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Category Archives: NBA Draft
Zion & Brandon: Hulkish Hermanos; alternately: The Intersection of Elite Athleticism, Intellect & Effort
February 26, 2019Posted by on
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.
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.
January 30, 2019Posted by on
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:
- 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?
- 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.
January 17, 2019Posted by on
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.
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.
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.
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.
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Top Player: Luka Doncic; alternately: Don’t Believe Everything Your Ears & Eyes Behold
June 21, 2018Posted by on
Like every top prospect in this draft (and in most drafts?), Luka Doncic the prospect is not without flaws: he has a questionable handle for a lead ball handler and an annoying habit of picking his dribble up too early. He’s an average athlete and maybe over-reliant on stepbacks, and for all his advanced vision and screaming passes, he’s not above forcing the ball into spaces it can never reach. In other ways, he’s a complete outlier amongst his peer set: his pick-and-roll game is game is master class, his passing the best in the draft, his combination of size and skill an almost teenage facsimile of Magic and Bird which isn’t to say he’s Magic or Bird, just that for a kid his size to play with this type of skill is rare. Where the other kids in his draft class have played 30 to 40 games with other teenagers at the American collegiate level, Doncic has been battling with grown men, NBA-caliber men, in Spain’s ACB league. He is different, he is same.
Doncic is listed at 6’8”, 230-pounds which, purely in terms of height and weight, puts him in a class with Harrison Barnes, Joe Johnson, and Danny Granger: a trio of sturdy, shooting wings who, like Doncic, combine power with skill to offer NBA value. He is not the athlete of Barnes or Granger; flexible, wiry, strong. He’s closer to Johnson; powerful and dependent on skill. While his game doesn’t reference Johnson’s, his build and how he utilizes his strength does. Iso Joe has made a career out of being able to get to his spots and create looks for himself or his teammates. To be totally fair, Johnson’s handle and explosiveness off the dribble are much better than Luka’s. Both players use the dribble to set up defenders for space-creating stepbacks though Johnson’s is much more fluid than 19-year-old Doncic’s.
The bigger difference between Doncic and Johnson is the younger man’s ability to diagnose plays, see the court, and execute passes. It’s fun to reference Magic and Bird and lofty basketball IQ ideals, but even the European game has adopted the modern NBA’s spread schemes with players surrounding the perimeter and opening space for drivers like Doncic. In these schemes, he operates with the precision of LeBron or James Harden in that he can probe the defense with patience, draw in help defenders and, when all seems lost in the world and the dark clouds of help defenders descend on his little spaces, he can jump, see, twist, and whip violent passes to shooters around the arc. In that regard, he has the right set of skills for this modern NBA. And it’s not to suggest he’s a gimmick or an automaton, rather creativity, improvisation, and trust exist at the core of this type of play. Read, react. Read, react. Read, react.
For all the reasonable questions around Doncic’s athleticism, it’s his speed and pace that intrigue. Doncic goes hard. He sprints off screens, dribbles hard, pushes the ball up court with single minded, pedal to metal, headbanging intent: the goal is my destination; there is no alternative. (Blessings are curses, and nurses are nurses; ho hum.) Intensity is fun and magnetic, but knowing when to accelerate, when to brake, or when to just ease your foot back are more important. This is less a question of decision making and more a question of skill development. In my notes, I wrote, “could benefit from watching lots of CP3 – not the quickest guy; uses body, speed shifting.” (It’s always fun to reference yourself.) There are already hints of Paul in Doncic’s game. Against Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvian team at the 2017 Euro Basket tournament, Doncic was able to use his strength and mass both to get into the Zinger’s chest and neutralize his length and also hold him off to get clean looks at layups. Using strength to create space is a tactic both Johnson and Paul have excelled at and one that Doncic ideally continues to refine. Back to Paul; he’s a virtuoso and some think he’s the best point guard to ever play the game. It goes without saying that aspiring NBA point guards should study his game, but for Doncic in particular, with his strength, vision, and need to create space, CP should be a model to emulate.
