Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: College Basketball

Bol Bol: Always on the Move, still Tall

Born in Khartoum, Sudan, moved to Cairo, Egypt after his former NBA-playing father, Manute Bol, refused to convert to Islam and was accused of being a spy; before eventually landing in Connecticut as political or religious refugees (depending on the source) and finally relocating in Olathe, Kansas in 2006, 7-3 NBA prospect Bol Bol has been perpetually moving since birth. After attending two high schools in Kansas, he went west: first to Santa Ana by way of Mater Dei, and then Henderson, Nevada by way of Findlay Prep. As a human, as an adolescent, moving around creates its own interruptions. As a basketball player? It likely introduces obstacles to consistent learning and development; it likely places artificial ceilings at levels they may not otherwise exist.

Bol’s game is nothing if not unorthodox. That’s somewhat to be expected when you’re an ultra-slender 7-3 teen with high hips and long arms. It’s to be expected when your father’s shot form resembled what one would expect from an alien sea creature. And it’s definitely not a surprise when the prospect in question attended four high schools in four years and spent barely a semester in his pitstop at the University of Oregon.

Sudan to NBA by way of many basketball teams

Bol’s travels can be tracked here: from two Kansas high schools to Mater Dei in California, then Findlay Prep in Nevada. It’s not rare for top high school players to bounce around from school to school, but given Bol’s unique playing style and inconsistent effort (more on that), it feels more relevant than it might otherwise. While there have likely been a smattering of consistent figures in Bol’s basketball life (the elder Bol passed in 2010 when Bol just 10-years-old), the never-ceasing whirlwind in search of something (A basketball home? Opportunity? Cinderella’s high-top?) has to have stunted his development in more ways than one.

It’s this stunting alongside his rare skill-size combination that makes Bol compelling and I can’t consider one without the other.

The first time I settled in to watch Bol, the announcers were questioning his attitude and effort. This theme hasn’t quite abated as after an exhibition game in early November, Oregon coach Dana Altman said of Bol, “He’s got to play a lot harder … He coasts a lot. But he’s getting better. He’s working at it. He’s going to be a work-in-progress all year but there’s a lot more that he can do.”

In the games I’ve watched of Bol’s since early 2018, his effort, conditioning, and general preparedness ebbed and flowed, but not remarkably more than I’d expect for a maturing young person. In a handful of Oregon games, his weaknesses were much less effort-based and more rooted in defensive technique and strength. This is mostly reckless speculation as I’m not a medical professional, but in my limited experience watching Bol, I’ve seen him fatigue easily (at Findlay), cramp up (against Iowa), and now suffer a stress fracture. His durability is a minor, but potential concern as the NBA’s 82-game season against physically developed men is a leap from Bol’s previous experiences. In the quote above, Coach Altman talked about Bol being a “work-in-progress” and upon his signing, said, “Our job is to get him here in the summer and to help him grow as a person.” This repeated emphasis on Bol’s development makes his departure from Oregon’s program worrisome.

Bol Bol

 

Despite the completely valid concerns, in his abbreviated, Kyrie Irving-esque, stint at Oregon, Bol was statistically devastating averaging 21-points, over 9 rebounds, and just under 3 blocks in his 9 games. According to Sports-Reference.com’s database, since 1993, it’s been done less than 20 times and never by a freshman. He walks away from college basketball with a 63% true shooting rate and a block rate north of 12%. Despite the Ducks’ struggles in his nine games, Bol was remarkably impactful.

In Bol’s case, stats articulate his uniqueness, but don’t do his game justice. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a player his height run as smoothly or gracefully as he does. Against Iowa back in November, I was mesmerized by how he glided down the court on light feet with long strides. He’s nimble as an athlete and unlike most humans this big, he’s agile. While on-the-ball perimeter defense is a weakness, he’s capable of sitting low in a defensive stance which makes me think there’s potential lurking somewhere inside. Unfortunately, when it comes to lateral movement while in a stance, he’s either unwilling, unable or just too slow to react.

