type shots.

Despite physical tools, appears to have struggled to maintain focus in Texas Tech’s defense. When engaged, uses length as a defensive cushion, moves feet well, can anticipate and help accordingly, strong hands to strip on digs, good timing as help side shot blocker (2.5% on steals and blocks). When floating mentally, which is often, he helps too far off shooters which is either a bad habit, lack of awareness, or too much trust in ability to help and recover; gets lost or confused in TT’s switching schemes, despite showing lateral flexibility and a willingness to embrace contact, is beaten off dribble far too often as he opens his hips. Some of the latter could be scheme, but too often there’s no help.

If Ramsey can comfortably adjust to lower usage (team-high 26% with TT) and improve his defensive focus, he can be a positive NBA player. Not just can, but should. If I was re-ranking, I’d probably move him above Riller based on age and upside. Arbitrary stat: Ramsey was the only player in D1 to have both steal and block rates 2.5% or higher while attempting over 135 threes and making at least 40% and is one of just 12 players in barttorvik’s database dating back to 2008 to accomplish it.

8. Devon Dotson, Kansas, no change, Tier3:

Dotson isn’t a player I’m terribly high on. His strength is overwhelmingly strong: quickness. It’s flirting with Kira Lewis Jr.levels of quick and destabilizes defense in the open or half court. Dotson is more physically developed than Lewis and nearly two years older. He can attack with either hand, although he seems partial to the left, can change direction at speed, finish with both hands, and finish through contact. But beyond scoring, penetrating, and just out-quicking opponents, his game is somewhat unremarkable.

As a passer, I haven’t seen much beyond basic reads. His 22.5% assist rate is likely bolstered (like the rest of his teammates’) by Udoka Azubuike. The whole team, rightly so, has a habit of using the seven-footer as a release valve of sorts and when there’s no other option available, toss it up to Udoka because even if he doesn’t score, he’ll at least catch it. I’m not going to knock Dotson for taking advantage of a weapon, but rather believe he could’ve taken even greater advantage in setting up the big man for more lobs or dump-offs; or anticipating help rotation, drive-and-kick with greater frequency. That being said, per Synergy, his P&R decision making (as shooter or passer) ranks in the high 70s to low 80th percentiles. I’ll give Dotson some grace in their preference for Marcus Garrett’s creation to Dotson’s. The presence of Garrett over two seasons has reduced the need for Dotson’s creation and limited his in-game reps. It’s a theory, at least.

As a shooter, Dotson was 31% from threes and just average on catch-and-shoot threes (one point/possession, per Synergy). He shot 32% on 53 attempts at Under Armour in 2017 and was 36% on 91 attempts as a freshman. All told that’s 33% on 267 tries in an 83-game sample. His mechanics are mostly unmemorable – for better or worse, which is ultimately a good thing. He’s been an 81% free throw shooter at Kansas and, with time and work, he should be able to strive for average from behind the arc. He’s not bad enough that teams can completely play off of him. Even at 32%, he can attack closeouts and utilize his speed. That said, even as a freshman when he shot 36%, Ashton Hagans sagged off and dared him to shoot. Given his speed and untrustworthiness from three, this will be an NBA thing as well.

On the defensive side, I don’t have nearly the sample of notes as I do on Dotson’s offense. His speed and reaction time is enough to create disruption and his 2.9% steal rate over 66 games evidences that, but in the game against Texas Tech when he matched up with Davide Moretti, he was awkward and uncertain. I wasn’t watching specifically for his defense, but it became something unavoidable.

Like Ramsey, Dotson operates from a solid foundation of physical tools, but unlike Ramsey, I believe his strong skills are less valuable and his compatibility narrower. Tune in in June when I talk myself into Dotson being the better prospect.

9. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending up (but probably shouldn’t be), Tier3:

I’ve probably seen more games of Achiuwa than any other player on this list which probably says more about my ability to prioritize than anything else. Also, after writing about him, I’d probably drop him down a few slots, but we’ll let the record stand and fix it in a future amended board.

More than any other Memphis Tiger, Achiuwa benefited from the departure of James Wiseman as he was able to have the center position all to himself where he led the team in minutes played. He came into the season listed as 6-9, but feels taller and plays bigger. In his 31 games at Memphis, he registered a 6.4% block rate. It’s on the defensive side of the ball that he’s most impactful and impressive. He’ll turn 21 for his rookie year and despite being older than most freshmen, Achiuwa is painfully raw. The rawness is less noticeable on the defensive because he’s shown an ability to leverage his length and athleticism in a variety of defensive scenarios with the most effective being rim protection. He’s not a great shot blocker, but he’s already showing an aptitude for using verticality to disrupt shots rather than exclusively trying to block them and he with his athleticism, he has better-than-normal hangtime that allows him to linger in the air a split second longer than most guys, even on a verticality play. For his size, he’s mostly agile and can switch onto smaller guards. He seems to take a level of pride in his switchability and while he can be had with shot fakes, it’s ultimately a positive attribute. If that’s the good of his defense, the bad is his consistency and focus. There are lapses on switches, ball watching that leads to poor positioning, and generally unreliable awareness. There are times, like on box outs, where you can see him standing upright, watching the ball and suddenly the lightbulb goes off, “oh shit, I need to box out” followed by a scramble to put a body on someone.

In terms of effort, Achiuwa is not lacking. He has a high motor and a bit of a nose for the ball. Since I started watching him at Montverde Academy, I’ve sounded the same refrain: regardless of how you feel about his game, you always notice him. This ability to standout either in running the floor, scrambling for loose balls, or soaring out of nowhere for highlight blocks is a skill that I imagine a 16-year-old Andrei Kirilenko had.

If Achiuwa’s effort and motor are his calling cards and his defense is effective, but unrefined, then his offense is a hot mess. He shot a respectable 33% on 40 threes, 64% at the rim, and had a 51% FTr, but don’t be fooled, he produced on offense in spite of himself. My notes are littered with confusion: “Seems either incapable or uninterested in throwing a fake,” “egregious travel on P&R catch,” “if it’s basic, he can do it,” “trying to attack off dribble and goes nowhere à winds up throwing risky jump pass /eyeroll,” “Airball on C&S3 à just not his shot/game,” “stubborn as a mule trying to force shots in contested space.” It goes on, but I hope the point is conveyed. Going back to Montverde, he’s fancied himself as something of a passer/playmaker and while this seems to be less of an emphasis with Memphis, it still shows its ugly face on his 30 assists to 87 turnovers (~1:3 ratio). ::Insert Pusha T YUUGH::

There’s a productive player living somewhere in Achiuwa, but there’s so much cleanup and TLC that it’s far from a foregone conclusion he’ll reach whatever potential he has. It’s more likely that you’ll forever being trying to strike a tenuous balance between what he adds and what he takes away. To borrow from Fran Fraschilla’s immortal “two years away from being two years away,” Achiuwa is probably a year away from being a year away.

Scouting Dump #4: Part I: Scraping the Barrel in Isolation

It’s the afternoon on Friday, March 20th as I write this. I was supposed to be in Legoland in Kansas City with my three-year-old, Will. I always knew I’d be sneaking peaks at my phone and opening round NCAA Tournament games, trading the craziness of March Madness for the craziness of an overstimulated toddler. Instead, I’m looking backwards (as is usually the case in scouting, I suppose), watching games from February and early March before the Rony (coronavirus) descended on us like an unsensational Hollywood plot device, but alas, we have no Bill Pullman, no Will Smith, no Randy Quaid to fly his plane kamikaze style into the eye of the virus and perish so we can all go on with our bougie existences.

For this edition, we have 11 games and 70-some players spanning multiple continents, countries, and conferences. From Deni Avdija to Devon Dotson, Usman to Udoka, Maledon to McCullar, Merrill, Moretti, Mayer, Mitchell, Moss, McCormack and I could just make up some names and they may have the same odds of making the NBA as some of the players I’ve watched in the past few paranoid-filled weeks.

The games are below and a reminder to anyone reading one of my dumps for the first time: The only players ranked are players I watched in this the games listed below so no LaMelo Ball, Luka Garza, Obi Toppin, or Payton Pritchard. There are two exceptions to this rule which will be explicitly called out.

  • 2/7: Maccabi Tel Aviv @ Fenerbache
  • 2/22: Kansas @ Baylor
  • 2/29: Texas @ Texas Tech
  • 2/29: Drexel @ Charleston
  • 3/2: Texas Tech @ Baylor
  • 3/3: Vanderbilt @ Alabama
  • 3/5: Wichita State @ Memphis
  • 3/5: ASVEL @ Real Madrid
  • 3/7: Kansas @ Texas Tech
  • 3/7: Utah State vs San Diego State
  • 3/8: Memphis @ Houston

 

  1. Usman Garuba, Real Madrid, trending up, N/A Tier:

Garuba was still just a young hooper of 17 when I watched this game from early March. He 18 a few days after, but he looks nothing like either a 17 or 18-year-old with solid square shoulders, a broad chest, and lanky arms. Appearances and stats tell of a young man mature beyond his years: in 21 games of his past three FIBA events against competitors his own age, Garuba is averaging 21 and 17 per-36 with a somewhat inconsistent stretch of shooting: TS’s 68, 58, and 48. In 36 games with the big boy club (Real Madrid) this season, those numbers drop precipitously – which isn’t a bad thing: he’s at 10 and 10 with nearly three stocks/game per-36 with a 62 TS, 17% 3Pr and 40% FTr. He’s done this with Real as a true 17-year-old, a kid playing beyond the depth and experience of probably 99% of all 17-year-old basketball players on the planet.

And while Garuba sits atop my ranking here despite not evening being eligible for the draft until 2021, I don’t quite see him as the same elite-level prospect some others may. For a battered Real, he started against ASVEL and brought what have become trademark traits: willing physicality as a screener with great wide-based screens, ample effort around the basket keeping balls alive against grown men that went for easy boards against his own age group, a high-ish and loose handle, inconsistent shooting, and grace to his movements and on-court navigation that are remarkable for his age. He has excellent straight line speed for a big and runs the court hard.

This is all well and good, but against the experienced and pressuring ASVEL, Garuba was often in a rush; pushing the ball at one speed and unsure or unable to come to a complete stop without shuffling his feet. On separate occasions, refs missed travels and with his high handle and upright gait while dribbling in the open court, he’s prone to have his dribble deflected.

His form on the catch-and-shoot remains a work in progress with an elbow that is over-exaggeratedly tucked in. You can almost see him trying to line up or aim his three-ball instead of just fluidly going through his motion. On 83 attempts across FIBA and Real, he’s 29% from deep.

With his physical ability, size, and movement, he can and will impact the game enough that being a below average three-point shooter won’t break his game, but for all the feel and effort he exhibits, there’s a polish lacking that’s lacking. But again, he just turned 18. If anyone on this list has time, it’s him.

  1. Deni Avdija, Maccabi Tel Aviv, no change, Tier1:

Avdija might not be as good or have as much upside as Garuba, but he’s probably more fun – depending on your definition of fun and tastes, etc. Avdija is 6-8 or 6-9 with a decent, if 19-year-old-ish build and guard skills galore.

For Israel’s FIBA tams (U20, U18, U16), he’s a do-everything self-creating forward with sprinklings of Luka Doncic and Toni Kukoc. With Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team, he plays off-ball, but is aggressive and decisive attacking off the touch. His feel, on greater display with Israel than Maccabi, is elevated. He reads the floor well, anticipates, and can pull passes out of his ass.

Against Fenerbache, he seemed to be playing with an elevated confidence, unbothered by the competition or setting. His quickness is average at best, but he plays at a measured pace, takes efficient angles (offensively and defensively), and has high level of anticipation.

Playing off ball and shooting just 33% on 119 attempts for the season (across FIBA and Maccabi, he’s at 33% on 404 attempts), he had room on a handful of catch-and-shoots. For the game, he was 1-3 on C&S3s and hit one off the dribble. He shoots with confidence and while his release looks like it might be lower than ideal, I imagine he’ll improve over time. Free throw shooting is a bit more of a question mark. He didn’t get to the line in Turkey, but is shooting 52% on the season (on 27% FTr) and is at 54% on nearly 300 attempts across all comps. It’s a poor number for a player who’s otherwise so skilled.

With Israel, he’s proven to be competent and relentless as a cutter and keeps an omnipresent pressure on the defense. He’s also comfortable playing with his back-to-the-basket and mixes in spin moves and up-and-unders to gain advantage. The level of skill pops in technical aspects of his game: post moves, ball handling, passing, and defensive position.

Defensively, he’s severely lacking strength but not will. Against Fenerbache, he wound up on 6-11, 240-pound Jan Vesely a few times. Vesely spent three seasons in the NBA and in addition to just being bigger than Avdija, is more physically mature and powerful. He treated Avdija like a rag doll, using super upper and lower body strength to gain position on post-ups and rebounds. In and of itself, this isn’t anything resembling a death knell for the young Israeli prospect. But it lines up with some challenges I saw from him in the FIBA U20s last summer where his sound defensive technique (verticality and defensive positioning specifically) was frequently muted by stronger or more explosive athletes.

Avdija will get stronger and I believe his shot mechanics are sound enough that he can become an average shooter. The lack of strength does concern me even in the long-term as I believe it limits his long-term defensive upside. If Avdija can be just average as a shooter and defender, his ability and upside as a creator are good enough to slot him in as an above average starter. But getting to average shooting and defending is still years in development.

 

  1. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, no change, Tier1: Nothing has fundamentally changed from when I wrote about him 10 days ago or however long it was, but enjoy some recorded video action:
  2. Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier2:

Nesmith is a bit of a fluky inclusion to this edition as his season ended back in January with a foot injury. I hadn’t written about him yet and saw more of his games last season than this one, but wanted to dig in a bit more and to be honest, this scouting dump needed a talent upgrade.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Nesmith has ideal two-guard size. He was overshadowed as a freshman behind McDonald’s All-American teammates and current professionals, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. Even last year, in a lot of ways he projected as a better fit at the pro level. His size, defense, and shooting were promising in his first season at Vanderbilt, but it was his injury-shortened second year that propelled his case forward.

He uses his size, strength, and length well on both ends, but it stands out more on the defensive side where he averaged 2.3 stocks/gm with steal and block percentages both over two. He’s shown strong defensive principles as a team defender who exhibits awareness of who he’s helping off of and where he’s helping to. His length is most valuable as a shot blocker in a variety of scenarios: as a help defender (clip below), on-ball defender, or in recovery. He showed improved strength in his sophomore year and should be able to switch up and guard smaller fours in the NBA although he has room to improve as a defensive rebounder; specifically his positioning and box out consistency. If he’s defending up, he’s likely to give up a decent amount of second chance opportunities.

Despite accumulating 500 minutes in just 14 games, Nesmith was a flamethrower, shooting an unsustainable 52% from three on 115 attempts. Per Synergy, he was on some Steph Curry-type shit, finishing in the 95th percentile or higher across spot ups (31% of the time), off screens (21%), hand-offs (8%), and in isolations (5%) while merely 90th percentile in transition (18%).

He’s most comfortable and effective shooting jumpers either off the catch or bounce and is already developing an ability to burst hard off off-ball screens, take the pass or handoff, stop on a dime, set his feet and elevate into his motion. It’s not the Korver, Klay, Redick-level of body control, but the foundations are there. I’m also not quite ready to put him into that realm of pure shooter off the strength of an incendiary half sophomore season.