I’m not convinced Doncic needs to be a point guard to reach his NBA ceiling. As I mention above, he has a terrible habit of picking his dribble up too early and he can be harassed by smaller or longer defenders with strong, active hands. It’s not to say he should disregard his handle as his game needs a strong handle to be fully realized. Rather, as with Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green, we’ve seen that elite passers can be utilized outside of traditional ball-dominant roles. I can envision him playing any position from one to four – and likely struggling defensively with any of them. He has plus defensive instincts with strong active hands, an ability to read the floor and anticipate the pass, but bends more at the waist than the knees and so is prone to being beat off the dribble. That’s hardly unique though and his offense is good enough that he can be a minus defender and still be a net positive. He’s a solid defensive rebounder when he commits to it, but is prone to ball watching and ignoring box outs.
I get the concerns: athleticism, ability to create space, handle, defense. But it’s hard to process those areas of opportunity without fully acknowledging just how advanced his game is. The questions, phrased in the lingo of the present, is about Doncic’s ceiling and floor: most agree he has a high floor based on that enormous skill set and basketball IQ. For the anxious and the detractors, his ceiling is in question due to the lack of athleticism and pudgier build. It’s a reasonable concern as he has a Paul Pierce-type build with a face that looks fuller than what we expect from our best athletes – which says more about appearances than outputs. Similarly to Trae Young, I’m opting for the eye test and the output for Doncic over the convention and appearance. First impressions are a motherfucker and appearances can skew entire perceptions. Doncic is 19, a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until February of 2019. He plays basketball. He just led his Real Madrid team to their league title and the Euroleague title while winning MVPs in both. As an 18-becoming-19-year-old, he played in over 70 games this season. He’s nothing like his peers.
June 21, 2018Posted by on
Post written by Brian Foster, aka Bug. Follow him on Twitter.
DeAndre Ayton: From a physical standpoint, DeAndre Ayton is the most NBA-ready of all the bigs projected in the top half of the lottery. Standing at a rock solid 7’1”, 250 pounds, Ayton has the physique and mobility of a young David Robinson. Although Ayton doesn’t possess the shot-blocking acumen of the Admiral, he is the perfect blend of throwback size/strength with some modern NBA big floor skills sprinkled in. What stands out the most when I watch Ayton is his footwork and agility for a man that big. That rare ability to have that size/athleticism combination along with his elite footwork is what sets him apart from the other elite bigs in this draft. Ayton has a good balance to his offensive game that allows him to score in a variety of ways. His physical gifts make him a great finisher around the rim on both post-ups and pick-and-roll dives to the rim. At Arizona, he played with another center on the floor, while also facing a lot of zone defenses, so I expect him to be even more of a beast on the block with more room to operate. Ayton exhibits an excellent touch on his jump shot from the mid-range, so he has the potential to be a pick-and-pop threat if he develops range to the three-point line. His 73% free throw shooting is a good sign for his jump shot translating to the pros. Another area Ayton excels at offensively is efficiency. He had a PER of 32.6 during his freshman season, averaging 20.1ppg on only 13 shot attempts. Paired with his elite rebounding stats (11.6rpg), Ayton was an absolute monster for teams to handle from the moment he stepped on the court.
Like most young prospects, Ayton has areas of concern that he will have to improve upon to reach his full potential. The concerns with Ayton come on the defensive end of the floor. His defensive struggles seem to be more focus and recognition problems. At times, he will kind of space off and lose his man or allow his guy to get to the rim without much contest. He also had a low steal average at 0.6/game with just under two blocks. You would think he has the ability to double both of those averages with the minutes he had on the floor. He averaged a low 2.3 fouls-per-game while also playing a whopping 33.5 minutes each night, so it is fair to wonder if some of the low work rate on defense was from fatigue. I’m not as concerned as some may be about his defensive struggles, mostly because someone with that much athletic ability can become, at worst, a capable defender with experience and coaching. Ayton has the potential to be an all-time great if he can clean up some of those defensive lapses, while also showing some more nasty when protecting the paint. Assuming no health issues arise down the road, my money is on Ayton reaching his potential, becoming a dominant force for years to come with Hall of Fame-type numbers when it is all said and done.