The defensive question marks don’t end with his lack of lateral movement. Bol’s closeouts essentially resort in a matador’s ole with even slow-footed opponents easily beating him off the dribble. Given his length, it’s a confounding as to why he doesn’t more frequently put up a hand to contest on the catch and give himself a bigger cushion to guard against the drive. This type of minor adjustment is where one can imagine repeated and consistent coaching drilling in new habits where bad ones exist today. And it’s also why I believe he has a high defensive ceiling. Bol’s most consistent and reliable strength is his ability to protect the rim. Even if by accident, just his presence, just being there, is something opponents are aware of and adjust to. Sometimes he blocks shots and sometimes he doesn’t, but if he’s in the vicinity, at both the collegiate and high school levels, he’s a deterrent. This may elicit a “duh” from some readers or watchers, but there are plenty of tall people who don’t share this presence. It’s not simply that Bol is tall and long, it’s that he’s agile and willing – around the rim at least.

Whether he plays the four or five in the NBA, strength will be a challenge. One of the first games I saw him in high school, he was easily rooted out of position by a kid about 6-2. Unless he sits his butt and hips low on box outs or defending the post, shorter, stronger players will be able to knock him off balance or position. Against Montverde’s RJ Barrett, the two blue chippers collided and it was only Bol who was knocked backwards. He doesn’t have enough mass to absorb that kind of contact and savvier pros will try to nullify his length by attacking straight into his chest.

Image result for breaking bad habits

I’m fascinated by Bol on the offensive end. He seemed to improve and his role evolved over the short course of his nine games in Eugene. After starting out making 2 of his first 6 3-point attempts, he shot 58% on 19 attempts in the following five games. His form looks improved, both quicker and more fluid than in high school, with range that extends to the NBA line. If the 3-point shooting is real (it looks like it is, though probably not as efficient as he shot it in college), it will be his great differentiator. Similar to his grace in motion, Bol has soft hands and innate touch. It’s not limited to his jumper, but carries into the mid-range and around the rim. In high school, he seemed to settle more for pull-up jumpers off the dribble or more inefficient east-west dribble dancing forays. At Oregon, he was more decisive, attacking north-south and forcing less pull-ups. He still loves to attack off the dribble and against true fives, particularly at NCAA level, he easily beats opponents. While this likely translates against bulkier, slow-footed NBA fours and fives, it’ll be more difficult against the more versatile bigs. Where I’d like to see him evolve is in the variability of his attacks off the catch. He’ll mix in the occasional closeout attack, but given his potential as a shooter with his high level handle, he should be able to attack more frequently before the defender is set. What he does from that attack is another story. He really has three options off the dribble: the pull-up, the rim drive, or the pass:

  • Pull-up: I don’t have access to his advanced numbers, but it took me a while to get a feel for the awkwardness of his jumper. There’s just so much gangly motion generated from his arms that the mechanics look funky, but funk doesn’t equate to negativity. And what his pull-up often reminds me of, and I don’t believe it to be intentionally, is Kevin Durant’s rip-through move where arms upon arms become tangled and in the confusion, KD ends up at the line. In high school, this was a more prevalent form of attack that I didn’t see as much at Oregon. It will be interesting to see if and how he tries to develop at the next level.
  • Attacking the rim: I don’t imagine there are many 7-3 people that can contort their body the way Bol can. He’s not strong enough to go through defenders and needs to wind up to get lift. His go-to is an old man-like scoop shot that he tosses up from his midsection. Like the pull-up jumper, this needs a lot of work.
  • The pass/creation: in his nine games, he had 9 assists to 18 turnovers. There’s a level of feel and awareness to his game, but its tertiary to shooting and scoring and at times it appears he has blinders on to teammates.

Bol’s touch is most evident around the rim. His footwork is basic and he has two moves, that’s it: if he turns to the right shoulder, he’s shooting a turnaround or, if he’s close enough, he’ll reach out and dunk or toss it in. If he turns left shoulder, it’s absolutely a jump hook, a shot he shoots with accuracy, touch, and has range well beyond the charge circle. Developing at least a single counter move for each shoulder would immediately add to his versatility.

Of less concern for a 19-year-old is his screen setting which is, for all intents and purpose, non-existent. Rather than seeking out contact or seeking to force a defender, Bol still goes through the motions and fools no one – least of all the defenders. He doesn’t roll with any frequency and when he does there’s no intensity or purpose. He’s more likely to mimic a screen and then drift to the arc.