The offensive effectiveness trickles off quite a bit after the shooting. Per barttorvik.com, he’s middle of the road at the rim while Synergy has him in the 60th percentile (good) on around-the-rim non-post ups. In my viewing, his athleticism and length on drives has been evident. He’s a long-strider who can get to the basket although I think he can be both more selective and effective attacking closeouts, but is somewhat limited by an average-to-below average handle, very little passing threat or awareness, and occasionally wild or off-balance shot attempts. There are possessions where he commits to the drive before he catches the ball and is dead set on getting off a shot. This is more maturity and game reps than anything else, but it’s an area of opportunity. With his frame, athleticism, and shot, attacking off the bounce has the potential to be a scary weapon. And while I see this as opportunity, it’s worth noting that he nearly doubled his free throw attempts from 2.5/gm to 4.5/gm while improving his FTr from 27.5% to 30.7%.

Because of the defensive impact and potential versatility combined with the shooting, I keep thinking of him as a bit smaller Dorell Wright although I believe Nesmith’s 14 games as a sophomore are probably better than any shooting stretch of Wright’s 549-game NBA career and while both athletic players, they’re completely different types of athletes. There are some low key hints of Klay Thompson as well, but this is more in the defense/lack of creation with slight nods to the shooting. Somewhere between Wright and Thompson is a yawning canyon of potential outcomes, but such is life: choose door #1 and find love, peace, and happiness. Door #2 is a highway to hell without the fun of an AC/DC accompaniment.

Scouting Dump #3, Part II: Tiers 3 thru 10

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.

Games included:

The games:

  • 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

Tier 3:

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.

Tier 8:

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.

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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.

The rest.

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.

Incompletes: Ethan Henderson, Reggie Chaney, Serrel Smith, Uros Plavsic, Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, Max Agbonkpolo, Kyle Sturdivant

 

 

Scouting Dump #3: Mostly February, Tiers 1 and 2

12 games, 86 players, and a new job span this latest scouting dump which has, admittedly, undergone a partially expected detour that included site seeing with Cole Anthony and LaMelo Ball and aborted ventures to RJ Hampton and some other point guards. There’s also a high school version sitting somewhere in my drafts, but all is on hold until we scrub through the latest 86 – or at least the first six of those 86 since being concise is an impossibility. As a reminder: the only players covered are players I viewed during this window of games so please no kicking up dust or angry letters to the editor because you didn’t see LaMelo or James Wiseman or Markus Howard or whoever you’re fancying these days.

The games:

  • 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

Previous editions:

 

  1. Anthony Edwards, Georgia, no change, #1 overall, Tier1: Edwards either had the flu or was recovering from the flu when his Bulldogs hosted Alabama and it appeared to have some effect on his game, but the degree to which it did is impossible for me to say, but when Anthony Edwards, he of the heat check, he of the pull-up-three game, he of the questionable shot selection habits, chooses to bypass a wide open three in favor of a pass, something is clearly amiss. Flu or not, this version of Edwards was different from the last I’d seen him in January against Tennessee where I noted that he had shown, “lazy fucking D not even getting hand up on JJJ (Josiah-Jordan James).” Against Alabama though, Edwards was engaged and competing defensively. He got out and denied passes, jumped passing lanes for steals, stayed in front of Bama’s lightning quick spitfire Kira Lewis Jr. He was far from flawless, but a greater ability to stay focused than I’d previously seen. Offensively, he was more within the flow of the group: using his strength and quickness to attack off the bounce, taking open looks instead of forcing pull-ups, and making pass reads in the half court. It’s all there with Edwards, a 6-5, 225-pound bull(dog?) of a guard. And it’s always been there which is why I’ve had him atop my list since Cole Anthony’s injury. With Edwards, the ceiling, that beautiful fresco to be imagined and hopefully, maybe, possibly realized, hinges on consistency: consistency of effort, of output. Prior to the Alabama game, he had a three-game stretch where he averaged 28-points, ten rebounds and over 3.5 stocks with 47-39-72 shooting splits on 11 threes and six free throw attempts-per-game. In the subsequent four games, it’s 13.5-points and six rebounds with just over two stocks and 34-17-93 shooting. Somewhere in this seven-game morass lie hints to his NBA future. Anthony Edwards: Fun vs Function.

 

2. Onyeka Okongwu, USC, rising, Tier2: After seeing Okongwu rain arrays of dunks and ambidextrous finishes against Arizona and Colorado, I was so stinking tempted to bump him up to tier one with Edwards, but the more I stewed over it, the more clearly his potential limitations prevented me from lifting him to the much lusted after tier one valuation. At just 19-years-old, Okongwu has a range and versatility to his offensive game that borders on savant levels. His face-ups out of the post include spins, shot fakes, scoop shots, both hand finishes, hooks, floaters all powered by masterclass footwork. He strings moves together in ways that twist up defenders and remind me of some weird basketball version of Manny Pacquiao with his crazy punch angles. To top that off, his explosiveness, strength, and hands are all well-above average. The combination of skill and athletics allow him to dominate as an undersized (6-9, 245) center, but that size and some of his lapses in focus on the defensive end are why I ultimately put him in T2. Not to go all micro sample size, but against UW’s Isaiah Stewart (6-9, 240 with a 7’4” wingspan), Okongwu was physically overpowered at times. Stewart plays with a motor rivaled at the collegiate level only by Luka Garza and so it’s not a knock on Okongwu that he lost some battles, but against tanks like Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, DeAndre Ayton, Nikola Jokic or even less-skilled behemoths like Jusuf Nurkic or Aron Baynes, he’ll have challenges. Given the league’s deviation away from post-ups, it doesn’t put a hard cap on Okongwu’s ceiling and, when engaged, he’s aware as a team defender and is a plus as a rim protector. He’ll have a quickness advantage over most NBA fives, but unless he can better develop a perimeter game (0-3 on threes at USC and 1-4 across Adidas Nationals and Gauntlet games), his full range of skills will be harder to tap into.

3. Cole Anthony, UNC, trending down, Tier2: Anthony, a 6-3 freshman who turns 20 in May, was my number one overall player in the class, but injury, inefficiency and extended, high-level viewing have steadily knocked him further down my list. Anthony isn’t the shooter I thought he was or could be. In nine pre-injury games, he shot 38% on twos and 35% on nearly seven three attempts. Since his return, the twos have crept up closer to 40% while the threes have dipped down to 27% on 41 total attempts. In EYBL, he was an 89% free throw shooter, but that number plummeted to 68% pre-injury, and bounced back up to 84% on 45 post-injury attempts. With the exception of the free throw percentage and a nose diving steal-per-game average (from 1.9 to 0.7), this hasn’t been a tale of two seasons for Anthony, rather, it’s been one long, uneven march towards the draft. It’s not just the shooting though, it’s repeated defensive mistakes that have, somewhat at least, tried to course correct since returning. Despite an explosive first step and a booming vertical, Anthony struggles to create looks at the rim for himself and has a strange propensity for leaning back at the peak of his jump on rim attempts, hanging, clutching and adjusting, looking for just the right angle on his shot. It’s a bad habit that’s led to inefficiency. He’s shooting just 46% on close twos per barttorvik. If most of what I’ve written about Anthony is critical, it’s what he’s proven capable of in spite of a challenging season pockmarked with injury and losing. He’s maintained a 33% usage rate surrounded by non-pros and non-shooters. He sports around 40% rates on FTr and 3PAr which should lend themselves better to a pro game with hyper emphasis on the efficiency of threes and free throws. His rebounding, particularly on the defensive end, is one of the areas where his vertical athleticism and strength visibly translate. There’s an effective, impactful player here, it’s just not to the degree I previously thought.

4. Killian Hayes, ratiopharm Ulm, trending up, Tier2: At 6-5 with a listed 6-8 wingspan, Hayes is bigger, longer, and over a year younger than Anthony. In the German league, he plays against fringe NBA guys like Ricky Paulding, Zoran Dragic, Bryce Alford, and Peyton Siva where he’s more than held his own with per-36 averages of 17-points, four rebounds, eight assists, and two steals. He has, by most measures, out-performed Anthony this season. Anthony’s athleticism, pull-up ability, and history of producing give him the slimmest of edges for me, but it’s narrow enough that a handful of strong performances or workouts from either player could tilt the advantage. But Hayes’s prospect profile isn’t tied to Anthony’s. He easily stands apart as his ow distinct talent. At 6-5, he’s not wispy thin like LaMelo or even a Shaun Livingston. He has a good build that he puts to use on the defensive end where he seeks out contact in on and off-ball situations and on loose balls or rebounds. He fights through screens which is a sight to beyond after seeing LaMelo crumple so many times. The combination of defensive awareness and technique, effort (usually – there are lapses), and size provide for a solid foundation. If he’s sound defensively, it’s on the offensive where he’s radiant. Next to Ball and probably Nico Mannion, he’s the best pick-and-roll passer of this deep point guard crop; able to quickly diagnose the optimal pass angle or wait for the defenders to muddle up the help or switch; he can make an over-the-top pass or thread the needle and, P&R or not, passes with a Rondo-like confidence that belies his age. While the pass is his most developed offensive skill, he has a lefty hang dribble that while maybe not lethal, does create problems for defenders as he can, with equal deftness, drive off the hang, pull-up quickly, or zip a one-hand rope to an open teammate. He has touch on a short-range pull-up and on floaters and has a TS of 60 across 31 games in all competitions this season. His handle is clean, but he’s struggled against pressure at times and as mentioned, his defensive effort and engagement can wane off-the-ball. And it could be scheme-based but I’ve seen him float on the offensive end without the ball which is consistent with his occasional off-ball lack of engagement defensively. Mini warts aside, Hayes probably projects as a safer bet than Anthony with an ever-so-slightly lower ceiling based on athleticism.

5. Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky, trending up, Tier2: At 6-3, 195, he’s a prospect Draft Twitter was high on coming in, but who I struggled to assess based on his tweener guard size. It only took me watching Kentucky’s season opener to hop on the bandwagon and my appreciation of the Maxey experience has grown since then. His stats aren’t pedestrian, but they don’t scream lottery pick either: 14-points on 44-29-82 shooting with a 54 TS on 23% usage with the fifth best BPM on the team per barttorvik and completely average steal and block rates (1.3 stocks/game). Stats don’t appropriately convey Maxey’s Energizer Bunny on-court effort. Against Tennessee, it was the usual baseline-to-baseline, sideline-to-sideline coverage like a midfielder playing box to box without seeming to ever take a breath. From the waist down, Maxey almost looks like a running back with a powerful lower body that propels his projectile-like first step. If the boom isn’t trouble enough for defenders, that Maxey can beat you with the pass, spot up, or drive only adds to the threat. He attacks with a decisiveness that keeps opponents on their heels at all times. He can finish at the rim with both hands and mixes in a floater that he releases from unorthodox angles. In this game, he incorporated a lob in the half court on a defensive breakdown. This is the type of read-and-react scenario that helps me trust more in his abilities to shoulder a greater weight of a pro offense than what we’ve seen at Kentucky. And it’s not just that Maxey has burst, but he has speed to accompany it and, like his burst, his speed is complemented by plus-body control. Maxey can play fast, but under control; able to push the break at break neck speed and finish in traffic under control. Defensively, I’ve seen him face guard Anthony Edwards, chase shooters through screen gauntlets, and bang forwards in the post. Lower body strength is probably one of the more historically overlooked traits in NBA players, but you can see the shifting emphasis in Houston and Boston where James Harden, Grant Williams, PJ Tucker, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye are being deployed as multi-positional, switchable defenders. Maxey doesn’t have the physical range to do what those players can, but at a legit 6-3, his effort, technique, and lower body strength will limit teams’ abilities to target him in mismatches and thus keep him on the court. For Maxey and the next player on the list (Tyrese Haliburton), there’s a lot of the same similarities as between Anthony and Hayes. I believe Haliburton is probably a safer prospect with a more transferable set of skills, but am ultimately drawn to the electrifying upside of Maxey’s speed, burst, and self-creation; shot included.

6. Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State, no change, Tier2: Haliburton is a poster child of sorts for this draft class. He’s a hyper-efficient combo-guard/wing who can do most anything you’d want except get to the free throw line with any regularity (16.7% FTr/1.2 FTs/gm in 57 games in Ames). For more context on the free throw volume: each player listed above Haliburton here has attempted more free throws this season than he has in two years at Iowa State and for Edwards and Okongwu, they’ve nearly doubled his attempts – eek!

As a freshman, he slotted behind NBA draft picks and G-Leaguers Marial Shayok, Lindell Wiggington, and Talen Horton-Tucker, but still put up a team-best 7.8 BPM with just over 10% usage. For context, in barttorvik’s player database, which dates back to 2008, Haliburton is one of three players with usage rate under 11% and BPM over seven. With an increased load this season (21.4%), his BPM has correspondingly risen up to 11 – 6th highest total in NCAA D1. But life as a prospective NBA player is about more than usage rates and BPMs. This is fine for the slender Haliburton who screeches past eye tests with preternatural instincts. On the defensive end, he averages 3.2 stocks/game and is the only player from a Power 5 conference in the top-10 nationally in steals/game (2.5). He’s able to menace opponents with elite reaction time and anticipation. It’s easy to describe his play as “instinctual,” as I just did, but it betrays an elite mind and accelerated ability to process the game around him. This same processing that leads to copious steals puts him in the neighborhood for loose balls galore and allows him to make split second decisions on the offensive side as well. He can be this decisive in the full or half court because he always knows where to find his teammates. This awareness allows him to leave his feet and diagnose plays while in the air. Making aerial reads is just a small part of his passing game. Haliburton is decisive with the ball, willing to swing for hockey assists or make snap on-the-move, off-the-dribble one hand passes. Aside from the weird lack of free throws, he has an unorthodox shot release that’s remarkably effective. He sped up the release time from his freshman to sophomore seasons and over 234 attempts is shooting nearly 43%. The knock here is that those percentages are driven by elite catch-and-shoot numbers. Per Spencer Pearlman’s Stepien scouting report which leverages Synergy data, Haliburton ranks in the 97th percentile on C&S while his pull-ups (0.68 PPP) are in the 37th percentile.  Despite the lean frame, Haliburton is an explosive athlete with strong hands, good balance, and touch around the basket. In the two-year sample we have of his time with Iowa State and the U19 World Cup, he’s proven to be effective in various roles – from facilitator (U19s) to role player (freshman year) to primary scorer and facilitator (sophomore year). This role type versatility combined with his athleticism, processing speeds, and offensive feel project well for the league.

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: Half-cocked Ideas and Hairbrained Theories feat. Cole Anthony

This post was supposed to be about players I reviewed back during Thanksgiving Feast Week or whatever the hell that cavalcade of games was marketed as. I scouted/watched 60-some-odd players that week and ranked 47, but the more I marinated and ruminated and procrastinated, the more it became clear that the bundle of point guards at the top, players not named Anthony Edwards, deserved their own inquisitions.

Six of my top nine from that week project as some form of NBA point guard and I presently have them ranked as such: (This list only includes players I watched that week so you won’t see Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, etc.)