Jaren Jackson: Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the most intriguing players in the draft, possessing traits NBA execs are looking for from a high lottery pick. Jackson is young (doesn’t turn 19 until September), oozing with upside, and passed the NBA combine measurement tests with flying colors. During his freshman season at Michigan State, he showed the ability to provide elite rim protection, while also being able to switch and contain guards if needed. Jackson used his long 7’5” wingspan to block three shots-per-game while only playing 22 minutes en route to Big Ten DPOY honors. In this modern era of switching defenses, that defensive versatility and rim protection alone should get Jackson minutes right away. As an added bonus, Jackson also proved to be a capable outside shooter while in East Lansing, shooting a very respectable 39% from deep on 2.7 attempts per game. It remains to be seen if that percentage will translate to the NBA three-point line, but even having a pick and pop game in the 15-18 foot range is going to be a plus at his size.
The two biggest red flags for me with Jackson are his playing time and production in college. Some of the playing time issues were his own doing with foul trouble (8.6 fouls per 100 possessions), but Michigan State’s roster wasn’t talented enough for him to only be playing half of the game. Jackson also leaves a lot to be desired as a rebounder. He started out the season strong with five double-doubles in his first 10 games, but only had one double-digit rebounding game in his last 25 games of the season. With his size and length, you would hope to see a much better rebound rate, especially considering Coach Tom Izzo’s reputation for his teams always crashing the glass hard. All things considered, Jackson is still an 18-year-old kid learning to play the game. The difference between Jackson and the other bigs at the top of the draft, is that I believe Jackson is still a couple of years away from being a starting caliber player. If the team selecting him in the draft is expecting to get a player they need to produce right away, I think they’ll be disappointed. Patience will be the key for whoever selects Jackson.
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Player #4: Trae Young; alternately: Wispy Hairs, Bold Dazzle, & Basketball
June 20, 2018Posted by on
The first time I saw Trae Young (December 30th, 2017) play a full game, I lost my mind for a bit. This is hardly something to be ashamed of or to apologize for. Without pangs of momentary inspiration and even occasional overreaction, what are we? Pre-programmed overly rational beings subsisting on sterile logic and rationale? Part of what makes us human is our ability to feel, free of judgment, to exist in a moment, to imagine. This is why Trae Young has become an object of emotional overreaction – both good and bad. So what?
First the bad, the sober, the audit. For an NBA lottery pick, Young is slight of build. He’s 6’2” with a 6’3” wingspan and somewhere around 180-185 pounds. These measurements compare nicely with Jay Williams, Jordan Farmar, and Luke Ridnour. Unlike Williams and Farmar, Young isn’t an electric athlete. He has quickness and good instincts, but he’s not an exceptional leaper or explosive off the dribble. In his one year at Oklahoma, while he drew a lot of fouls (8.6 FTA/gm; sixth in the NCAA in FTAs) and didn’t physically breakdown, he was corralable by smart defenses and struggled at times to finish over size. His finishing was exacerbated by his decision making. Young is challenging to scout because his role at OU was so unflinchingly imbalanced: he was everything and everyone and so his decision making which could, at times, be described as abominable, becomes slightly less abominable against the context of his setting in Norman. And this decision making extends into every part of his offensive game: pulling up from 30-plus feet with plenty of time on the shot clock, penetrating into the jaws of the defense and leaving his feet in the lane and then flinging up contested and impossible shots, and making those same forays but instead of forcing the shot, forcing a pass into a tangle of long arms (5.2 turnovers/game).