I’m probably higher on Bol Bol than most based on what I view as a boundaryless ceiling. The feel, shooting, length, size, and athleticism make me think he has the potential to be a special player. Alas, the gap between where Bol is today and where he could be coupled with his turnstyling defense and history of questionable effort reduce my confidence in his long-term improvement. He can be a 20 and 10 NBA player and struggle to impact games. The proof won’t be in the numbers, but the effort and execution. What does Bol Bol become in a world of stability? Are his bad habits replaced with efficiency or consistency? Is stability even attainable in a world you spend months at a time on chartered flights with late nights and ice baths and the Steven Adamses of the world kicking you in your narrow ass? There’s a sad distance in Bol’s deep set eyes. I can feel it in his lack of expressiveness, in his words about his father, in the transience of his basketball life. The NBA, for all the hopes and dreams placed on its attainment, doesn’t seem like a place for healing. Good luck, young Bol.

Scottie Barnes & Vernon Carey Jr: Precocious Basketballing Minors

Somewhere in Florida, at a prep school called Nova Southeastern University, aka The University School, play two of the best non-NBA basketball players in the country of the United States of America. Scottie Barnes, a 17-year-old high school junior and Vernon Carey Jr, a 17-year-old senior, are runaway barrels tumbling down the hill of high school basketball, flattening obstacles that impede their inevitable progress. This isn’t about winning or losing, but about a unification of ability and skill that arrives before its time and lays waste – except when it doesn’t which is some of the time because teenagers, high school, imperfection.

Within their respective graduating classes, these players are ranked second (Carey in 2019) and third (Barnes in 2020). Theirs are games that flash with the brightest of lights like when Carey Jr goes coast to coast bulldogging his way through 175-pound, underdeveloped high school bodies, leaving carnage and hurt feelings in his wake. Or when Barnes pulls off the kind of interior pass that makes one think Draymond Green, not a high school junior. But, and probably less so, their games are littered with peculiar teenage funk and I don’t mean funk in a good kind of way, but in the kind of way where Carey Jr’s coast to coast forays are ill-advised with his handle too high, rumbling, bumbling, stumbling towards turnover town. Or you cringe when Barnes convinces himself that the pull-up contested three is the right decision even though there’s no shot clock and his shot is kind of broke and his release is something preceding the work-in-progress stages. This appears to be high school basketball and even the best players aren’t exempt.

I’m lumping these two together simply because they’re teammates. Beyond them being highly talented teammates, as players they have very little in common: Barnes, a 6-8 combo forward with guard skills, has innate ability and feel. When I first saw him as a sophomore against prep juggernaut Oak Hill Academy, his passing immediately popped and had me like Whoa (h/t, Black Rob). He’s an instinctual player who’s shot looks like it’s never been loved though I’m sure it has been loved and tended to. Carey Jr, by contrast, is a combination of highly refined skill mixed into the human form of a freight train: he’s listed as 6-11, 275-pounds. He has the jawline of a boxer and the shoulder-neck of a football player which makes sense since his dad is a 6-5, 340-pound former NFL player named Vernon Carey who had an 8-year career as an offensive lineman.

The giant Carey Jr is already committed to Duke for the 2019-2020 season. How his game translates at both the collegiate and pro levels isn’t difficult to imagine, but the degree to which he improves his game is harder to predict. Carey Jr’s already more offensively skilled than a lot of NBA big men – he’s highly coordinated, light on his feet with sound footwork and a fluid jumper. He has no issue playing the role of bully, muscling straight through or over shorter, weaker high school opponents. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a mean streak, but he’s happy to use his size and strength as a weapon. More often though, he defaults to catching in the post and then turning and facing. From the face up range, he has a variety of attack options, most of which involve putting the ball on the floor. While his handle exceeds that of many NBA centers, his decision-making and decisiveness do not. At times, it appears that he’s already decided he’s going to shoot before he ever assesses the defense which is unfortunate as he’s a capable passer with above average vision. Carey Jr negates all this well-developed skill when he lulls himself into pounding the ball and bailing out defenders with contested fadeaways.

