Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: duke

Scouting Dump: Week of November 19th

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending up:

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

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

SPEED ROUND:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Survivor Series: RJ Barrett vs Jarrett Culver

NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 20: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders drives against RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half at Madison Square Garden on December 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

If we would’ve spoken back in October, I would’ve told you, with confidence, that RJ Barrett of Duke, of Durham, was a better NBA prospect than Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech, of Lubbock. Now we’re in January, 20-something games into the college basketball season and my confidence hasn’t waned, rather it’s been pulverized and rendered null.

Between Barrett and Culver are several similarities: Barrett is 6-7 to Culver’s listed 6-5 (though I suspect he could be 6-6). At 6-10, Barrett’s wingspan is an inch longer. Culver is the elder at 20-years-old (as of today, happy birthday, Jarrett, may your stars always shine bright) to Barrett’s 18-and-a-half. RJ is probably the faster, more athletic, and stronger. Culver has the edge in efficiency as he’s able to generate roughly the same numbers as Barrett (with the exception of scoring volume) despite handling a smaller usage rate (33.3% for RJ to 30.5 for Culver). While the difference in scoring volume is a hair over 5-points (5.1), it takes RJ an extra 6.6 shot attempts to get there. Part of that is because he’s less efficient (51% eFG for RJ to Culver’s 58%) and another part is because he gets to the line less (30% FTr for RJ to 43% for Culver).

These two prospects, both elite in their own unique ways with overlapping positional and physical profiles, are a study in contrasting style and aesthetic. Barrett, at 6-7, 200-plus pounds, is an embodiment physical strength. His father played ball at St. John’s, his mother ran track there, and his aunt represented Jamaica as a sprinter in the 1992 Olympics. It’s unlikely that Barrett is the product of intentional genetic engineering, but if you wanted to design an ideal basketball player, these are the type of athletic genes you’d look for. Barrett’s combination of speed and strength are devastating for defenses and at just 18, he already knows that he’s stronger than most players and when propelled with momentum, short of taking a charge, there’s little a defense can do to slow him down. Barrett is a straight-line player with little in the way of wiggle or shimmy. Against Kentucky and their blue chip freshman, 6-6, 211-pound Keldon Johnson, Barrett was able to easily shrug off the heavier (on paper at least) defender for shot attempts at the rim. This has been a recurrent theme throughout the season where Barrett’s frequent rim attacks resemble peak Darren McFadden breakaways: arm tackles are not enough.

By contrast, Culver reminds me of the John Wooden quote, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” His movements are unrushed, but intentional and with pace. There’s nothing frantic to his activity. Against TCU, Culver had a pair of post-ups where he used the same move: catch on the right block, pivot into a turn-and-face, pivot again, and spin back baseline, dipping the left shoulder to get an advantage on the defender. In one case, he scored after clutching to avoid a help defender, and in the next, he drew a goal tend. These post-ups are fascinating in the sense that they’re simple, but wrapped in a flurry of activity with Culver pivoting 360-degrees before quickly and deliberately spinning baseline. It’s a choreographed move that encapsulates Culver’s game: subtly multifaceted with quickness, and skill.

The visual disparity isn’t limited to degree of aggression. Each player’s end goal manifests itself in radically diverging ways: Barrett’s end goal, it would seem, is to put the ball in the basket. This is a good, worthwhile goal that I believe is motivated by the desire to win basketball games. Within that get-the-ball-in-hoop-come-hell-or-high-water ethos, Barrett is attempting the 4th most shots-per-game in the country and is the only player from a Power Conference to appear on this short list. In and of itself, high volume shooting isn’t anathema. In Barrett’s case, high volume shooting raises two red flags:

  1. Opportunity Cost: is Barrett shooting a contested pull-up jumper more valuable than almost any Zion Williamson shot? Is Barrett attacking against multiple help defenders more valuable than a Tre Jones creation? Or than an open Cam Reddish three? We saw his iso-heavy tendencies cost Duke heavily against Gonzaga. Probably most importantly, is Barrett either able or willing to consider data-based evidence of value and efficiency or is he resigned to a belief in self which has likely helped him to achieve all that he has in 18 years?
  2. Awareness & IQ: When I watched Barrett as a high school senior for National Champion Montverde Academy, my favorite skill of his was passing. He exhibited vision and awareness and utilized that overwhelming physical advantage to create opportunities for teammates. No look passes, pocket passes in pick-and-roll, bailing himself out of tight spots with frozen rope screamers to open shooters. It wasn’t just occasional, it was every game. At Duke? Despite averaging nearly 4 assists-per-game with an assist rate of 21.1%, Barrett has frequently proven to be an unwilling passer. It’s not that he’s not seeing the floor well, but that he’s not even bothering to look. In the second half in Tallahassee against Florida State, Barrett was at his best and most willing as a passer when Williamson was out with an eye injury. Oddly, he didn’t register any assists (though he certainly should have been credited with at least two and had teammates miss shots on potential assists), but with the increased space and being relieved of the pressure of competing with Zion (will reference this below), Barrett appeared to play freer and less forced.