Defensively, he doesn’t have the greatest physical makeup for a defender, but we’ve seen enough players to know effort and technique can mask physical limitations. In Young’s case, I frequently watched him standing straight up and down, considering taking an opportunistic approach to defending, but in the end opting to take no approach. His go-to move when getting screened was to wilt and make no attempt at fighting through. Similar to Young’s overly-relied-upon role on offense, I wonder (wishful thinking?) if some of this was enablement, maybe Young preserving his energy to continue carrying the team on offense. Effort is table stakes and not bringing effort is a sin even for the atheistic.
All of the above make Young’s NBA candidacy, while obvious, something that stirs up the bubble guts. If Big 12 teams could hassle him into the brink of the abyss, then what of Boston or Golden State or Utah or Patrick Beverley or Fred Van Vleet? If Alabama’s Herb Jones (6’7” with a wingspan around 7-feet) can frustrate him, then what of longer, stronger, better NBA wings?
Despite the physical limitations, coaching gaps, and decision making, Young averaged over 27-points and nearly nine assists. He made 118 threes on 36% shooting despite 74% of his total three-point-attempts coming from beyond the NBA line and 102 of those 241 coming from 30-feet or deeper (per CleaningTheGlass.com). His coaches struggled to develop any type of cohesion between Young’s supernova flaming balls of 35-foot-three-point bombs and his talented, if overshadowed, teammates. As the season progressed, entire defenses were stacked up to slow or stop him and they usually succeeded.
And yet, Young still inspires because, like Doncic, he has a set of skills that appear ready-made for the NBA in 2018. His range extends to 35-feet from the hoop which means his gravity has the potential to tilt entire defenses. Stretching the opposition to breaking points opens worlds of possibility for those with foresight, vision, and imagination. Young, despite being notorious for his deep, deep, deep threes, is at his best when playing his strengths (shooting depth, ball handling, and passing) off of each other. His handle is excellent: creative, quick, dexterous. The handle and shot allow him to create space or beat defenders without having powerful burst. His release, even from 30-plus feet, is quick enough that defenders have to close out tight which creates attack options. Once the initial defender is beat is when Young’s powers form like Voltron as he can beat opponents with floaters, lay-ins, drawing fouls, or, most impressively, passing. At the collegiate level, he kept his eyes up and patiently surveyed his options, reading, reacting, interpreting, and deciding. I’ve already mentioned that his decision-making needs vast improvement. He doesn’t have the size or strength to complete passes with the same oomph of Doncic, but his vision, spatial awareness, and improvisation are special and I imagine will only be better accessed when playing with NBA players. My refrain in all Young’s college games was something like, “imagine what he’d do with legit teammates.”
My first reaction when I saw Young’s combine measurements was to drop him down my big board. It wasn’t far (4th to 5th), but I thought it validated the concerns I’d seen; namely that he could be neutralized by length on the perimeter or interior; that his physical limitations would only be exacerbated in the NBA. As I’ve had time to process these prospects and Young’s game, I’ve realized that his skill and ability exceed the shortcomings. Decision making can be learned. Effort can be drilled. To be 19 with infinite range and preternatural vision is to inspire awe that makes people compare you to Steph Curry and Steve Nash. In draft terms, it’s not important that Young becomes Curry or Nash or Pete Maravich. It’s that he could, that it’s actually a possibility. That potential alone is enough to light up butterflies. That it’s purely potential and not realized against NBA men is probably causing reflux. Somewhere between butterflies and reflux lies the future of Trae Young.
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 5 and 6; alternately: Tall Teenagers & Our Collective FOMO (we want to keep our jobs … and be right, but mostly keep our jobs)
June 20, 2018Posted by on
Post written by Robert Hamill, aka Hamilton. Follow him on Twitter.