Carey Jr’s biggest challenges as a senior have been against elite teams full of D1 players and athletes: IMG, Sierra Canyon, and Gonzaga-bound Anton Watson. The challenges aren’t all his fault. The University School lost two high D1 guards last season and there’s a thinness to the roster that has shifted much of the offensive load to Carey Jr and Barnes, neither of them equipped as primary initiators. The result of that imbalanced load, for Carey Jr in particular, has been forced attempts and default isolations. This is all well and good when he’s competing against Central Catholic of Oregon, pushing the grab and go and Earl Campbelling and Julius Randling through the entire opposition for monster dunks. Against the better teams and athletes though, the lack of facilitators leads to indecisiveness and contested attempts. While his handle is solid and he has some shake for a near-7-footer, on the move the handle gets looser and higher, making him vulnerable to swipes and strips. Against Villanova commit, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl of IMG, a versatile and sturdy 6-8 combo forward, Carey struggled to put the ball on the floor as the smaller player encroached on his space. Against more complex college and pro defenses, these types of weaknesses will quickly be exploited.

On the face up, Carey Jr is at his best when being decisive: catching, turning and attacking, usually to his left as he did against the aforementioned Watson at the Les Schwab Invitational over the holidays when he attacked hard to his left off the catch, never giving help defenders a chance to settle, and dunking straight through the 6-10 Watson. His footwork and tight spin move are advanced even for college kids. If and when he’s able to use the handle and footwork to create space, he has a fluid mid-range jumper that he shoots with confidence. Carey Jr can improve upon his decision making which will lead to greater efficiency and less isolation. This could be mitigated by better guard play and a more balanced court, but he can go a long way to improve his own reads and timing.

I struggle to assess high school defenders in part because the talent gap can be so massive, but so far Carey Jr’s defense could best be described as opportunistic disinterest: IE; if he can pick up a highlight help side block, he’s there. If not, sorry. He’s not the most expressive player, but his facial expressions and defensive effort and awareness call to mind another Duke Blue Devil, Jabari Parker and his “they don’t pay players to play defense” ethos. Going back to games I’ve seen of his as a junior, there’s a lackadaisical tendency to stand around and almost look bored on the defensive end. Against Watson and Gonzaga Prep’s cutting offense, he was easily beaten backdoor more than once and one occasion, he saw Watson cutting and didn’t react, giving up an easy score in the process. Part of the frustration around his defensive effort comes from his obvious ability. At his size and with his athleticism, he’ll occasionally get his shit together long enough to destroy shot attempts on help side blocks and based on how well he moves with the ball, it’s clear he can move well laterally. The lack of focus and effort are decisions he’s making or bad habits he’s forming. I’d expect these lapses to be directly addressed at Duke, but Coach K’s had plenty of players who never learn or commit to that end of the court and if Carey Jr produces offensively, it won’t be a surprise if he cruises on defense.

Stylistically, Barnes couldn’t be much more different from Carey Jr. At 6-8 with a 7-2 wingspan, per ESPN, his measurements compare to Al-Farouq Aminu and Jerami Grant; a pair of long, versatile, defensive-minded NBA forwards. Barnes, as a high school sophomore, was a better passer than both of those players are now as seasoned pros. He’s long, strong, and athletic with an ability to think the game. If Carey Jr plays with a poker face and obscured emotions, Barnes is expressive and plays with high energy. During the Geico Nationals telecast last season, he was described as the “alpha dog” of the team (as a sophomore) and in October, ESPN wrote of him at the USA mini-camp that “players gravitate to his joyful nature.”

Last season with University School, he was able to facilitate without having to be the primary ball handler. This year, Barnes has been forced at times to act as the primary initiator, a role that’s revealed more weaknesses to what’s an otherwise strong all-around game (jump shot notwithstanding). While he has a quality handle for a front court player, bringing the ball up against smaller, peskier defenders, Barnes is forced to turn and put his body between himself and the defender to protect the ball, Mark Jackson style but without the intent or ability to back the opponent down from 30-feet. Barnes is much more effective catching the ball in the half court set and attacking off the dribble or pushing in the full court. Off the dribble, he’s adept at driving and kicking or driving and dumping. His first step is quick enough and his handle tight enough that he can regularly get a step on defenders and when help comes, he’s elite at recognizing where the open man is before defenders have a chance to respond – be it on the perimeter or around the rim. No-looks and look-away passes are functionally executed and commonplace for Barnes.

Defensively, his engagement and effort are superior to Carey Jr’s in that he’s more physically capable and he tries. Physically he has the tools to be an excellent defender, but technique-wise, there’s room for growth. On the interior, he’ll lean on his man with arms straight up in the air and just stand there like a 6-8 turnstile hoping or expecting opponents to shoot the ball into his outstretched hands. He doesn’t move great laterally, but he’s long enough that as he develops his defensive awareness, his length can be used as a cushion against quicker opponents. As a high school underclassman, it’s not surprising that he can wind up out of position defensively, but against current opponents (many of whom include high-level D1 players) he’s still long and athletic enough and plays with enough effort and pride to recover.