But there’s something that feels oh-so-fragile to this exercise in subjectivity. We were recently alerted that Cole Anthony, son of Greg, would be out six-to-eight weeks for surgery on a meniscus injury. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton of the NBL are both in the midst of their own injury-related hiatuses. The opportunities for scouting these young men are growing less by the day and thus the opportunity for inaccurate assessment grows. I will be wrong. I will change my mind. I will doubt myself. I am human, born to make mistakes.

COLE ANTHONY

So why Cole at the top? I came into the season with Cole Anthony as my number-one overall prospect based on a powerful athleticism that none of the other point guards on this short list can compare with and that goes for Kira Lewis too. Anthony’s strength and elevation exceed that of his fellows. To top it off, in 21 games of the 2018 EYBL season, he shot 89% on 195 free throw attempts alongside 38% on 142 threes. When the best athlete is arguably the second-best shooter (Nico Mannion the best), is passable as a creator, an elite guard rebounder, and flashes defensive potential, it’s easy to get giddy, and overlook gut feelings that I’ll explore further below.

Too, every one of these players has warts. If a massive aspect of scouting is projecting how these players develop and what they become as pros, then deeply understanding their flaws and how deeply ingrained they are in relation to the strengths, which we so rightly celebrate, is a requirement of the exploration.

WARTS & STUFF

Cole: average-to-above average passer/creator, possibly lacking in feel, questionable defensive IQ, questionable finishing and release angles, old for class

LaMelo: defense defense defense inclusive of strength, focus, and effort. Shooting, shot release, core strength, lower body strength

RJ: shot and touch, uncertain if he’s a full-time point guard, ability to defend smaller/quicker guards, developing defensive awareness

Nico: average athlete, average length, can be stymied by team length, lacking vertical explosiveness, ability to generate good looks for himself

Tyrese: creation for others beyond pick-and-roll, attack instincts, shot mechanics, strength

Kira: passing instincts, point guard feel, strength (I’m fully aware that Kira is young for his class), defensive consistency

It was a combination of Anthony’s EYBL and Oak Hill tape, bolstered by the stats above, that drove him to the top of my list. But what’s happened in his month of competitive play at Chapel Hill that tilted the narrative and exposed some of those vulnerabilities?

Anthony shot out like a rocket in his debut against Notre Dame with 34-points on 65 true shooting and 11 rebounds. For all its small sample size, it appeared his strengths would translate seamlessly. But if Anthony chooses to shut it down following his knee surgery, that game will be his collegiate high-water mark, the points, rebounds, threes made, and true shooting all career bests. Against Notre Dame, he performed in his templatized style: an array of pull-ups from two and three, an omnipresent threat attacking off the dribble, and a general physical imposing of will.

Even in high school, when Anthony dominated, there were hints and tics of potential inefficiencies that I should’ve better sniffed out and over his subsequent, post-Notre Dame games, they surfaced with greater frequency and clarity. Unlike Mannion or LaMelo, Anthony is not a pure point guard in the sense that he’s not a natural facilitator. I believe the notion of “pure point guards” is overblown gatekeeping nonsense, but in this case, it merely serves to articulate that Anthony neither defaults to the pass or can pass/read with the gusto of some of his peers. Of the six points in this scout, I’d say he’s on par with Lewis as the two least-talented passers of the bunch. In his nine games as a Tar Heel, Anthony picked up 34 turnovers to just 31 assists, easily the worst ratio of any guard in this set.

The UNC challenges don’t end there. Anthony, like many players before him, has succeeded, has thrived, in spite of himself. His combination of athleticism and highly developed skill has meant he can excel in high-degree-of-difficulty scenarios. Case-in-point are the pull-ups he loves so much. Further, looking back over my notes from his Oakhill days, I called out his challenges in both generating clean looks for himself and finishing around the rim. At UNC, I’ve seen a series of odd-angled shot releases on penetration, particularly upon making contact with help defenders. He has the strength and hangtime to make in-air adjustments and absorb contact, but how he adjusts and gets off his shots, often while pulling back in-air instead of driving all the way through, seems like it hurts his ability to finish.

Defensively, I don’t tend to get concerned with guards this age unless effort or physical ability are significant red flags. With Anthony, he’s averaged nearly two steals/game with a 3.2% steal rate, which are both fine. He’s shown an ability to focus in on-ball situations, has great feet and hips that allow him to easily and fluidly change direction, and a hyper burst allows him to recover on plays where he’s been otherwise beaten and positively impact the play. In terms of off-ball defense and drill fundamentals, he has a lot of work to do. He loses his man from ball watching, has off-ball lapses, and multiple times this season, I’ve seen teammates physically push him into right position or shout instructions to him as he’s failed to execute the right coverage. Again, he mostly gives full effort and with his physical tools has plenty of upside. The work comes in the less sexy realms like pick-and-roll coverage and help defense.

All of this leads to an attempt at answering what does a pro version of Cole Anthony look like? What translates? What doesn’t? Or, to what degree do his skills and abilities translate? I believe in the athleticism: the burst, elevation, strength, and balance. As a foundation, his physical/athletic profile is vastly superior to the other guards with the exception of maybe RJ Hampton, who Anthony is still more athletic than, just not by as great of a degree. The athleticism, build, and effort mean he should be able to hover around average defensive impact for a guard with the potential to be much better. Stubbornly, I trust in in Anthony’s ability to assimilate and adapt as a scorer at the NBA level. With better spacing and a commitment to developing as a finisher –in terms of touch, decisiveness, and release – his scoring profile would be well-rounded with room to grow in efficiency and decision making. The clip below exemplifies Anthony’s wide range: he uses his burst and handle to split the double, but his eyes are only on the rim. To be fair, he’s surrounded by non-shooters, but the commitment to the shot is a limiting habit at present. It’s also a good of both his inconsistent touch (it comes and goes) and what could be an inability to decelerate – a recurring trait I’ve seen on his drives.

To go deeper on his offense, there’s a subtlety of skill that will lend itself to his eventual NBA transition and acts as a good reminder that he’s the son of an NBA player and has spent much of his life around NBA gyms. Anthony is adept at getting the most out of his screens: he’s patient and when he does decide to go, he rubs shoulder-to-shoulder with the screener. He’s also a bully who knows how to impose himself, both vertically and horizontally, against smaller guards. While he won’t see many guys in the NBA as small as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (6-0, 190 which seems generous) or Virginia’s Kihei Clark (5-9, 155), against both, Anthony leveraged his strength on drives to the rim, easily finishing through both of the smaller players. In EYBL, he’d even take taller players into the post where his strength and two-foot rise gave him an advantage. His off-dribble game is effective in part because of his excellent body mechanics and ability to dribble hard, stop, square, and rise in one (mostly) fluid motion. In high school, he showed a greater utilization of head fakes and feints, but in his limited UNC stint, I saw this less frequently. These skill-based attributes are advanced for a college freshman and are further evidence of how and why his scoring ability can translate.

And in a world where the above prognostications are spot on, my greatest concerns aren’t addressed or resolved. Against Virginia, in a game where Anthony was already dealing with the injury that will keep him out for the next one to two months, I had the stinking, sinking realization that he wasn’t elevating his teammates and despite what I’ve observed of him as an engaged and encouraging teammate, he wasn’t making guys better. As a shoot-first lead guard, he hasn’t figured out how to operate off the ball and is prone to existing as an all or nothing offensive piece. He can make the pass if he can get to the read, but my interpretation of his attack is that his mind and eyes are seeking avenues to score first, distribute second. It’s not that a modern point guard must be pass first either. Trae Young and Luka Doncic both score a shitload of points while using dynamic scoring and vision in a complimentary fashion: the scoring opens up the passing and vice versa. Anthony doesn’t have to be Young or Luka to be effective, but he hasn’t yet exhibited consistency for advanced reads or passes or an ability to reliably utilize one skill to set up the other.

Despite trending down, I still have Anthony as my second-ranked prospect in this draft behind Anthony Edwards. There are worlds where he can follow paths or styles that resemble Jamal Murray or Kemba Walker. I get the Russell Westbrook comps too, but don’t see Anthony reaching that level of passing. In a draft class severely lacking in high-degree-of-confidence stars, Anthony slides in as a flawed, but somewhat ready-made player, a physically mature player whose upside exists in nuance and mechanics. He exists for me as a high-floor prospect with a low likelihood of achieving his potential and, as currently constructed, unlikely to be a significant contributor on a winning team.

Scouting Dump: Week of November 19th

Welcome to the second scouting/prospect dump of this 2019-20 prospect season. (I almost titled this “Scouting Dump #2” but opted against for what should be obvious reasons.) (I added the “prospect” descriptor because these are not exclusively scouting reports though there are layers of scouting, from Chicago deep dish thick to buttermilk biscuit flake thin, accompanying each player and rank.) I write these completely in arears and have seen several of the players included here play in Thanksgiving tournaments and those games will no doubt influence these rankings and commentary.

The purpose of these rankings is multifold: to sort through my own reactions and thoughts, to compare and contrast prospects, to rank and re-rank as we move through the season and player traits and skills solidify or dissolve. There’s a point, even in a 35-game season, where a player establishes himself as the present version of himself. Last year, I didn’t need to watch much Zion Williamson to understand who or what he was. This year, in the short span of a month, RJ Hampton went from spindly-legged athletic point guard in New Zealand to broad-shouldered, symmetrical-man-athlete. This can happen when we’re watching teenagers grow up before our eyes and it makes a weekly (or bi-weekly or whatever) exercise valuable and insightful.

As always, rankings are fluid and entirely possible to be inconsistent from week-to-week. 45 total players pulled from the following games:

  • 11/19/19: Pepperdine @ USC
  • 11/21/19: South Dakota State @ Arizona
  • 11/21/19: Ohio vs Baylor – snippet
  • 11/21/19: Texas vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
  • 11/22/19: Mississippi State vs Villanova
  • 11/22/19: Duke vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
  • 11/24/19: Florida vs Xavier

 

  1. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending up:

Mannion deserves his own piece and at some point during this draft season, perhaps I’ll sit down to it. For now, I’ll content myself with a snippet of a profile: he’s listed at 6-foot-3 although he looks shorter to me with a negative .5” wingspan per 2019 Nike Hoop Summit. While possessing what appear to be Chase Budinger hops (can elevate with a runway, but also goateed white basket-athlete), he’s not going to sky over bigger players for rebounds or roast defenders with quickness. His physical and athletic profiles have not proven a hindrance to his ability to produce at the high school, AAU, or college levels. Through a brief nine-game sample, he’s scoring 15-points on 52-43-78 shooting splits while flirting with a 3:1 assist:turnover ratio in just 29 minutes/game. He drives a high impact on offense by dictating game flow as a multi-threat player with optimal decision-making ability. He can score off quick-release pull-up jumpers from well-beyond the college three-line, attack defenders either direction with a low, tight handle, has a mature runner off one-foot that appears to be master class already (CLIP), and can pass with the type of improvisational imaginative functionality that expresses the poetry of basketball (CLIP). He is exquisite, technically functional without being robotic. Defensively, his impact is significantly lower, but he is a plus as a team defender, able to recognize rotations and anticipate ball movement and positioning. In a game against Wake Forest on December 1st, I saw what appear to be vestiges of a John Stockton/Kyle Lowry-styled defensive nastiness that borders on dirty when Mannion was switched onto a big and instead of passively accepting his fate as barbeque chicken, he pushed, kneed, and thighed his way into better position. He is, and continues to be, a joy to behold.