Culver is frequently the primary ball handler and initiator for Texas Tech’s offense. The game seems to unfold slowly in front of him, leaving time to read and react. While he and Barrett average roughly the same number of assists, Culver’s assist rate is 28.4% to RJ’s 21.1%. Both players are expert at drawing in help defenders though they do it in different manners. RJ is force personified, using explosiveness to beat opponents while Culver slaloms towards the goal, shifting direction with crossovers, and creating moments of pause with hesitations. As defenses react to help against these attacks, Barrett will try to muscle through it all while Culver, with head and eyes up, is aware of release valves and windows and doors opening and closing. His ability to process under duress allows him to see the dump off or kick out and execute both with equal accuracy and appropriate velocity. What makes this frustrating, from a Barrett critique, is that I believe he’s capable of finding and hitting the open man. That he doesn’t is a waste or poor judgment.

Neither player is a very good shooter at present. Culver’s shooting 35% on over 4 3-point-attempts per-game while Barrett’s at 32% on close to 8 attempts. Against Power Conference opponents, both players see field goal and 3-point percentages drop: Barrett from 45% (FG) and 32% (3) to 42% (FG) and 30% (3) while Culver’s falloff is greater: 52% (FG) and 35% (3) to 46% (FG) and 31% (3). Keeping with the theme of contrast, each player is developing with different quirks. Culver’s base is narrow with his feet close together and he sometimes leans back on his jump shot. He has a high release and high arcing shot that often looks like it’s short, but just sneaks over the nose of the rim. Despite having some truly awful nights shooting the ball (4-17 vs Syracuse, 0-7 vs Texas Tech), Barrett’s form has improved from high school when it seemed he would aim the ball. It’s more fluid now, but fluid in this case is a relative term. Much of my concern with Barrett’s shot is judgment based and can be lumped into my analysis of his general basketball philosophy (get the ball in the hoop). Barrett will fling up threes in questionable time and circumstance. Evolving this part of his game, ideally through coaching, is key to his attaining his ceiling.

Defensively, Culver is on one of the nation’s top defensive teams. As of this writing, the Red Raiders rank 1st in opponent field goal percentage, 3rd in 3-point percentage, and 3rd in opponent points-per-game. Coach Chris Beard has the appearance of a man obsessed with defense and the team often appears to operate with a Borg-like shared consciousness. Whether Culver arrived on campus with a passion for defense or mainlined these concepts into his bloodstream doesn’t matter as much as his clear internalization of commitment to the defensive end. He sits low with open hips and moves his feet well. He sees and checks cutters, anticipates help, is willing. For as much as his offensive game has grown, his defense has fine-tuned. Most of my notes on RJ are critical: not low enough in stance, kind of stiff, missed rotation and pouted about it, beat backdoor. It’s hard to knock an 18-year-old for defensive shortcomings and Duke doesn’t have a reputation for cultivating defensive minds. Barrett has the tools to be an awesome defender, but as I type this, I the waves of de ja vu bubble to the surface reminding me of the last highly touted Canadian draft prospect: Andrew Wiggins, another wing with all the tools, but now in his 5th season, those tools remain largely unused.

In terms of intrigue, Barrett gets the nod by a wide margin. On July 8th of 2017, donning the jersey for the Canadian Junior National team in the FIBA U19 World Basketball Cup, he put up 38-points on 12-24 shooting with 12-15 from the line, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in upsetting an American team that included current teammate Cam Reddish and current NBA rookies Kevin Huerter, Hamidou Diallo, and Josh Okogie. Canada won the hold and Barrett headed into his senior season at Montverde as the undisputed top-ranked candidate in his class and held that imaginary crown for the remainder of his high school days. It was against this reputation that Barrett landed at Duke in the middle of a circus that quickly shifted its spotlight from the group of freshmen to the beefy, bulky highlight machine Zion Williamson.

And for me, this spotlight sharing is at the crux of the shoot-first, second, and third RJ. From watching him in high school and hearing that his dad was a college player, that his godfather was Steve Nash, there was a sense of inevitability with him; not that he would inevitably make it to the NBA, that’s far too low. Rather, that he would be one of the best. Even in high school, his approach and demeanor were all business without the immaturity prevalent in many young stars. He competed in regular season games like it was the NBA playoffs. To arrive at Duke and suddenly, rudely, be shoved aside would be culture shocking – even if that the new chosen one is your good friend. In my most meager attempt at armchair psychology, this schism between what should have been and what is lies at the heart of Barrett’s iso-heavy hero ball approach. Of separate intrigue is how much accountability for navigating the psychological twists and curves of assimilation lies with the coaching staff who, to outside eyes, appear to be enable Barrett’s aggressiveness instead of re-channeling it.

For the purposes of this piece, we’re ultimately simplifying through comparison; a head-to-head comp to answer the question: Who’s the better prospect: Culver or Barrett? Based on his size, speed, and strength; based on a passing gene I saw in high school and in flashes at Duke, and based on a similar distance shooting rates, I believe Barrett has a higher ceiling. Unfortunately, I have a lot of doubt he gets there. There’s a streak of self-reliance that I’m not convinced can be redirected. The athleticism is good, but not great. The defensive commitment is somewhere between inconsistent and not that good. Culver’s best skills: his defense and passing, are more NBA ready than anything Barrett currently has. Both players will improve and while Barrett likely ends up with better NBA stats, Culver’s potential to contribute to winning basketball gives him the nod in this strange, possibly unnecessary head-to-head pro prospect comparison exercise.

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?

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.

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