The biggest cause for concern, and it’s visible in every game I’ve seen of his, is the shot. Be it the free throw line, on catch-and-shoot 3s, on pull-ups. It doesn’t matter where the shot’s coming from or even if it goes in, it’s just mangled and hasn’t improved much in the year I’ve been watching him. In four games at Les Schwab, he was 2-10 from 3 and one of the makes was an ill-advised side-step attempt that defenses would love for him to take. And his misses are bad misses: airballs, bricks, shots that are woefully short. I’m not a shot doctor, so I’ll borrow from ESPN on his shot description: “he’s a non-shooter who doesn’t show much potential to improve at this stage, with side spin and unconventional shooting mechanics.” Shooting is a critical skill necessary to fully unlocking his passing and creation. He’s not on Ben Simmons’s level as a passer, but he may end up getting the same type of treatment as Simmons at upper levels as teams just sag off and dare him to shoot. He’s also not as bad a shooter as Simmons. In 17 games of Nike EYBL play in 2018, he shot 12-33 (36%) from deep which, on its own, hardly constitutes a destitute shooter, but when viewed alongside his game tape, gives pause as a possible fluke. How his shooting potentially limits his playmaking is of interest at the next levels. Smart coaches will find ways to take advantage of his passing similarly to how Golden State’s continued to do with Draymond Green despite him shooting a career-worst 24% from deep. Less coherent teams will struggle to maximize his game and this is the risk of any player who has a massive hole in his game.

In an ideal world, Carey Jr commits to learning the defensive side of the ball the same way he’s clearly committed to honing his offensive craft. Barnes becomes a high-energy, high-IQ player who can impact the game on both sides of the ball and at least keep defenses honest with 30-35% 3-point shooting. What I’m asking for from either player is no small thing, but they are addressable things. Both players already have the requisite physical tools and skills for NBA ball which already place them in the upper echelons of a craft that our society places a massive monetary value on. They’ll both make the NBA, but the nits I’m picking at (defense, effort, shooting, and decision making) differentiate rotation players from starters, starters from All-Stars, and All-Stars from All-NBA players. As 17-year-olds, their destinies aren’t completely in their own hands. Team and scheme still matter and we’re already seeing how a departure of skilled teammates is affecting their current games, but Carey Jr and Barnes are complete enough already to chart their own courses, shape their own trajectories, land on their own moons. Whether they do or not is a burden they shoulder as minors beset with in-demand, cash-generating talents. What could possibly go wrong?

Romeo Langford: Damn you, Expectations

I first saw Romeo Langford a short nine-ish months ago playing in the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage – which was when I first saw several players in this freshman class. It’s odd what sometimes does or doesn’t stand out to you about a player, but with the 6-5, 6-6 or so Langford, it was his ability to rebound in traffic. There he was, this skinny, straight-faced kid with long arms (6-11 wingspan), taking the rapid-rising elevator up, up, up above the towering trees and snatching that ball out of the clouds with strong hands. There’s something about seeing one triumphant leaper emerge from a mass of high-flying bodies, but at the McDonald’s events, that’s what Langford did and, in the process, snatched affections.

At the time, he hadn’t committed to Indiana and was waiting to see where everyone else would go or something. That seemed weird, but seeing him at McDonald’s and then at the Jordan Brand Classic, it was clear he was in the right place competing easily with positional peers, Keldon Johnson and Quentin Grimes. He out-leapt UNC’s Nassir Little on the boards and exploited Bol Bol’s defensive limitations with a lefty hesitation which was followed by soft touch on a layup high off the glass. I didn’t walk away from the all-star cycle smitten with Langford the way I was with Naz Reid, but I saw him with a higher probability of pro success and with that intrigue, eagerly approached Indiana’s November games with optimistic curiosity.