  1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC, trending up: Very little to add since what I wrote a week ago. I’d still have him behind Wiseman, but like Bone Thugs in 199-whatever, he’s creepin on ah come up.
  2. Josh Green, Arizona, no change: Like Mannion, the 6-6 with 6’10”+ wingspan Green deserves his own piece. I’ve been high on him for a couple of years so I’m not surprised to still be high on him, but rather to be high on him for his role which, as is so often the case, makes perfect sense in the hindsight of present reality. Against Wake, Green didn’t score his first bucket until a few minutes into the second half and yet was arguably one of AZ’s most impactful players through rebounding, offensive facilitation, two-way effort, and individual and team defense. Watching him grab-and-go off the defensive glass, seeing his quick hands create problems for Wake players, and his plus-instincts as a passer (in both full and half court), I suddenly believed he could be an Andre Iguodala-type super role-player. This isn’t to say he’s the second coming of Iguodala, so please put away your tar and feathers. Rather, the similarities I see are elite athleticism (positional strength, vertical and horizontal explosiveness, and quick reactions) coupled with plus-IQ and effort, and facilitator instincts. That he’s currently shooting 38% on 29 threes with 81% on 32 free throws only add to his well-roundedness.
  3. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova, no change: The 6-9, 235-pound Robinson-Earl is the son of former Kansas and LSU dunk maestro, Lester Earl and where his pops was a bundle of unrefined athleticism with two legs, two arms and whatnot, Robinson-Earl is basketball refinement manifested and requisite parts included. He projects as an NBA four with stretch-five potential (41% on 17 3s at Villanova), has excellent size, average length, and a sturdy build. For a freshman, he shows a high basketball IQ as he frequently flashes into space, plays the game at a measured, unrushed pace, quickly diagnoses and reacts to defensive assignments and rotations, and generally exhibits an ability to rapidly process the game. Even when JRE makes the occasional misread defensively (failing to drop on a pick-and-roll cover or getting beaten on an overplay denial), he recognizes the mistake and it’s easy to understand what he was going for. He has plus-footwork inside, knows how to use his wide body as a screener/box out man, and consistently runs the floor hard. He doesn’t strike me as ever reaching All-NBA levels, but his high-floor game replete with effort, intelligence, and fundamentals, should translate well to the NBA. Reminds me a bit of David West but without the wingspan or reputation.
  4. Scottie Lewis, Florida, trending up: Lewis is a 6-5 defensive menace with a wingspan sniffing 7-feet. He’s older for a freshman, turning 20 in March, but he’s just a damn dog on the defensive side of the ball where he channels a best-in -class intensity into constant harassment and impact. Through eight games, he’s averaging 4.4 stocks/game, many of which are the highlight variety. I see shades of Matisse Thybulle in his dropdown blocks: the DNA of a hunter stalking in silence and pouncing (CLIP). The way he moves his hips, mirrors opponent movements, crouches and slides call to mind a defensive back – but at 6-5 and with a huge vertical. His defense is what will get him to the NBA. His offense? He’s shooting 74% from the line with a 46% FTr and with his speed and stride length can be effective as a straight-line driver. Beyond those two attributes, he’s been limited at Florida. He can make the right read and pass, but isn’t expected and probably not capable of doing much more at present. From October of 2018, Draft Express had him as a 33% career three-point shooter, but he’s just 4-17 (23%) at Florida. In my viewing, his threes have primarily been catch-and-shoot. The shooting mechanics don’t appear to be broken, but one gets the sense that the same intensity that makes him so dangerous defensively has an adverse impact on his offense and shot.
  5. Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change: listed at 6-11, 240-pounds, Nnaji somehow plays bigger than his size. On the interior, he establishes position with a deep, wide, almost crustacean or arachnid-like base. He’s proficient around the basket, shooting nearly 80% at the rim per Barttorvik and tied with Obi Toppin for the most close twos made, but equally impressive has been an uber-confident and decisive mid-range game which extends to the elbows. Outside the rim, he’s shooting 68% on 28 attempts. With a 79% rate on over five free throws/game, he shows some potential as a floor spacer although it’s not being utilized beyond the mid-range at all. Plays with intensity and focus on both ends, covers lot of ground with long strides and in defensive slides. Arizona frequently uses him to help trap ball handlers on the perimeter and he’s shown ability to be a disruptive there while also capable of recovering to his own man. While not statistically foul prone (four fouls/40), he’s gotten in foul trouble in multiple games I’ve seen. He has upside and probably projects better as a team defender than a rim protector (1.5 blocks/40) which, unless he can extend his range, limits his overall potential impact.
  6. Saddiq Bey, Villanova, trending up: The 6-8 Bey is a 21-year-old sophomore shooting 54-47-78 through the first quarter of the season. His three-ball, in my viewing, has been primarily off catch-and-shoots. He’s a bit of a do-everything power wing who can handle with both hands, create for himself or others off the bounce, defend multiple positions, and overall contribute positively to winning basketball. While his minutes are largely unchanged from his freshman season, his usage has leapt up from 14.4% to 22.2%, a change that’s been accompanied by 57 to 65 jump in true shooting, nearly doubling his assist rate (from 8.6% to 15.3%) and a flat turnover rate (up 0.3%). He’s functionally strong, able to use his frame to create space on the glass or, as he is apt to do, back down opponents, draw in help, and kick to the open man like he does in the clip below though his shoulder fake to shift the defense away from the corner man is some next level shit. Like his teammate, Robinson-Earl, Bey processes the game quickly and is decisive in attack. For me, it’s easy to get lulled into the idea that Villanova players project as role players who contribute to winning in the pros. That may be Bey’s destiny, but depending on where his output and impact plateau, he could exceed that already-lofty designation.
  7. Vernon Carey Jr. Duke, no change: Carey is a super-sized, offensively skilled lefty big who’s listed at 6-10, 270-pounds. For a while, he was the top player in the 2019 high school class, before his defensive foibles (typically effort-based) ultimately caught up with him. Carey’s per-40 numbers are as impressive as they were predictable: 31-points and 15 rebounds with 4 blocks and 13 free throw attempts. There was never any doubt Carey, with his massive size, power, and skill, would struggle to deliver in college. In terms of scoring, he can do pretty much anything you’d ask of your collegiate big: go to either shoulder with his back to the basket (CLIP), finish with power or touch, shrug off contact like a hippo flicking away a Spud Webb, bulldoze the offensive glass, turn and face. He doesn’t have Kevin McHale’s footwork or post moves, but he has an effective and versatile arsenal. He has touch, but it’s struggling to carry over at the free throw line where he’s just below 60%. And despite over two blocks/game, defensively is where he struggles to maintain focus and where his few athletic shortcomings are evident. He lacks high-level bounce and is not particularly long which limits his rim protection ability. He has, and has had, the terrible habit of taking entire defensive possessions off, standing stiff-legged, and unfocused. This was hideously evident against Georgetown as he was soundly beaten off the dribble by basketball-player-in-training, Qudus Wahab. This type of play was the norm and not the exception during his high school days and if he’s unable to correct it, his NBA path could follow that of fellow Duke big man, Jahlil Okafor. My last note/thought on Carey is that I believe he has some potential as a shooter. He’s just 4-5 from three this season, but his mechanics are sound and he’s exhibited touch from other areas of the floor. He can produce, but it remains unclear how much he can help a team win.
  8. Isaiah Mobley, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
  9. Keyontae Johnson, Florida, no change: 6-5, 225 pounds with the neck of Marcus Smart or the neck of a boxer, your choice. Johnson isn’t the glass eating defender Smart is, but he goes hard and is a significantly superior vertical athlete (CLIP). As a flawed human myself, I think it makes sense to fall in love with flawed basketball players and maybe love is too strong a feeling to ascribe, but I do enjoy Keyontae. His greatest attributes are his strength, build, and athleticism; all of which are good enough at present to carry over to the NBA. On the skill side, things are a little less clear. He’s shooting 38% from deep on 79 career 3pas, is up to 71% from the line compared to 64% last year, and is just a hair under 63 TS. He has a one-dribble pull-up which he can hit at a decent clip and consistent, steady form on catch-and-shoot threes. On the inside, he has a little right-handed flip shot he’ll use with good touch. Where he gets in trouble offensively is his decision making. As a passer, he makes both bad reads and bad passes with the poor habit of trying to force the ball into post situations that aren’t available. His handle isn’t bad, but he occasionally tries to do much with it. Defensively, he’s not a great stocks guy (1.3/40) which seems to be based on average-to-slower-than-average reaction speed. He’s shown an awareness of how to use his size to gain advantage on offense, but I haven’t seen him consistently wall/chest up defensively. The NBA seems to be placing a higher emphasis on strength and mass and Johnson has all the natural tools coupled with adequate skill on which to build and ideally find a rotation/specialist role in the league.
  10. Colbey Ross, Pepperdine, trending up: At 6-1, 180, Ross isn’t much to look at, but against USC a few weeks back, he was a diminutive juggernaut, a small man lacking muscular definition attacking USC from all angles: changing directions, changing speeds, sweating confidence, crying competitiveness: busting asses. It so happens that I tuned in primarily to see his teammate Kessler Edwards, but it also happened that Edwards was relegated to wallflower status while Ross made mincemeat of USC’s guard rotation to finish with 38 on 13-20 shooting with an array of long bombs and cutting penetrations. He carries a gaudy workload on a not-so-great team and it shows in a 20% turnover rate alongside a usage rate just under 30%. I don’t believe he projects as a starting point in the NBA given his slighter stature, but given his shooting (42-40-92 on the season, 40% on 318 career 3pas), playmaking and competitiveness, it’s not hard to see him as a 2-way or UDFA guy who figures out how to assimilate his game into value for an NBA team.
  11. Wendell Moore Jr. Duke, no change: Moore is a strong, broad-shouldered 6-6 freshman wing for Duke who fancies himself a playmaker of sorts. This fancying may well be true, but it hasn’t translated with any sense of efficiency in his nine games at Duke where he’s shooting 42-33-63 and averaging 5 turnovers/40min. But for all the broken eggs Moore produces, the occasional delights show themselves as glimpses of an idealized, stabilized, maximized future. With his powerful build and burst, he’s great at getting past defenders with his shoulders low and capable of finishing on his own or with the drive-and-kick. He’s a bear in transition with plus-body control and speed. As a passer, he’s shown more vision than the ability to actually execute the pass. Too, there’s an improvisational element to his game (CLIP) that is largely unteachable. While these moments are outweighed by the larger story of his inefficient stats, they still exist as a notion of possibility and sometimes in this world of cloudy days, possibility is all we need (That would not be a good draft strategy.).
  12. Matthew Hurt, Duke, trending down: I kind of feel like going to Duke or Kentucky as a highly-touted recruit is like being Chris Bosh going to the Heat with Bron and Wade – but without the financial security or mental/emotional maturity. Last year we saw Cam Reddish struggle to integrate with better players and this year Hurt seems to be navigating a similarly bumpy transition. Statistically (10-points on 45-42-86 shooting), he’s around what you’d expect, but visually, he’s looked unimpressive for stretches. He bottomed out in the Georgetown game when he played just five minutes and struggled mightily on the defensive end with slow feet and an inability to sit low in his stance; guarding in space was always going a concern and, at times, it has shown itself as a weakness. In high school, Hurt excelled in and around the paint; he welcomed contact and used balance rather than power to navigate it, mixed in fakes, finished with either hand over either shoulder, and was efficient around the rim without being explosive. Per barttorvik, he’s shooting just below 54% at the rim. I’ve seen enough of Hurt to trust his skill-level, but trusting his ability to ratchet up the skill and adapt to a longer, more athletic opponent set while maintaining his confidence in a system where he’s getting less touches is something I’m less comfortable in. For what it’s worth, in three games since the G-Town debacle, he’s averaging 15-points on 51-50-80 shooting.
  13. Tre Mann, Florida, trending down: I loved Mann coming out of high school as an initiating off-guard with oodles of skill as a ball handler and shooter. What I overlooked was his lithe physical profile. At 6-4, 180 (Where are these pounds? I cannot see them.), Mann is close to scrawny. Guys wear weight different and his doesn’t appear to translate into much mass. It’s worth noting that we’re looking at a tiny sample already and that sample was interrupted by a few-game absence due to a concussion, but Mann’s best skills are shooting and scoring and he’s currently sitting on dismally abysmal 32-21-44 shooting splits. He appears to be adjusting to the speed and physicality of older, stronger, faster players, but I posit some of this is pure confidence and comfort. At moments, he’s been able to create his own looks off the bounce, but the frequency is such that it’s difficult to establish rhythm and confidence. One could make the case that Mann’s assessment should be N/A, but the physicals and the shooting, even in isolation, are enough for me to cock an eyebrow in concern. To be clear, I am not jumping ship on the young man, but patiently waiting for an injection of that insane Scottie Lewis confidence into Mann’s skinny arms and shooting fingers.
  14. Cassius Stanley, Duke, trending up: 20-year-old Duke freshman is better than I expected. Stanley has a compact, muscled 6-6, 193-pound frame topped with a small head and resting on thick legs. In high school, I saw him as this oldish (for his class) athlete dominating kids and falling in love with pull-up jumpers. There were flashes of playmaking and passing, but his reputation was that of a dunker. As I look back through my notes, there are hints of the player he’s been at Duke: scrappy, intense, active defensively. He’s likely out until January with a hamstring injury, but in his first eight college games, he’s shooting 47% from three, averaging 2.6 stocks, and getting two offensive boards/game. If Hurt has struggled somewhat to find a happy home on the court in Durham, Stanley has kicked in the door and announced his presence (CLIP) with an edge this particular Duke team needs. In terms of prospect, being 20 as a freshman lowers the ceiling somewhat, but with his physical tools and temperament, and if his shooting is anywhere near real, then he projects out as a rotational two in the league.
  15. Reggie Perry, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-9 or 6-10 big with plus-length and athleticism, broad shoulders and high motor. Good in pursuit of ball off glass. Shooting it well this season (7-18 from 3 for 39%, 79% at the rim) and showing touch around basket. More opportunities to show passing chops as key initiator and handler for Mississippi State and surprisingly thriving there (25% ast rate). Still waiting to see if the shooting is real; 54% from line isn’t reassuring. And while showing signs defensively, would like to see bit more impact on that end. Great signs of development at FIBA U19s this past summer. Have seen some shades of Kevon Looney in his game (not counting the handling/playmaking), but that could also be because they share similar builds.
  16. Jason Preston, Ohio, trending up: super small sample of this 6-4 Ohio point guard. Has +size for position, good pop on his passes, decisive with ball and crisp, accurate passing off live dribble (CLIP). Can handle with both hands, but maybe partial to right hand and not completely sold on handle in traffic. Crafty with look-aways and hesitations; makes up for less-than-elite quickness/burst. Probably carrying too heavy a load at 37 minutes/game, nearly nine assists, and over four turnovers. 51-33-79 shooting splits, 58 TS, no dunks thru nine games.
  17. Tre Jones, Duke, no change: The sturdy-bodied point has made some marked improvements from his freshman year. He’s improved his deep ball accuracy and volume: from 26% on three 3pas/game to 34% on four attempts. He’s still below average, but alongside a nearly 80% from the line, it shows growth and progress which old Lev Tolstoy would appreciate. Without the ball dominant RJ Barrett and uber-prospect Zion, Jones’s usage is up from 15% to nearly 24% and his FTr has spiked from a paltry 19% to 43% — possibly the biggest improvement in his game. With the increased usage, he’s more than doubled his turnovers, but still has a 2:1 assist:turnover rate. Seeing Jones this year, his most impressive attribute has been his passing. With increased opportunity has come better passes thrown with greater frequency. This makes me wonder how much better Duke could’ve been a year ago with the ball in Jones’s hands more than RJ’s. Is he just a younger version of his brother or is he willing to take the risks and push boundaries to exceed his brother’s metronomic reliability at the risk of soft failure? Nothing is permanent except death, I suppose.
  18. Naji Marshall, Xavier, no change: I initially had Marshall (6-7, 222, turns 22 in January) 13th, but given his age and lack of 3-point shooting (23% this season, 28% on 259 career 3pas), I had to drop him down. What he is/does: at 6-7, extremely crafty and decisive player, ball doesn’t stick in his hands, he catches and acts, ton of shiftiness, good size and length translates as strength to offense and defense, has touch on runner, attacks with both hands, mixes in lot of fakes, good, not great athlete with excellent body control and lateral mobility. What he isn’t/does do: shoot it well from deep; form and mechanics need lot of work, despite being strong initiator, his decision making (particularly on pull-up threes) sometimes leaves you asking questions. Like a lot of players, shooting is his swing skill. (Should be lower than #19 on this list.)

SPEED ROUND:

  1. Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State, trending up: Sophomore power wing with significantly improved shooting, less-than-desirable FTr, and lots of violent dunks.
  2. Cole Swider, Villanova, trending up: 6-9 sophomore shooter who appears to have a thick build though also wears a t-shirt under his jersey which makes it difficult to assess. Uses perceived bulk well defensively. Shooting splits: 57-49-100, 11-13 at the rim, zero dunks. 74 TS.
  3. Paul Scruggs, Xavier, no change: fun, creative, improvisational player who kind of reminds me of Detroit’s Bruce Brown. Low likelihood, but if he carves out an NBA role in his mid-20s, I wouldn’t be surprised.
  4. Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine, trending down: funny looking release on his jumper, but shooting 19-37 on the season (51%) after 37% as a freshman. Was miserable in game I saw him against USC: zero points on 0-7 shooting, zero free throw attempts, 32 minutes. An aberration, no doubt.
  5. Andrew Nembhard, Florida, trending down: one of best passers in college hoop as a 6-5 point, but bad shooting is somehow getting worse: 46 TS, 6-17 at the rim (35%) per barttorvik with some just awful missed layups.
  6. Jermaine Samuels, Villanova, no change: does it all except shoot well for Villanova as a versatile combo forward. Strong awareness and passing.
  7. Ethan Anderson, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
  8. Iverson Molinar, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-4 off guard, just found out he’s a 20-year-old freshman and that changes things. Solid college guard with potential to score at all three levels.
  9. Josh LeBlanc, formerly Georgetown, trending down: currently in transfer portal; facing legal issues, had seen significant decline in output as a sophomore.
  10. Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up: 6-4 reserve point with 26 assists to three turnovers and shooting 14-28 from three. Pushes it with pace, but control, luxury piece as a backup point. Shooting 36% on twos. Shoulder/neck length seems longer than normal.
  11. Tyson Carter, Mississippi State, trending up: Slender volume shooter (37% on seven 3pas); capable handler out of p&r, shoots off catch or bounce.
  12. Justin Moore, Villanova, no change: freshman shooter with decent build and BBIQ: very on-brand Villanova player.
  13. Kerry Blackshear, Florida, trending down: maybe it’s the knee braces, but mobility seems limited. Smart player liked more by GBPM than me.
  14. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down: nothing to add from last week.
  15. Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown, no change: wears a lot of accessories, 26 points and 15 rebounds per-40.
  16. Jamorko Pickett, Georgetown, no change: caught my attention with his length and defense against Duke.
  17. Omar Payne, Florida, trending up
  18. Qudus Wahab, Georgetown, trending up
  19. Douglas Wilson, South Dakota State, trending up: Des Moines, Iowa product from my alma mater. Highly aggressive in attack, likely averages a double double in 1970s NBA.
  20. Matt Coleman, Texas, no change: small (6-2 listing seems generous) shooter, 16-32 from three, 20-24 from line, better than 2:1 ast:TO.
  21. Mark Vital, Baylor, trending up: 4.4 stocks/40 for 6-5, 230-pound four man. Burly player who can jump out of the gym, but can’t really shoot for shit: 42-14-54 shooting splits.
  22. Mac McClung, Georgetown, no change
  23. Elijah Weaver, USC, no change
  24. Noah Locke, Florida, trending down
  25. Jericho Sims, Texas, trending down
  26. James Akinjo, formerly Georgetown, trending down

 

Players I noted, but didn’t see enough of to have strong opinions on: Max Agbonpolo, Devonaire Doutrive, Kai Jones, Gerald Liddell, Brandon Slater.

Scouting Dump: Week of November 11th

The below ranking is made up of players exclusively scouted from 11/12/19 thru 11/16/19. All rankings are fluid. Some I changed while writing and didn’t want to rework everything. I will no doubt be filled with regret and seek to course correct as the season goes on. Zero flags have been planted in the writing below though perhaps in some cases, land is being probed for potential flagpoles.

Games reviewed:

  • 11/12/19: Memphis at Oregon (in Portland)
  • 11/14/19: Michigan State at Seton Hall
  • 11/15/19: West Virginia at Pittsburgh
  • 11/15/19: Gonzaga at Texas A&M
  • 11/16/19: USC at Nevada

 

  1. James Wiseman, Memphis:

Stock change: no change

To be honest, USC’s 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman center Onyeka Okongwu has probably passed Wiseman, what with his overwhelming 21 free throws attempted against Pepperdine on November 19th, but I’m leaving Wiseman ahead for now. It’s probably less out of stubbornness on my part and more out of familiarity. The best I’ve seen of Wiseman shows me an emphatic, intimidating giant of a young man who swats shots with the vigor of Mitchell Robinson and snatches boards with the aplomb of Dikembe Mutombo. These skills have a higher likelihood of translating to the NBA, the only problem is that they happen in spurts and that was no different in a loss to Oregon on November 12th. Wiseman spent the first half in foul trouble, then picked up zero fouls in the second half on his way to 14 points and 12 rebounds (four offensive) and only one or two truly head scratching jumpers. We also got to see him switched on the perimeter: first against combo guard Will Richardson and then against point guard Payton Pritchard. Wiseman struggled to stay in front of Richardson and gave Pritchard too much space. It’s a tiny sample size, but both in terms of mobility and technique, there’s a lot for him to work on.

  1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC:

Stock change: rising

This is probably unfair since I watched Okongwu kick the ever-living crap out of Pepperdine a night ago, but Big O, Double O, Onyeka, or whatever the hell you want to call him is a bully. I mean that in the most positive way possible. In basketball competition, he’s an explosive brute who’s built kind of like J.J. Hickson and kind of reminds me of Hickson as well. Okongwu’s dunks have a bullish ferocity to them, but his athletic exploits aren’t limited to dunk shots. Rather, he puts it to work on the defensive end where he’s good as a rim protector and help defender and is at least showing good instincts and execution sliding his feet in help situations. On the glass, he highpoints the ball with strength and precision. He’s shown hints of having a mid-range jumper though he needs to wind up and has a slower release. He shot threes in the AAU circuit, but it doesn’t appear to be part of his USC arsenal yet. I look forward to see him go against NBA caliber bigs at some point.

  1. Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia:

Stock change: rising

Tshiebwe is a walking, breathing brick wall. He’s got around 15 pounds on Okongwu, but looks quite a bit thicker and strong which is saying something. There are a few quick things to get out of the way with Oscar: He plays in Bobby Huggins’s hyper-intense defensive scheme and is averaging over six fouls-per-40 minutes. This player/coach fit is ideal in that Tshiebwe has a motor that doesn’t quit and a coach like Huggins can deploy him like a modern-day Danny Fortson, but the flip is that he’ll wind up in foul trouble and deliver uneven performances. I was lucky enough to catch Oscar’s best game (of three played to-date) against Pitt and it’s true: Oscar is a physical marvel who sucks rebounds up like a giant human vacuum inhaling all in his orbit. His hands and fingers appear to have built-in stickum and vice grip-like strength. This is what we knew coming in, but against Pitt what impressed me were the smaller, more nuanced parts of his game. Pitt threw a zone at the sizable WVU front line and the result was an oscillating triangle of Mountaineers rotating through the post and flashing high into the lane. From this middle spot, Tshiebwe had opportunities to show some passing chops, decisiveness and awareness while also incorporating a show-and-go move that the defender unwisely bit. On another possession, he worked and reworked, using his feet instead of his bulk, to get into ideal position with an inside seal and then mix in a change of direction to free himself up for an easy finish. The physical makeup and effort will get him to the league. The nuance and skill development will allow him to excel there.

  1. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Oh hey, another 6-9, 240-some-odd pound big man. What Tillman, a junior, lacks in terms of Onyeka’s and Oscar’s athleticism, he makes up for with far superior passing and basketball IQ. Tillman can attack a closeout, make plays out of the short roll, and his offensive awareness allows him to react quicker than the defense, swinging the ball to open shooters or picking up hockey assists. His perimeter shot, from mid-range and three, looks fine, but he has a slower release hasn’t shot it too well this season. Given his mechanics, I imagine he’ll be able to develop into a serviceable standstill shooter. Defensively, he’s shown himself to be an excellent team defender, able to help and recover while utilizing his bulk and length to harass attackers. Against Seton Hall’s massive front line (7-2 Romaro Gill, 7-2 Ike Obiagu, 6-10 Sandro Mamukelashvili), he struggled at times on the offensive end which, for a player who doesn’t have a great jumper and isn’t a high-level leaper, is something worth noting. Overall, Tillman’s skillset is significantly more advanced than the three centers above him while his physical tools and upside put a lower cap on his ceiling.

  1. Myles Powell, Seton Hall:

Stock change: rising

Best scorer in college basketball perhaps? Scores at all three levels with NBA range. Can score off bounce, off catch, off the move. Can hit all the shots, all the time. If this was a fun ranking, he’d be at the top of the list; particularly with his performance against Michigan State: 37 points on 6-14 from three and 7-9 from the line. I had Powell ranked in the 30s before he pulled out of the draft last year and like him quite a bit more than St. Johns’ Shamorie Ponds – a somewhat comparable player as a smaller scoring guard. I’ve seen comparisons to Lou Williams which are probably unfair given Williams’s long-term scoring and playmaking development. Beyond the scoring though, the Williams comparison raises another issue with Powell’s current utilization: he has his highest career usage rate with the lowest assist rate (14.5%) and assists/gm (1.8) since his freshman year. I don’t doubt Powell can generate points at the pro level, but can he do it efficiently and within the framework of a winning offense? I didn’t get a good enough read on his defense to comment here, but plan on seeing him in person in December and will relay to you my findings at that later date.

  1. Aaron Henry, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Henry is a sophomore lefty who has the requisite size at 6-6, 210-pounds, along with mobility and athleticism that projects well as an NBA wing. While watching him against Seton Hall, I learned he hates clowns. He also had a nasty ankle roll, but was thankfully able to play through it though it did appear to hamper his elevation and he sat out their next game. Henry is partial to attacking with his dominant left, but is capable of finishing with both hands. While not quite an initiator, he’s shown flashes of making good reads and passes. Defensively, he’s competent and capable with strength and awareness. Against both Seton Hall and Kentucky, I saw him get visibility frustrated – once with the refs and once with a defensive miscommunication. This is hardly a red flag and is rather standard in the NBA, but in terms of scouting, it’s usually: See something, say something. Also worth noting that Henry’s broad array of skills and size likely make him a more transferable pro than Powell although none of his skills currently rise to the level of Powell’s shooting or scoring.

  1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State:

Stock change: Rising

I look at Cassius Winston and his 43% three-point shooting on 460 career attempts, his round Bonzi Wells-ish face, and stout build and I think Kyle Lowry, Jalen Brunson. I don’t think these are accurate comparisons, but merely surface level. Though, like Lowry, Winston can impact games and fill box scores without flashing a little leg. As a four-year acolyte of Izzo and a three-year starter, Winston is college basketball’s embodiment of stability. He might have that little Clyde Drexler-like leg pump on his jumper, but what’s it really matter when he can hit threes off catch or bounce at that 43% clip? His handle is competent, if a tad loose, but again, over a 113-game stretch, he’s at a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He runs the pick-and-roll with veteran savvy, can drop the pocket pass, sees and typically makes the right pass, and is generally a highly effective college basketball player. Given the development and impact of players like Fred Vanvleet and Devonte’ Graham, I find myself wandering in a forest of uncertainty with these four-year point guards. If nothing else, the shooting seems to translate and if it does for Winston, that’s a path to an NBA role.

  1. Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga:

Stock change: Rising

I’m probably higher on Petrusev than I should be, but against A&M, and in other games, he’s just been a model of composed, refined big man play. He lacks the power and athleticism of the top-four centers on this abbreviated list, but at 6-11, he has a mature understanding of how to utilize his size. He keeps the ball high on catches and boards, has touch off the glass, and a good nose for the ball on rebounds. With his back to the basket, he reads the floor well and against A&M, had numerous plus-passes including cross court and picking out backdoor cutters. Defensively, he shows engagement, focus, and competitiveness. He may be a bit light in the pants for beefier or more athletic bigs, but between his competitiveness and length, can be serviceable on that end. Like Okongwu, I look forward to see Petrusev against higher levels of competition as the A&M bigs offered little challenge.

  1. Malik Hall, Michigan State

Stock change: Rising

I’m happy to own this as a near-term over-rank with potential for some longer-term validation. Against Seton Hall, Malik was incendiary off the bench. He shot 7-7 including 3-3 from three on what were exclusively unguarded threes. Having seen Hall in EYBL, he’s always had an Izzo-player type sheen to him with good footwork, consistent effort, above average BBIQ and athleticism, and an ability to play big. For a stretch, Izzo had him playing some center against Seton Hall’s monstrous frontline and instead of being devoured by the 7-2 Ike Obiagu, Hall was on his David & Goliath, stretching the big man out of his comfort zone and using his feet to navigate around Obiagu’s meager attempts at posting up. Hall doesn’t project as ever being a star, but he already gets the finer points of playing winning basketball and is in a program that will nurture it.

  1. Isaiah Mobley, USC

Stock change: no change

Right now, Mobley’s probably more fun than he is effective. At 6-10, 235-pounds, he has a bag of tricks filled with all types of moves that are mostly foreign to 19-year-old basketball players. There’s a European style to his play: hyper aware on offense with a bevy of craft and deception, high-level fakes and footwork that remind you that basketball is art and can be an expression of a higher plane of the mind-body meld. I see Mobley and I see shades of Naz Reid, but also Dario Saric, just loads of skill and imagination bringing glee to basketball fans young and old. On the flip side, as I watched Mobley against Nevada, I noted, “not too fond of bending his knees.” Defensively, he’s rarely in a ready position. He stands straight up and down, susceptible to being beaten by quick, decisive moves on or off the ball. Between his lack of engagement on the defensive side, average athleticism, and a body lacking strength, Mobley will have some straightforward challenges at the next level, but his skill level is so high and unique at his size that he can and should be able to survive and contribute at the pro level.