We’re presently 12 games into what will likely be Langford’s only season in Bloomington, Indiana and what’s become painfully apparent, and what, when I look back over my notes from those all-star games was apparent then, is that he’s not much of a shooter. Through the first third of his freshman season, Langford’s made 9 of 44 3s (20.5%). He’s one of just 12 players in all of NCAA D1 who’s taken that many threes and hit so few. On 400 pre-college 3-point attempts in ESPN’s database, he’s shooting 30% so it’s hard to say if this 44-shot sample is a blip, a downward trend, or the result of greater opponents and pressures. In each of the three pre-college games I scouted, I commented on his form: “not fluid or smooth,” “Hit b2b contested 3s, but form isn’t great,” “C&S 3 form isn’t perfect, but it’s going in.” And in my first note from watching him against Arkansas, I was commenting that his pull-up was “forceful” – not as in a forced shot against set defense, but as in violent.

Despite my recurring notes implying there was a significant and concerning wart to an otherwise solid all-around game, it took me taking an aggregate view to accept how this skill has the potential to significantly lower Langford’s ceiling. If an NBA wing can’t shoot, they sure as shit better be able to do something or several things extremely well. There’s the Andre Roberson/Tony Allen route of defensive specialists with utterly broken shots. There’s the DeMar DeRozan path of being an elite scorer with an optimal mid-range game. Shawn Livingston, Rajon Rondo, and Elfrid Payton are playmakers who, at one point or another (or even the present), couldn’t or can’t shoot. Each of the aforementioned players counterweights his shooting struggles with some kind of uniquely packaged skill/size combination and even in a league where shooting has become one of the most valuable single skills a player can have, these specialists still survive, thrive, add value, and possibly most notably, they evolve – sometimes.

As a 19-year-old, Langford’s best attributes are his length and athleticism. He has a frame designed for basketballing with his long arms and catapulting legs and in a lot of ways, he knows exactly how to utilize these tools. Even though he’s not a threat to beat opponents from the perimeter, Langford makes a living at the line and the rim. Per-40 minutes, he gets to the line 8 times/game where he makes 69% of his attempts. On that list of 12 players shooting as poorly from 3 as Langford, he has the highest overall field goal percentage by far (49%) and is shooting 61% on 2s. Despite that abominable 3-point rate, his true shooting is a respectable 56% and it’s in part because he does so well attacking the basket. He has a quick, long first step he uses to get past initial defenders and he’s a good enough ball handler to drive effectively in either direction. If there’s much more than a sliver of daylight, there’s potential for this:

That dunk may have bounced off the back rim, but it’s not because he wasn’t high enough. Langford has a tendency to drive baseline and when he’s isolated, more often than not, he’s beating the defender. When help arrives and shuts down his driving lanes, the results are less effective. He’s not a bad passer, but he hasn’t yet exhibited great vision or decision making with any regularity. If he loses that driving lane, he’ll resort to picking up his dribble or looking for kickouts, but his decision making isn’t always fast enough to take advantage of the help. In the play below, he executes a beautiful leading pocket pass and this is the type of play he needs make more of, particularly if he doesn’t develop the jumper. From what I’ve seen of Indiana, they don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll with Langford and he doesn’t spend a lot of time at the top of the key. That’s not an excuse for his average decision making out of dribble drives though, but it does reveal an area where he potentially has more ability than opportunity:

Defensively, he has ability, but like his playmaking, he’s just average right now. He’s averaging over a steal and block per-game, but much of that is based purely on his length and athletic ability and not effort or technique. When he wants to, he can get low in a defensive crouch and moves well laterally. In terms of focus and intensity, like many 19-year-olds, he can be much better and more consistent. I’ve seen him lulled into ball watching and susceptible to backdoor cuts and he has a weird habit of keeping his hands and arms low when playing on-ball defense instead of being at the ready. I’m not convinced he’s lacking defensive intensity or if he just always has the same facial expressions. Whether dunking or locked into tough defensive assignment or standing in the corner waiting for the ball, Langford has proven inexpressive.