  1. Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga at Seton Hall, trending up: I’ll admit this is probably me playing to my favorites more than it is a genuine rank of prospects, but the 6-5 sophomore point guard from France has elite quickness, wiry strength, plus-length, an ability to attack with both hands, and well above average BBIQ. He can and does do a bit of everything when he’s on the court and has been impossible for me to take my eyes off at both FIBA U19’s this past summer and with Gonzaga this season. His shot needs work, but hot damn, his per-40 numbers are: 11-points, 7-assists, 13-rebounds, and over 3 steals.
  2. Anton Watson, Gonzaga, no change: Smart people whose opinions I respect (Ross Homan, Mike Gribanov, Jackson Frank) are super duper high on Watson which means in all likelihood that I’ve overlooked Watson’s shine in favor of Ayayi, Drew Timme, and Corey Kispert in Gonzaga’s games. If anything else, it gives me another area to focus my attention in future Zags games. I’d seen Watson in high school and noted an advanced skill level and consistent effort. He has a strong handle, can pass or get his own shot, and competes defensively. He plays at a mature, unrushed pace filled with nuance and timing. I’m assuming he’ll climb my rankings as I consume more Zags games.
  3. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga, up: side note: for the longest time, I thought his name was Cody. Kispert is 6-7, 220 pounds with a rock solid build. He looks like he’s in a state of perpetual sweat and, from what I’ve seen, is prone to going balls to the wall (BTTW). He’s from Edmonds, Washington (just north of Seattle) and I’d been aware of him from his high school days, but never thought much of his pro prospects until I saw him against Alabama State earlier this year when he went for 28 points on 10-13 from the field and 5-6 from 3. For his Gonzaga career, he’s shooting 37% on over 300 attempts. But I don’t think the shooting is his best skill; rather it’s his wing size, defensive versatility, athleticism combined with the shooting that make him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect.
  4. Emmitt Matthews, West Virginia, trending up: Good sized (6-7) shooter with offensive awareness, plus passer (lot of zip on passes), who needs to get stronger.
  5. Xavier Johnson, Pittsburgh, trending down: great size (6-3, 190) at point guard, strong kid with length, at his best going downhill, powerful change of direction, decent vision, form on jumper needs work: shooting 40% on 3s, 33% on 2s, 57% from the line. Sloppy at times with ball control: nearly 4 turnovers/game over 39-game career. There’s a prospect here, but he’s still learning to be the best version of himself.
  6. Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending: no change: good shooter, strong athlete, competes on both ends, would like to see more of him.
  7. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending down: 20-year-old 6-9 freshman shooting 47% from the line. Good feel passing and moving without the ball. Struggling to adapt to defending at college level, can’t just out-physical opponents like he could in high school. All the physical tools, but long way to harness it all. I’m not certain what his NBA skill or role are at present.
  8. DJ Jeffries, Memphis, trending up: At 6-7, 225-pounds, Jeffries projects as a big wing who plays bigger than his size. Against Oregon, he was up and down, but showed flashes of rim protection and the versatile offensive attack that initially attracted my attention in EYBL. He’s a good athlete with an above average handle for his age and position, he can make improvisational reads and passes off a live dribble. While just six games into his college career, it seems he’s still trying to settle into the pace of play, particularly in Memphis’s young, stacked offense. Averaging 2.7 stocks in 26 minutes/game.
  9. Lester Quinones, Memphis, trending up: 6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes. Won’t be surprised to see him put up 40 in a G-League game in two years.
  10. Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change: first time seeing Baugh, a 6-3, 185-pound combo guard. Strong, pass first guard can attack off bounce, pick out open man, run pick-and-roll, and compete defensively. Odd allergy to shooting: scoring 9 points and taking 5 shots per-40 minutes.
  11. Drew Timme, Gonzaga, trending up: fun big listed at 6-10 though he looks shorter to me. Excellent passer with great footwork and feel for game. Doesn’t shoot threes (zero attempts in five games) and very little presence protecting the rim although averaging a block-per-game. Would like to see him develop some sort of jumper.
  12. Will Richardson, Oregon, trending up: Probably one of my favorite things with young players is seeing how they develop physically from season-to-season. Richardson is a 6-5 combo guard with twiggy arms and legs as a freshman and while he’s no Tshiebwe as a sophomore, he’s filled out quite a bit and it shows in an improved ability to attack off the bounce and absorb contact. Richardson was a point guard in high school and has retained his ability as a passer with high BBIQ in addition to becoming a more confident three-point shooter. He’s only taken eight threes in five games this season, but is 5-8 in addition to shooting 11-13 (85%) from the line compared to 67% a year ago. He just looks more confident. His craft and IQ help to compensate for average athleticism. He’s almost like a smaller, less hypnotic version of Kyle Anderson.
  13. Payton Pritchard, Oregon, maybe trending up: Pritchard’s a four-year starter at Oregon, a career 36% three-point shooter and 78% free throw shooter who’s shooting career worsts in both, but a career-high 63 true shooting on the strength of 68% on nearly eight two-point field goal attempts/game. At 6-2, 195, he’s not going to overwhelm you with size, speed, or strength. He shares Myles Powell’s size, but nowhere near the breadth or depth of his scoring ability. That said, against a young Memphis squad, he was able to use his experience to hunt mismatches against Achiuwa and Wiseman. Against Achiuwa, he bumped the younger player off balance for a clean look while he took advantage of Wiseman giving him too much of a cushion on the perimeter to bust his ass from three. He competes, but doesn’t project as an NBA player.
  14. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending up: fresh off a 27-point, 16-rebound, 5-steal game against South Dakota State, the 6-11 senior, Rakocevic used all his refined fundamentals and relentless motor to shit all over Nevada (24p on 10-15, 11r). He’s a legit 6-11 with narrow shoulders, a high motor who’s exceptional running the floor and an above average passer. He’s not a great rim protector and while he’s a smart player, he hasn’t blown me away as a team defender. He’s shown a turn-and-face and mid-range game at USC, but is just 2-9 from three in his career. Absent stretch ability and rim protection, it’ll be hard for him to land in the league, but his energy, effort, and smarts give him some potential as a two-way player. More Zeller than Plumlee.
  15. CJ Walker, Oregon, trending: no change: Walker’s a spindly 6-8, 200-pound combo forward for the Ducks. He committed three fouls in five minutes against Memphis and is averaging less than a point in his first five college games. Early returns aside, Walker is a high-level athlete with questionable BBIQ who has long-term potential as a multi-position defender due to his length and high-energy play. He also has potential to get lost in the shuffle.
  16. Chandler Lawson, Oregon, trending up: The younger brother of Kansas’s Dedric Lawson, Chandler is a 6-8, 205-pound Memphis native who’s similar to Walker in that he’s rangy and plays with energy. Based on the Memphis game alone (8p on 2-3 shooting, 4-5 FTs, 4r – 2 offensive), he’s the more college-ready player. His activity and length translate well and he’s a competent and capable passer. His strength and handle are areas he can improve upon.
  17. Jazz Johnson, Nevada, trending up: Gotta love a 5-10 combo guard who’s shooting 42% from three on over 440 career attempts. Johnson doesn’t have the athletic pop of shorter guys like Isaiah Thomas or Chris Clemons, but he’s probably a better long-range shooter and defender. Longshot for the NBA, but likely G-League or overseas guy.
  18. Jalen Harris, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Jalen Harris before Nevada played USC, but he’s a 6-5, 195-pound incoming transfer from Louisiana Tech. According to coach Steve Alford, he’s an “elite athlete with great BBIQ.” The athleticism was easy to see, but he was 3-19 from the field and just kept firing up contested looks. He’s at 46 TS on the season so the cold streak wasn’t limited to one game. That said, Harris has feel for the game. On a Nevada squad lacking in playmaking, he’s one of their primary initiators with nearly 4 assists/game. He’s a plus-rebounder (over 6/game) with a strong frame and potential as a multi-positional defender. In an ideal role, he’s a standstill shooter who can attack closeouts and defend both guard spots.
  19. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall, trending: no change: Mamukelashvili is an unconventional big, a 6-10 native of Georgia (Stalin’s Georgia, not Dominique’s) who’s not particularly good at rim protection or shooting, but is a primary creator on Seton Hall’s Powell-heavy offense. He has a fluid handle and moves well with a great feel for the game on both sides of the ball. His fundamentals are sound and he’s strong as a team defender. Against Michigan State, he was able to attack off the dribble, but struggled to finish through contact and control the ball. He was 3-7 on twos with four TOs. He’s a fun player, but one who likely has to many holes to succeed in the league.
  20. Derek Culver, West Virginia, trending down: A 21-year-old sophomore, Culver is a hulkish 6-10, 255-pounds with boulder shoulders and an average-to-below average feel for the game. He showed some unreal athleticism in the clip below, but for the most part, his athleticism doesn’t pop in game. He shows flashes of intrigue with the occasional nice pass or he-manish rebound in traffic, but there’s a lack of consistency to his game and his defensive awareness is consistency lacking as evidence by his 7+ fouls/40 minutes. He does have some touch and is currently shooting 88% from the line on 24 attempts this season.
  21. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending up: near-seven-footer with decent looking jumper (0-5 from three this season) averaging over six blocks/40 this season. Rail thin. If he can increase volume on three ball and put on weight, shows touch of potential as a Channing Frye-type specialist.
  22. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, trending: no change: Believe his destiny is as a point guard, but alongside Cassius Winston, those opportunities are few and far between so the 6-2 freshman is a steward of sorts, charged with not fucking up and through four games, he’s done well in that role with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His shot isn’t broken by any means, but he’s shooting just 3-17 from three and struggled at times in EYBL. Solid build, willing competitor and defender, rebounds well for size.
  23. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, trending up: lefty shooter with defensive versatility at 6-7; spent lot of time guarding Powell in game against Seton Hall. More athletic than I expected from a guy with a reputation as a “shooter.” In limited game film, handle hasn’t looked great. Shoots it well off catch and movement.
  24. Lindsey Drew, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Drew before this season, but he’s a 6-4 point guard for Nevada who’s started 98 of 105 career games and has averaged 2 stocks/game for his career. Added a three-point shot this season and is shooting 40% on 5 attempts/game. There’s almost a laziness to his game in that his dribble and playmaking unfold slowly as he pokes and prods for holes in the defense and excels at keeping his dribble alive. He has a slower wind up on his catch-and-shoot jumper as well. Against USC, he struggled to stay in front of his man on defensive side and was limited in his overall defensive impact. He’s trending up here because I’d never even heard of him or considered him. Nothing to something equals rising.
  25. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending up: at 6-2, 210 with a thick neck, Anderson looks more football player than point guard, but the freshman is a consummate lead guard for USC. He’s averaging six assists with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He plays with poise and despite his lack of experience, doesn’t get sped up by the defense. He can change speeds, change direction, and mix in eurosteps as needed. His passing translates in half court and transition settings. The glaring issue with Anderson is his Omar Cook-like shooting: 42 TS through six games including 32% on 25 twos. If the shooting comes around, he’ll climb pretty quick for me.
  26. Shakur Juiston, Oregon, trending: no change: Not much to say. Broad shoulders, rebounds well.
  27. Savion Flagg, Texas A&M, trending down: looks the part at 6-7, 223 with a ripped frame, but maddening to watch with poor ball control and defensive lapses and miscommunications. 3.5 turnovers to 2.5 assists with a 22% usage this season.
  28. Tyrese Samuel, Seton Hall, trending down: has potential as a stretch-4 (6-10, 220 with a pretty jumper), but only sniffing the edges of the Hall’s rotation. Work-in-progress.
  29. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: 6-6, 225-pound grad transfer at USC. From 16 and 5 for Akron in the MAC to 20-minute/game role player with USC. Utomi looks like a brick shithouse with broader shoulders and sturdy frame, but is presently relegated to a supporting dirty work guy with this USC team. He can shoot it (39% on 7 3s/game last two seasons at Akron) and defend and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him starting or playing as sixth man for this USC team. Pro prospects: unlikely, but physical tools are there.
  30. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down
  31. Trey McGowens, Seton Hall, no change
  32. Ike Obiagu, Seton Hall, trending down
  33. Francis Okoro, Oregon, trending down
  34. Jordan McCabe, West Virginia, no change

Unranked players that I noted, but didn’t get a large enough sample: Au’Diese Toney, Gerald Drumgoole, Karim Coulibaly (I do like him), Miles McBride (WVU reserve PG, probably better than McCabe), Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis (64% on 31 3pas this year – should be in mid-20s of list above), Foster Loyer, Emanuel Miller, Jay Jay Chandler, Andre Gordon, Nisre Zouzoua, and Justin Champagnie

From Ottumwa with Love: Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster

The following is a piece based on a few hours spent in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. ~25,000) at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) watching a JUCO basketball game with the principles being Jay Scrubb (John A. Logan) and Tyon Grant-Foster (IHCC).

The Hellyer Life Center is home to the Indian Hills Community College Warriors men’s basketball team. It’s a small gym with modern plastic maroon-colored pull-out bleachers and an upper balcony of sorts. To reach the court level, you walk down a staircase and your proximity to the court is that of a high school gym. Everything and everyone is accessible. I’d ordered my tickets for the game online, apparently I was the only person to do this because I saw my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the ticketing desk when I showed up. I was given my choice of any open seat and chose center court: eight dollars.

I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, about 90 minutes northwest of Ottumwa and when I was just a skinny teenager with a full head of hair in the late 90s, knew of IHCC for its prodigiously winning men’s team. But in all my years, I’d never made the trek to see the JUCO juggernaut and was reminded of their dominance upon walking into the Hellyer Center and seeing the banners: 89-straight wins and three straight national championships from 1997 to 1999. They were led by Cincinnati Bearcat and eventual Euro MVP, JUCO par excellence, Pete Mickeal.

The stage was more than up-to-par for a battle between the country’s top two JUCO players: 6-foot-6 wing Jay Scrubb from 4th ranked John A. Logan, committed to Louisville and 6-foot-7 wing Tyon Grant-Foster from IHCC, committed to Kansas.

This was less a head-to-head comparison either in my intent (I didn’t go down there to crown Scrubb or Grant-Foster) or in their on-court matchup (they were rarely matched up with each other), but drawing comparisons and contrasts is only natural and the first ones we make are typical surface level. Scrubb looks the part: he’s more physically developed, lean but with square shoulders and the face of a young man with mustache and goatee. He looks like he was cast for the role and carries himself as such. By contrast, Grant-Foster has the look of a high schooler, his facial features soft, his chin hairless, his long arms dangle but without much definition.

And of course, there are my own biases and preconceptions. Scrubb was the prime attraction. He averaged 20-a-game as a JUCO freshman on 55-46-79 shooting. He was the only freshman to make the JUCO D1 First Team All-America squad and prior to committing to Louisville, he flirted with going pro after his sophomore season at Logan. Scrubb was the main attraction, Grant-Foster an intrigue, a recent Kansas-commit who averaged just 8 points as a freshman; I was more intrigued by KU coach Bill Self’s interest than my own.

JAY SCRUBB:

Off the opening tip, IHCC made their intentions with Scrubb clear by face guarding him with the solidly-built 6-2 Chris Childs (it does not appear he’s related to the former NBA player though of course it’s entirely possible). This portended what would be a long night for the Cardinal commit who would struggle get breathing room for all 38 of his on-court minutes.

Breathing room be damned, it was easy to see how Scrubb’s game comes together. At 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan and listed at 220 pounds (this seems generous but people hide weight in strange places), he has a pro ready frame though his functional positional strength looks to be an area he can improve upon (more on this below).

He moves extremely well, on and off-ball, guarding ball or defending off-ball. He gets low with a strong knee bend on post-ups, which appear to be part of his repertoire though, again, his strength holding a seal is something I’ll get into, and does the same guarding the ball. His lateral and hip movement are effortless and his focus and intensity, particularly on-ball, are high; he locks in well. Off-ball, he had the occasional bad habit of turning his head and losing sight of ball in order to stick with man, but this is relatively easy to correct.

Scrubb’s been reported as having a 40-inch vertical and his functional elevation was easy to observe; most notably attacking the offensive glass and on his pull-up jumper. He averaged over one-and-a-half blocks as a freshman and given his lift and length, it’s easy to see why. In this game, he attacked the offensive glass, but with limited success. IHCC was great putting a body on Scrubb and his instincts were to elevate for boards instead of seeking out optimal position. That said, he shows good awareness attacking the o-glass in the first clip below. Unfortunately, going backdoor against an overplaying defender wasn’t a route he frequently sought out.

On the night, Scrubb shot just 4-15 from the field which isn’t that big of an issue. The IHCC defense was keyed in and focused on slowing him down. John A. Logan surprisingly did very little in terms of off-ball actions to help create space for him, opting for the occasional ball screen or post-up, but mostly settling for a balanced shot distribution. While I didn’t chart all 15 of Scrubb’s looks, I want to say 13 or 14 were contested and probably 11 or 12 were outside the paint.

He’s clearly more jump shooter than slasher and emphasizes his elevation to create space on pull-ups. The errant try below felt like a shot more out of frustration than anything else. While it’s a bad miss (and many of his misses were bad bricks), the lift and form are evident. His mechanics don’t break down from three and while I felt his release could use a bit of work, his balance and body control are strong:

As mentioned above, Scrubb sought out post-ups throughout the game and while he was able to establish position, he struggled to maintain it. Credit to IHCC’s coterie of defenders who, even when losing position, contested all entry passes, but some of this was an inability from Scrubb to hold the defender on his hip for extended periods. I don’t anticipate him doing a lot of posting up in the ACC, but it’s interesting to see how and where strength does or doesn’t translate. While not being the strongest player, he didn’t shy away from physical contact on either side of the ball or lose his cool over IHCC’s physical play.

In a lot of ways, seeing how a player reacts to adversity is ideal and between his shot being off and IHCC’s parade of physical defenders, Scrubb played within himself with the exception of a short stretch in the 2nd half when he sought out contested jumpers. His effort remained high and his offensive gravity allowed teammates more operating space. He projects out as an off-ball player, ideally operating off-the-catch with catch-and-shoots and attacking closeouts. In this 38-minute sample, he threw a couple of good passes and lost his dribble in traffic a couple times, but ultimately the sample was too small to draw any significant conclusions on his creation and playmaking though it seems secondary to seeking out his shot.

GRANT-FOSTER:

Part Jordan Crawford, part Jamal Crawford? Maybe it’s the similar skin tone or looping languid limbs, or maybe it’s the sharp handle, comfort freelancing, or heat check pull-ups, but Tyon Grant-Foster brought to mind those two Crawfords.

On a night when NBA scouts and Bill Self were in attendance, Grant-Foster navigated some early foul trouble to put together a signature second half. After a mostly forgettable first half marred by foul trouble, I didn’t write off Grant-Foster, but rather shrugged my shoulders and envisioned him as a future end-of-the-bench Jayhawk.

That he came out with a 22-point second half is less interesting than how he did it. While playing wing, Grant-Foster is one of IHCC’s primary initiators though he’s presently much better suited to create his own shot instead of creating for others. This is evidenced by a negative assist-to-turnover rate over his 34 career games at IHCC (1.5 turnovers for every one assist). That’s not to say he doesn’t vision or awareness as he exhibited good feel passing off the dribble, rather it’s an area he’s working to improve.