In his Game Theory podcast, Sam Vecenie described Langford’s jump shot as one of the draft’s biggest “swing skills” as in a skill that, depending on development, could swing a player’s future prospects in one direction or another. I thought this was an apt and accurate description. Langford’s average-to-good at a lot of things, but he hasn’t yet developed an elite skill or developed enough consistency in his playmaking or defense to offset shooting concerns. The DeRozan player type I mentioned above is similar to Langford in terms of neither player, as a college freshman, having an elite skill. DeRozan was bigger and more explosive which can mask some effort and skill deficiencies. I don’t write this suggesting Langford is on a trajectory like DeMar’s, but rather to point out that there are ways to overcome weaknesses or develop. On appearances alone, Langford seems to be getting more comfortable at the collegiate level; partially reflected by averaging over 6 rebounds and 4 assists in his past 3 games. He’s far from a finished product and a rugged conference season in a stacked Big 10 is likely to produce up and down results, but 12 games into his freshman season, Langford is far from a finished product. No one’s drafting him for today, they’re drafting him for a high ceiling and a floor that rests easily on awesome athleticism and measurables. I don’t think it’s as simple as hard work and dedication for Langford, but rather a confluence of opportunity, nurture, will, work, and stars aligning. After all, how many of us truly reach our potential? Some of us are content just snatching rebounds from on high.

Cam Reddish: Laissez-faire Basketballism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ja Morant: Boom Boom in Tuscaloosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Nembhard: A Passing Savant in Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: FIBA

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

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

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

Naz Reid: Sometimes Magic Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trae Young and the Long Arm of Steph Curry

I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.

Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.

My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”

However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”

LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.

With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.

Steph, Tyreke Locure, LaMelo Ball

Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.

In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”

Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”

I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”

It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.

The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)

14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.

The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.

I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.

Bonding over a skinny kid named Jarrod

I spent ten days over the holidays with friends and family in my homeland in Iowa. Somewhere in these annual nostalgic returns, I always find myself coordinating schedules with my dad, trying to find a bar where we can meet up for some sporting event, preferably one where our loyalties lie on the same side. The rising stability of my alma mater’s (the University of Iowa) basketball program has offered that which we seek and so it was on a Tuesday night we descended on a truly gluttonous BBQ joint near the Drake University campus called Jethro’s. Jethro’s specializes in a five-pound artery-clogging burger sandwich named after one of Drake’s recent basketball heroes: Adam Emmenecker. (I will forever be amazed at the glory that accompanies a sandwich-eating event, but that’s what happens at Jethro’s.)

Without audio and strangely surrounded by LSU fans in the heart of Des Moines, Iowa, we settled in with our beers to watch Iowa host then-top ranked Michigan State who was without their All-American, All-Everything forward Denzel Valentine. Iowa led all game despite its best player and the subject of this piece putting together an underwhelming offensive performance. Jarrod Uthoff, a sunken-cheeked 23-year-old from Cedar Rapids, IA came into the game averaging around 18 points/game, but was held to just ten while struggling with foul trouble and committing eight turnovers. In a nod to the two-way nature of his ever-developing game, Uthoff, the Big 10’s leading shot blocker, swatted six Spartan shots. Iowa led the entire game and my dad and I, along with my buddy Hamilton, walked away with feelings of satisfaction and a desire to carry the momentum to another watering hole.

Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cbb

Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cbb

This recent bonding in the motherland coupled with Iowa’s strong play this season (ranked 19th in the country with back-to-back wins over ranked Big 10 teams) has compelled me to explore Iowa through Uthoff. He’s the best player on the team, an Iowa native that went from skinny, gaunt-faced kid who persevered through some ugly transfer nonsense at Wisconsin to Iowa where he bided time behind eventual NBA player Devyn Marble and Wizards draftee Aaron White to a dynamic two-way threat who can apparently carry some sinewy muscle on an otherwise lithe frame.

But it’s not enough to develop physically and it’s not enough to just be 23. At 6’9”, 221lbs, Uthoff plays the four for Iowa where he’s equally at ease attacking bigger defenders off the dribble, spotting up behind the arc, or punishing even narrower opponents in the post. 15 games into the season, he’s averaging over 18 points/game on 50% shooting from the field and 45% from three. And what’s more, at 6’9”, he’s become somewhat of a volume shooter from deep where he’s taking nearly five threes/game and making two. While he slots in at the four, he’s a wing on the Hawkeyes which makes his shot blocking ability so compelling.