But getting his own shot? In both half court and transition, he showed ability to break down defenders, rise for the pull-up, and finish in traffic. For Grant-Foster, like Jamal Crawford, it all starts with the handle. An assortment of hang dribbles, hesitations, and crossovers kept defenders off-balance all night. Once he achieved advantage, he opted primarily for pull-up threes or slashing attacks. From deep, he shot 4 of 7, including some huge clutch makes while IHCC clawed back from a double-digit deficit, but there were some questionable attempts and his release could probably use refinement. Grant-Foster doesn’t hold his follow-through at all which isn’t a death knell to the jumper, but over longer samples, I’d expect struggles with accuracy. In the clip below, his wiggle and confidence are on display, but that quick release, almost fling, is worrisome:

When not banging in heat check threes, Grant-Foster attacked the basket. He got to the line seven times and showed natural instincts for getting to the rim. His wiggle combined with the threat of the outside shot allowed him to beat primary defenders. His change of pace and direction allowed him to beat help defenders while his length, craft, and touch helped him to finish inside. And while not the explosive leaper Scrubb is, Grant-Foster showed good lift finishing one dunk and just missing a second one in traffic.

Where he can expand his attack is in creating for others off-the-dribble. He’s good enough to beat defenders and while he was able to connect on a couple of drive-and-dumps, a combination of spacing and more consistent awareness will help bump him to the next level. The other area that was of some concern was his dependency on somewhat of an isolation-heavy, freelance approach. IHCC desperately needed him to takeover this game, but he’s prone to pounding the ball east-to-west (and back, and back, and you get the point) trying to shake a defender and there’s likely fine tuning to occur there. That said, I’m somewhat loathe to mess with a player’s natural expression, particularly if it’s effective and would be interested to see if and how frequently Grant-Foster goes on these forays. He’s not a selfish player, but he is a self-interested, confident one.

Defensively, I didn’t get near as good a sense of his game as I did Scrubb’s. He was engaged on the defensive end and looked to pounce on passing lanes at times, but by focusing on Scrubb’s offensive game, I missed out on finer details of his defense. Purely looking at his stats, he definitely makes an impact defensively. Through a short two games, he’s averaging 1.5 steals and a single block, but last season he put up a gaudy 7.5 blocks/40 minutes. That number’s ridiculous enough that I wonder if he was just leaping at everything trying to swat balls into the bleachers.

Driving home in the dark with a quarter moon hanging low on the horizon, smoke curling into the sky from factories and plants sitting miles off the highway, it still struck me as random that out here, in southern Iowa lives and breathes a JUCO basketball hotbed that’s produced 22 current NCAA players, over 30 current pros, and five NBA draft picks. My dad had driven up to Ottumwa from where he lives in Kansas City and was kind enough to bake some chocolate chip cookies for me and I drove, eating cookies while the moon finally dropped below the horizon, pondering that basketball history and the spaces being carved out in the present by young men half my age like Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster. Future pros in some league somewhere; perhaps as obscure as Ottumwa.

James Wiseman: More question marks and less exclamation points, please.

It’s fitting to start off this 2020 NBA draft prospect season with the incoming freshman who’s widely recognized as the top prospect of the 2019 high school class: James Wiseman. But it’s also fitting for a blog that rarely takes hard and fast stances to pick a player who the experts love, but draft Twitter cocks a skeptical eyebrow towards. And I’m an appropriate author of such a piece as my viewing experience has revealed a case of not one or two Wisemans (Wisemen?), but multiple Wisemans. More appropriate yet is that these schisms in style are part of a long tradition of basketball playing big men whose basketball-playing selves (to say nothing off their non-basketball playing selves) are caught in a crisis of uncertainty between how others view their potential and they themselves view it. Or, to quote the writing of the great Leo Tolstoy, “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”

For Wiseman, there’s not much doubt about how he sees himself. It’s expressed in his play and through his words, “I’m a very versatile player, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can run the floor really well for my size.” He’s “patterned” his game on “Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, and even David Robinson.” His high school coach, Jevonte Holmes, sees KG, Bosh, and Marvin Bagley and his new coach at Memphis, former NBA player and portrayer of the fictional Butch McRae, Penny Hardaway, also sees Bosh. It makes good sense to model your endeavor, whatever it may be, on the best. I think there was a time where I fancied my writerly self some kind of Jack Kerouac even if my style and talent in no way matched. Wiseman at least shares physical dimensions with the aforementioned and I may have shared similar measurements to Kerouac. Wiseman appears longer than his comps (although his long-reported 7-foot-6 inch wingspan may be closer to 7-foot-4) with a massive 7-1, 240-pound frame that moves with the fluid ease of the Mississippi rolling along Memphis’s border; it’s a body that expands and explodes to block shots as though it were a natural birthright.

The clips I’ve watched of Wiseman span from the 2018 EYBL season up through the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit with his 2018-19 high school season in between. The player I’ve watched is wildly inconsistent, a player capable of flattening oppositions like that giant lizard-dinosaur and that gorilla in Rampage (these characters appear to be unimaginative knockoffs of King Kong and Godzilla, but are not those name brand giants) in one sequence and morphing into an overdribbling, fade-away shooting wannabe Kobe Bryant (but without the touch) on others. Younger players will inevitably be less consistent than their older, more physically developed and experienced players, but with Wiseman there appears to be a yawning gap between capability and even moderately efficient reality.

As far as identity is concerned, Wiseman isn’t alone and isn’t completely at fault for any incongruities between what he is and what he thinks he is. Basketball and big men have a long, strange, unimaginative history that has taken creative, experimental minds to untangle. A year ago, inspired by a draft class of versatile bigs, I wrote about basketball’s relationship with its tallest players, a relationship that for years yielded to orthodoxy. In that piece, I argued that players like Bob McAdoo, Dirk Nowitzki, and Draymond Green, paired with creative coaching in Jack Ramsay, Don Nelson, and Steve Kerr, redefined not just what big men could be, but what was required of them. As presently deployed, James Wiseman is the experiment gone too far.

From 2005 to 2012, Dwight Howard was mostly an ideal marriage between ability and execution. I say mostly because, despite being surrounded by shooters, for every assist he threw, he turned the ball over twice. But beyond the occasional detour into playmaking or advanced post moves, Howard dunked home over 40% of his 4,000-plus made field goals. He set screens, rolled, caught and dunked. He anchored what was consistently a top-five defensive team with defensive awareness, effort, and scheme combined with an idealized mix of size, length, and explosiveness. He won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and was MVP runner-up in in 2011. But throughout Dwight’s history of being elite Dwight, there was the insistence on being an offensive focal point which were accompanied by mumblings and rumblings desiring a greater share of the offense and in his recent vagabond years, even an expressed a desire to become “his own version” of Kevin Durant or Draymond Green. The problem isn’t that Howard wants to expand or improve his game, it’s that his strengths and abilities don’t align with his stated role models.

The original big man who navigated a complex on-court identity crisis was Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t believe him to be the greatest of all time or even the most dominant, but I have no issue with people who make those statements about a man once nicknamed the “Big Musty” for his overwhelming body odor. But Chamberlain was a sensitive man who heard all the criticisms and responded with an almost childlike obstinacy. Peter Vescey, then of the New York Post, wrote in 1999:

He once told me the one regret he had was that he didn’t play more aggressively against Russell. Red Auerbach would say stuff and get into his head, and the papers would write stuff and get into his head. He let the criticism affect him.

Following the Jayhawks’ 1-point defeat to unbeaten UNC, Wilt never could seem to shake his loser’s image. A couple insufferable setbacks in championship games to the Celts and everybody readily bought into the perception. Maybe even Wilt himself, who became more insecure and defensive as Russell’s hands swelled with rings.

Somewhere along the way, Wilt, like everybody else, got numbed by his numbers, blinded by his brilliance and spoiled by the spectacular.

Rather than bully people, he badgered them. Instead of becoming vengeful, Wilt often got passive. Instead of piling it up from point blank range, he upgraded his degree of difficulty. Instead of dunking on people’s domes, he aided them by adopting a fadeaway. Other times, he hardly shot at all in an attempt to prove critics he could accomplish anything he wanted. One season he decided to become league leader in assists, refusing to pass the ball to cutters whose field goal percentages didn’t warrant the risk. Wilt became consumed with proving his success wasn’t based on brute force, but elan and aptitude.

In his GOAT: The 40 Best Careers in NBA History series, Ben Taylor made the case that Chamberlain’s (9th all-time on his list) “four best teams, by far, come from his non volume-scoring years, and the last two come from his ‘Tyson Chandler’ vintage.” Chamberlain was unstoppable on the offensive end, but, Taylor shows, that dominance didn’t make his teams better offensively. And as Vescey points out, he got in his head to lead the league in assists, but as Taylor again articulates, “he was letting defenses off the hook by looking to pass too much.” Chamberlain’s greatest contributions to winning were done on the defensive end as a rim protector, rebounder, and fast break initiator and yet he was almost dragged, kicking and screaming, into this role by Los Angeles Lakers coach Bill Sharman. It’s not that Chamberlain should have played like Russell, he was far too talented offensively to be an equal cog in the wheel, but that his utilization required a moderation that he struggled to accept and likely never fully accepted. Chamberlain was a great scorer and excellent passer, but instead of a steady diet of either, much of his career was spent overexaggerating these skills at the expense of team success because, like most everything Chamberlain did, he did it to excess.

Which brings us back to James Wiseman, the 18-year-old supposed Chris Bosh. I’m not bringing Howard and Chamberlain (a Hall of Famer and future Hall of Famer) into the conversation to make any comparison in terms of ability, but rather to draw direct and emphatic comparisons regarding the fickle nature and deployment of NBA big men. At this point, it’s even fair to pose this as a chicken/egg question with Wiseman. If he never fell in love with the top-of-the-key three-ball or shitty fadeaways, does he elicit the same excitement and “unicorn” hyperbole? If teenage Wiseman operates as a back-to-the-basket dunker and rim protector (I suggest that because the roll man role doesn’t exist at the high school levels in a way that allows a player to define himself), is he still as attractive to the scouting world? Put another way, Clint Capela is not sexy.

If Wiseman can escape the ghost of Bosh and play his game, what can he be? Despite a lanky build, Wiseman is sturdy at 240 pounds, but it’s a 240 that he’s still figuring out how to use. While not being the most physical interior presence, with his size, footwork, and ability to squat low into position, he’s exceptional at gaining position on interior seals and being a big, high-reaching target for lobs. Against college teams with advanced scouting, this type of action won’t be as readily available, but Wiseman has an improving basketball IQ and if he can incorporate his interior seals and spin moves into improvisational reads, he’s fleet footed enough to get easy, high-percentage attempts more frequently than most players.

Wiseman has exhibited inconsistent competence in reading the floor out of the post – in isolation and against doubles. While his reactions to doubles aren’t the quickest, he’s able to use an escape dribble and his size to find an open man, but this comes and goes. Sometimes he’ll look calm reacting and seeing the crosscourt pass while others will find him panicking to get rid of the hot potato before someone steals it. The skill is further mitigated when he takes a premeditated shot; which he’s shown a tendency to go from catch-to-post move all in one motion without regard for the lay of the court or defense. He can make basic reads and occasionally advanced reads, but in the EYBL circuit specifically the lack of spacing limits these opportunities.

His greatest strength at present is his defense. This was best on display at the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit in May when he blocked seven shots in under 23 minutes of play. This was on an NBA court (Portland’s Moda Center) with a 24-second shot clock and against high D1 players. Wiseman was on full throttle, but he remained in total control of his effort. Instead of swinging for every shot attempt like pros Hassan Whiteside or Mitchell Robinson are prone to do, his contests were measured, but relentless. While he blocked seven, he deterred or forced adjustments on many more. He was most impactful as a help side defender as the World team struggled to make him pay for helping, but in one-on-one possessions against Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and N’Faly Dante (Oregon), he frequently stayed between man and the basket while holding his ground despite giving up pounds to both. In the clip below, he blocks two shots and contests a third in about a five-second stretch which, maybe it’s because I’m 38 and overweight, but it’s exhausting considering jumping with exertion that many times in a row.

If Wiseman is capable of bringing that type of defensive effort with consistency, he can directly impact winning in both college and the pros. In the 10-plus games I scouted, unfortunately, this effort wasn’t consistent. Against four-star big man and fellow 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, Wiseman’s effort was semi-catatonic, a 7-foot pylon outworked physically, unable or unwilling to compete. It was the kind of performance that triggers red flags. When fully present and working, defense is the greatest utilization of his copious physical gifts and given his size and athleticism, it has the potential to translate early on. In terms of switchability and perimeter defense, I haven’t seen a ton of examples showing he can or can’t move his feet on the perimeter. I have seen him use his length to get out on jump shooters and contest shots that typically be clean looks. While this ability doesn’t mean he can move laterally, he’s long enough that he can use his length to create somewhat of a cushion, but again, less than his ability to move side-to-side on the perimeter, consistent effort will be the deciding factor in his effectiveness.

In terms of weaknesses, the biggest issues arise on the offensive side of the floor where Wiseman is maddeningly inconsistent. His offensive decision making, particularly his shot choice, was so poor at the 2018 EYBL that I wondered if I should throw out the entire league when assessing his play. The amount of contested threes, step backs, and fade-aways are mind boggling. According to D1Circuit.com, Wiseman shot 4-27 (~15%) from three. He was a much more respectable 54% from twos and shot 55% from the line. For his 2018-19 high school season, one broadcast in December had him shooting 17% from three, but his high school coach claimed he shot 42% – which is a hard number to accept given his previous rates and the shot in general.

It’s not just that Wiseman is an inaccurate marksman, it’s that he insists on taking contested attempts and, at least in EYBL, he had the team running sets where Wiseman would sprint to the corner for quick catch attempts – which just enables the kid. I get the need to develop and the need for in-game reps, but between game film and stats, there’s no reason Wiseman should be taking these shots with any level of frequency. It would mildly more acceptable if he was seeking out catch-and-shoot threes, but in the true spirit of mucking it up, he prefers contested, off-the-dribble attempts and has the awful habit of straddling the three-point-line. It’s all strange and reinforces the damn Tolstoy quote above: “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”

I don’t know the ideal blend of in-game reps versus practice reps for a move or skill. A high school coach I had suggested we need to be able to hit 8 of 10 shots unguarded to be able to attempt it in a game. Does Wiseman shoot 80% on step backs, fade-aways, and threes in practice? It’s certainly possible. At times, he exhibits soft touch on his jumper and in my notes I, just like Penny and Jevonte Holmes and Wiseman himself, wrote of a particular fade-away: “that’s the most Chris Bosh-like thing I’ve seen from him.” But at what point does a glimpse become a possibility or a building block? I’ve seen enough Wiseman to know why people make the comparisons they do, but the slivers and snippets of good-to-great basketball moves are outweighed by the accompanying bumbling of it all.