His wingspan was measured at just 6’10.5” at the Nike Basketball Academy, but he looks kind of raptorish out there with dangling arms that harass the hell out of opponents. He’s fourth in the country averaging 3.3 blocks/game, second in total blocks with 49 and fourth in block percentage at 11.7%. All these blocks and he’s not in any way a rim protector. He moves well laterally and expertly times when to commit to the block attempt. His blocks appear to come in man-to-man situations where opponents continue to underestimate his ability to close space and on help situations where he swoops around with unbiased menace knocking shots off target. A few days ago, Adam Jacobi of Black Heart Gold Pants of SB Nation went a step further with his analysis:

Uthoff has more than doubled his blocks, and now ranks third nationally in blocks at 3.2* per game, but he’s “only” 17th in block percentage** at 11.68%, per Ken Pomeroy ($). That’s still elite, but we see that part of his ability to accumulate so many blocks is his ability to stay on the court for more minutes than most shot blockers, and he does that with an amazing ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Uthoff commits only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and that is one hell of an accomplishment. Not only is it the lowest of anybody in Pomeroy’s top 100 in block percentage, nobody else is even below 3.0 (and only a handful are even below 3.5).

Part of that ability to stay on the court and avoid fouls is because Uthoff’s not patrolling the lane like so many traditional rim protectors. He’s quicker and lighter on his feet so he’s able to avoid fouls where many college bigs struggle. And that’s what makes his 3.3bpg so damn impressive.

Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I get particularly giddy when I can marry stat combinations into unique historical context. And this is what sucked me into Uthoff’s strange Iowa City gravity: since 1995-96 (the first season Sports-Reference.com/cbb has these stats), no other player in college basketball has average 3+ blocks and 2+ threes/game. And it’s not even close. (As an aside, Jacobi explores this same topic in his piece and my heart sank when I saw it, but we’re still going to plumb the historical context of the Uthoffian achievement.)

01-06-15 - uthoff blocking shots

Uthoff blocking shots (mostly)

To find statistical comps for Uthoff, we can open up the filter on either criteria – 3s made or blocks. Jacobi already opened up it by dropping the blocks to 2/game which pulls in former Naismith and Wooden award winning Shane Battier. Not bad company for a kid that didn’t even break the top-100 preseason player ranks of CBS or ESPN.

I decided to take a different angle and keep the blocks static (3+) while lowering the threes/game to find someone who at least disrupted defense in a similar fashion. The filter has to be reduced all the way down to one 3/game before we get some company.

Criteria: at least 3bpg and 1 3PM/game:

  1. Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa, 2015-16: 3.3bpg, 2 3pm/g
  2. Chris Boucher, Oregon, 2015-16: 3.1bpg, 1 3pm/g
  3. Alec Brown, Green Bay, 2013-14: 3.1bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
  4. Greg Mangano, Yale, 2010-11: 3bpg, 1.1 3pm/g
  5. Eddie Griffin, Seton Hall, 2000-01: 4.4bpg, 1.4 3pm/g

I’ve never heard of Alec Brown, Greg Mangano, and had to look up Chris Boucher to see if I knew who he was (I didn’t). Eddie Griffin’s another story as his freshman season was one of the few things I remember from 2000-01 when I was a sophomore in college. And as a reminder, none of these other guys was hitting 2+ threes/game.

To beat this dead horse a little more: what Uthoff’s doing is unprecedented in the college game. He’s not a specialist player who can hit a couple spot up threes and get help-side blocks. He’s averaging nearly 19 points/game as the focal point for a potent Iowa offense that averages over 80ppg and ranks 24th in the country in offensive rating (per sports-reference). In three recent games against ranked teams, he’s scored 32 (30 in the first half with four total blocks) against then 4th-ranked Iowa State, the aforementioned 10 points (with six blocks) in the MSU victory, and 25 (with five blocks) on the road against 14th-ranked Purdue. For the season, Iowa’s played five ranked teams, has a 3-2 record in those games and Uthoff has stepped up seeing his season averages go up as the quality of opponent increases: 21.8ppg (+3), 4.4bpg (+1), 34.4mpg (+~6) while his shooting stays flatly solid at 45% from three.

I have this compulsive need to ask out loud and inquire about Uthoff’s NBA prospects. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress have left him off of their mock drafts, but ESPN’s Chad Ford has him 39th overall on his big board. DraftExpress though, has a thorough, fair, and mostly positive scouting report that offers a firm handshake-type reassurance. It’s like, “we’ve got a chance here.” But Uthoff, like all basketball players, doesn’t deserve to have his identity as a player defined by pro prospects. He deserves to have his immense collegiate achievements speak for themselves. And regardless of what the future fates have in store for Uthoff, he’s already finding ways to bring fathers and sons closer and that immeasurable quality is as beautiful, if intangible as any once-in-a-generation stat-lines he might conjure up.

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