There are two clips below: one of Wiseman utterly destroying top-3 2021 prospect Evan Mobley. The other of Wiseman settling for a crappy contested jumper and having it blocked by a shorter, weaker, less-gifted-but-still-very-gifted player. Neither of these clips defines James Wiseman – either as presently constructed or as imagined. His basketball reality and future live somewhere in a vast infinity of possibility which will, bizarrely, make perfect sense whenever we arrive there. Wiseman has a supreme confidence in self, but is that confidence enough to bridge the gap between what he feels and what he can do? Or is his destiny an endless pursuit of congruity? Could he be the best of his class? It’s possible. After all, just because I didn’t sniff the heights of Kerouac doesn’t mean I was wrong for trying.

Zion & Brandon: Hulkish Hermanos; alternately: The Intersection of Elite Athleticism, Intellect & Effort

My words on RJ Barrett and Jarrett Culver were all about finding dissimilarities and assessing future prospects based on said dissimilarities. With Zion Williamson and Brandon Clarke, there’s no doubt who sits where in the pro prospect hierarchy: Zion is on top and will forever be the shining diamond in this rough draft class of 2019. But that doesn’t mean these two gladiatorial young men don’t descend from a similar line of 0.1 percenters; the elite athletes in a sport dominated by elite athletes. I will never forget what Lamar Odom once said of JaVale McGee; after praising his athleticism, Odom implied McGee needed to improve as a player, “because the game is called basketball, not run and jump.”

I have no idea what Zion’s or Clarke’s verticals are. I don’t know how fast they run a 40 or a three-quarter court sprint. I’m clueless as to how many reps they can pound out at 185. These are two wildly athletic players, probably more so than Mr. Run & Jump, JaVale McGee, but, to Odom’s critique, Williamson and Clarke are basketball players from their fingertips down to their toes. They are players with high basketball IQs, selfless ethos, and developing jump shots. But the easiest and most obvious of their virtues remain of the visually physical variety. For this exercise, we will examine their physicals, efforts, and skills.

LAHAINA, HI – NOVEMBER 21: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils takes a shot over Brandon Clarke #15 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the finals of the Maui Invitational college basketball game at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2018 in Lahaina Hawaii. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Williamson is a 6-7, 280-some-pound behemoth, a jackhammer with a predator’s reflexes. All (most?) sports have a way of visually conveying the unique strengths of their participants and basketball probably more so than most. There’s Zion with shorts and a tank top, a pair of shoes and socks. His massive arms are uncovered, on display for all; his broad chest stretching the letters across his jersey to unexpected breadths. There’s no hiding his physical imposition. His speed, power, and elevation are obvious to untrained eyes. He plays as if he’s shot out of a cannon, hits a target, sprints back to the cannon, reloads himself, and booms all over again, covered in sweat and the fear of opponents.

Brandon Clarke isn’t the slobber-inducing eye candy of Zion. He’s 6-8, around 215-pounds. If you saw him at the airport, he’d just be a run of the mill tall college basketball player in a jumpsuit with a backpack, but when the record drops and the ref says go, Clarke employs the dexterity of a crab, able to move side-to-side as fluidly as forward and backwards. He skinnies up that lean frame and slides through screens like a basketballing Mister Fantastic, he can deftly switch onto any opponent – big, small, medium, black, white, green, it’s all the same (which isn’t to say he’s flawless defensively, but we’ll get into that). And the jumps? Clarke’s legs appear to be powered by some kind of hydraulic system that’s been surgically installed into his body without any visible traces of its insertion. How else to explain his hyper pursuit of opponent shot attempts or the screaming missile dunkers he hurls through the rim? He dunks with the clean ripplelessness of Lob City DeAndre Jordan or the world’s sleekest cliff diver; he blocks shots like that Russian condor, Andrei Kirilenko. It’s possible that within his hydraulic enhancement, Clarke’s ability to anticipate and react to basketball events was upgraded; a software improvement of sorts. The more likely explanation is that Clarke has committed himself to achieving optimal physical condition for playing basketball and has refined his technique through hard work and dedication.

Trying hard matters, but as the Wizard of Westwood, Mr. John Wooden told us, we also don’t want to mistake activity for achievement. Williamson and Clarke are exemplars of a valuable athleticism and effort combination and both are, for the most part, proficient in their distribution of effort. Steals and blocks are not the best indicators of defensive impact, but they are one of the few available measures to track defensive activity. Clarke, who plays in the low-profile West Coast Conference (WCC), registers over 3 blocks and 1 steal per-game with a block rate over 11%. And comparing Clarke’s blocks and steals in 20 games vs non-Power Conference teams to 8 games against Power Conference teams, we see nearly identical numbers: vs non-power: 3.1 blocks and 1.1 steals, vs power: 3.1 blocks and 1.5 steals. Zion is tallying over 2 steals and nearly 2 blocks each game, making him one of just two players in the country (UW’s dynamic defensive wing, Matisse Thybulle being the other).

Effort doesn’t begin or end with trackable defensive stats. If you watch Duke play, it doesn’t take long to notice that Williamson exists in a state of perpetual sweat. His great wide chest and rib cage expands and collapses as lungs pull in and push out huge amounts of air. It could just be that he’s a naturally sweaty guy, but then you see him sprinting, shuffling, hurling that mass of body into opponents, the rim, the floor – any target, reached at high speed with buckets of sweat flying soaking the court. He doesn’t stop. Following the Gonzaga game in November, Williamson apparently had “full body cramps” (per ESPN telecast on 11/27) and required three IVs. The cramping and IVs can be in part attributed to effort and part to conditioning which needs to be acknowledged and will be below. That’s also not to say that his effort is risk-free. You don’t have to watch too many of Duke’s defensive sets to see his eyes lusting after the ball; hungry, ready, prepared to take it and fly away with violence and bad intentions – and then he catches himself and re-tracks his man.

Clarke’s motor doesn’t run into the red with the frequency or intensity of Zion’s, but at this point, the 22-year-old (nearly 4 years older than his Duke counterpart) is likely a smarter, more judicious player. It’s not that Clarke conserves his energy like I do or like present-day LeBron James, rather his movement is more efficient, his burst-heavy gambling and risk-taking occurring much more infrequently. But see Clarke defending on or off the ball, see him knifing through screens without ever losing his man, see him double and recover, eating up space like Pac-Man in a Gonzaga jersey, see him tracking missed shots on the glass and you see effort of focus. His awareness and ability to be mentally present in all situations means he doesn’t miss boxouts or switches, he isn’t caught ball watching and rarely ball chasing. He puts out maximum effort: getting his butt low in perimeter defensive events, moving his feet to gain post position on both sides of the ball, elevating for rebounds without exerting unnecessary energy due to being out of position. Awareness is no doubt a skill but combining it with effort optimizes for efficiency.

Perfection shouldn’t be expected from these prospects, or any player for that matter. If perfection is the pursuit, playing with circles is a more appropriate endeavor. And when we look at skills, both Zion and Clarke have real and clear deficiencies counterbalanced by athleticism, effort, and basketball intellect, but they are not perfect.

Regardless of how you feel about the growing prominence of the three-point shot in modern basketball, it’s a skill critical to floor and lineup balancing. To-date, Williamson has attempted 48 3s and is hitting 29%. The form and release on his shot are consistent, but he doesn’t do a great job squaring up and his release is out instead of up. The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker covered both his mechanics (~10:20 mark) and potential defensive schemes a limited jumper result in at the next level (~4:05 mark) in this excellent and thorough video breakdown. Players who see the type of defensive treatment that Zion will likely see include Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Draymond Green. Each of those players, like Zion, has a high basketball IQ and are above average passers. Giannis and Simmons utilize cutting and athleticism as additional counters to sag off treatments. Given Zion’s superhuman-type explosiveness, passing, and IQ, it’s easy to envision ways around these treatments, though the most effective counter will be developing into at least an average three-point shooter.

In the clip below which includes some poor Virginia defense, Zion is able to use a player helping off of him twice on the same possession: the first to build up a head of steam and better track an offensive rebound (made much easier by his defender’s poor positioning and awareness) and the second to fill a gaping hole with a well-timed cut and emphatic dunk shot.

His height and length (listed 6-10 wingspan) have the potential to create pesky challenges. In multiple games this season, whether on post catches or dribble drives, longer, taller players have been able to either block or disrupt his interior shot attempts. Syracuse’s 7-2 Paschal Chukwu and Texas Tech’s 6-10 Tariq Owens immediately come to mind as rangy athletes who were capable of harassing his interior looks. For any success those teams had, Williamson countered by drawing fouls and shooting 10 (Texas Tech) and 14 (Syracuse) free throw attempts. His motor and quickness are such that he can get to the loose ball before opponents are even registering there is a loose ball.

If opponent length could cause him minor hassles, his own weight could cause more serious issues. I’m nowhere near qualified to write about the amount of strain Zion’s force puts on his joints and ligaments, but given his speed and elevation, the impact coming down has to be hellacious. Since I saw him in high school, I’ve always had this foreboding sense that injury awaits and it’s likely more of a superstitious feeling than anything rooted in sports science. There’s just something about his generational athleticism, to say nothing of his game, that screams: Too good to be true. I’m fearful of losing it, particularly because I wonder if measures could be taken to reduce its likelihood of occurring. At 280 or 285 or whatever, Zion isn’t in bad shape by any means, but is in optimal basketball shape? For an 82-game grind with a devil-may-care approach akin to young Dwyane Wade or Gerald Wallace, optimal condition is a must. Is optimal 265? 267? At what point does the loss of mass reduce effectiveness? For basketball in 2019, these are the questions that can differentiate long, successful careers from merely good or, I shiver, injury-ravaged ones.

If distance shooting and his physical makeup are potential caution flags, the rest of his game is a joy to behold. For a player who won’t turn 19 until July, Zion’s body control and footwork are exquisite. His size coupled with his hangtime allows him to elevate, absorb or avoid contact, and finish with regularity. He frequently employs a hard spin move off the dribble and executes it without slowing down, his feet and brain in working in perfect synchronization. His handle is good; he keeps it low and has some wiggle, but the right hand (he’s lefty dominant) still needs a bit of work. It’s effective against college big men, but given how he’ll be schemed against in the NBA, it will be interesting, particularly if his jumper doesn’t develop, to see how useful it is or becomes. Off the dribble he has a pull-up jumper that looks a little better than his three-ball, but still lacks in fluidity. Finally, his passing and court awareness are an icing on the cake of sorts. He’s not a passer or creator like LeBron James, but when you have players who are so physically overwhelming, you don’t always expect to see advanced court vision and awareness as the players are often accustomed to imposing their will with force. Not only is Zion a capable passer, but going back to high school, he’s been a willing creator whose passes zip through space with velocity and accuracy. Playing alongside better shooting with better court spacing, it’s easy to see this skill being more fully realized.

A final side thought on what Zion faces at the pro level: despite him attempting over 9 free throws-per-40 minutes, I’ve noted numerous plays where he draws obvious fouls that aren’t called. And as the pro comparisons march through the internets, my first thought on seeing him officiated differently from his peers is LeBron and Shaq. The strength advantage those two MVPs have always had over their peers created officiating challenges and it’s not hard to imagine the beefy, booming Zion running into the same inconsistencies with NBA refs.

I didn’t see any of Brandon Clarke in his 2-year stint at San Jose State, but I’ve seen a ton of his single season at Gonzaga and he struck me early on as a player who plays far bigger than his 6-8, 215-pound frame. In terms of eye testing, Clarke leaps off the screen, out of the picture, and soars across the Spokane skyline. He’s most fun and most effective on the defensive side of the ball which I’ve covered in more depth above. But in an NBA where designated positions matter less than skills, Clarke will have ample suitors.

So is he a three, a four, a five? A combo forward? A 4-5? Is he conditionally all of the above? Alongside a pair of bigs who can shoot from the perimeter, there’s no reason Clarke can’t defend modern NBA big wings. In a small-ball lineup, he could easily slide to the 5. The weaknesses I’ve seen in his defense are against stronger, heavier players. Particularly, UW’s Noah Dickerson, a throwback, deep position-seeking post player who weighs at least 235 pounds and Tennessee’s Grant Williams who’s built more like Julius Peppers than Julius Hodge. Both were able to pin Clarke and limit his length and explosiveness. This isn’t to say Clarke isn’t strong, rather that body type, lower center of gravity and thick base, create positional problems for him. Fortunately for Clarke, the NBA doesn’t go to the post with the frequency of earlier eras, nor has it fully optimized the market inefficiency of the PJ Tucker type, but these matchups in addition to mountains like Jokic and Embiid are going to give Clarke trouble in a man-defense setting. His other defensive vulnerability, despite great lateral quickness and effort, is guarding smaller, quicker guards. Clarke is athletic enough to recover when getting beaten, but not going overboard on closeouts and better utilization of his length as a cushion against quickness will improve on what is already an elite defensive profile.

Offensively, Clarke is a much simpler player. He’s attempted just 12 threes with the Zags (made 4) and is a 68% shooter from the line. I don’t believe Clarke’s pro value to be contingent on shooting ability and I have questions about his touch around the rim, but Cole Zwicker makes a strong case for Clarke’s shot development and touch; which happens to be a single skill that could determine Clarke’s destiny in this great global game. He’s most noticeable in and around the paint for a Zags team that’s not short on skilled scorers, but in that painted area, none are more efficient than Clarke who’s currently shooting nearly 70% on 2s. It’s not just that he’s mean as a dunker, but Clarke has already developed as a roll man, regularly catching lobs from point guard Noah Perkins and dunking them down like bolts of lightning from Zeus. He has an off-the-dribble game, but it’s not something I’d expect to see at the next level unless it drastically develops. From my viewing, he’s been better in catch-and-shoot situations as his mechanics hold up there. Similarly to his off-the-dribble game, I don’t anticipate Clarke being used much as a hub or scoring option in the post though with Gonzaga, he gets good position down low with a strong, low base. If he does get the catch inside, it’s almost a guarantee he’s attacking left shoulder with either a little righty jump hook or a mini dribble drive.

The above isn’t the type of clip I’d normally seek out, but it’s a perfect example of Clarke’s footwork and timing in the pick-and-roll while also capturing his non-stop movement. On a single possession, he goes through two screen-and-roll motions, posts up his man, and executes a hand-off. It doesn’t matter that nothing came of it on this possession; rather, the unceasing pressure creates breakdowns that result in easy buckets.

Clarke gets his shots with the Zags (nearly 10 FGAs/gm), but his value is that he doesn’t need them to be effective. He doesn’t need entire sets drawn up or committed to him in order to produce. Between P&R, offensive rebounding, competent grab-and-go- skills, and running the floor (Clarke runs the floor like a man possessed; against St. Mary’s I saw him get a layup just by sprinting the floor off a make), he can be an efficient fourth or fifth scorer. Developing as a shooter is the kind of swing skill that pushes him from highly competent role player into starter on a competitive playoff team.

There could be better athletes or better dunkers in college basketball than Zion Williamson and Brandon Clarke. But there isn’t anyone who better combines athleticism with ability than these two genetic lottery winners (h/t Bill Walton). These brothers in arms pull you in with their highlight dunkathons and keep you there with commitment and effort. If the game was called “run and jump,” they’d still be top-tier. Instead, the game is basketball and timing, nuance, effort, awareness all matter as much as vertical jumps, agility drills, and points-per-game. There exists a substance beneath the style of this fashionable game, and Clarke and Williamson, for whatever stroke of luck and hard work, embody both: the luck to be blessed with world class athleticism and the willingness to work hard to untap it and release it into this ethereal existence.

 

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