One sure thing in a draft is that there is rarely a sure thing. Every player has upside and downside; strengths and weaknesses; NBA-ready skills and those that need work. There are so many ways to predict the future, but without a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor you’re still just making an educated guess. Picking at the top of a draft generally provides a narrow range of outcomes, but on the flip side it’s a bigger deal to the organization and the player when he doesn’t pan out. When the player is big the flop is even bigger. Why are basketball people still obsessed with size, even when they’re repeatedly burned? The answer is complicated and probably better suited for a psychologist because it’s really about human behavior. Having a small child gives me an interesting look at human behavior on a daily basis but I’m no expert on such matters. From a basketball standpoint the answer seems to be about convention and fear. It’s about an attitude that says big means tough and physical, and big means protect the paint. It’s about a fear of missing out on the next Big One.
This proposition creates a particular problem for NBA teams as they fawn over size and various physical traits that accompany it. We could re-visit the 1998 draft’s top choice of Michael Olowokandi as a most extreme example of how this can go wrong. And everyone is well aware of the famous Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan choice Portland made. Despite the way the game has evolved more recently, teams still fancy big men. Early 2016 selections included Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquise Chriss (eighth). Jahlil Okafor went third in 2015 despite red flags that were obvious, even to amateur evaluators like me (getting owned by Frank Kaminsky doesn’t project well for guarding NBA players). Yet he still went third to a competent Philly front office in the midst of The Process. The jury is still out on Chriss and Bender, but the early returns are not promising.
Let’s not forget the 2013 draft which included Cody Zeller at four, and Alex Len at five. Thomas Robinson went fifth in 2012 (one slot ahead of Damian Lillard) and Meyers Leonard was selected eleventh. (Sure, eleven is a bit outside the range we’re dealing with here, but a chance to drag Meyers will likely be met with delight by Fendo). Aside from Portland, and Charlotte in 15-16, none of these teams has made a playoff appearance with any of these players on their rosters. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing with bad franchises getting picks wrong and continuing to run bad teams out onto the floor. To borrow from D’Angelo Barksdale “The Kings stay the Kings.” Either way, several teams to whiff on big guys in recent drafts are in the top of the lottery again suffering from organizational instability.
One especially noteworthy example of the infatuation with big men is Portland’s choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Oden had been on the radars of league execs and hoop nerds for years because he looked and played like a grown man at age 16. By the time the draft rolled around it wasn’t a secret he had the knees of a much older man. Portland’s decision to select Oden continues to look worse as KD ascends the NBA’s pantheon while Oden has been out of the league for years. It would be one thing if Oden had been by far the best player in the draft, but that wasn’t the case. KD destroyed college basketball playing similarly in some ways to the way he plays today. A major concern with him was his upper body strength. Think about that. A wing player as skilled as KD is discounted over how many times he can bench press 185 pounds while the guy with the knees of a 30-year-old tops so many draft boards. Oden ending up amongst the stiffs listed above might be a bit unfair because his early demise was injury-induced. At the same time, the decision Portland made, armed with all the information they had illustrates how deep NBA teams’ love affair with big men is and how blinding that love can be.
That’s the context I’m thinking about with top of this draft. It’s full of good, (mostly) modern big men, each also possessing significant cause for concern. That undying love of bigs likely means a couple of them won’t achieve their ceiling or even middle ground. The two players we’re considering here represent different versions of the big man prospect and could easily come up short of their draft slot.
Mohamed Bamba brings the highest of ceilings in a truly unique physical package. He’s the type of player who sparks the “what if” conversations which lead to a player being selected early, despite obvious risk. Marvin Bagley, though not polished in the typical sense of the word, may already be showing us who he is. That’s likely a good thing, and a bad thing.
Bamba is a unicorn of sorts. He has a 7’10” wingspan, which is the longest ever measured at the combine, and an absurd standing reach. He runs well for his height and moves laterally quite well too. For a guy his size he can get down into a defensive stance when he wants to. That’s a lot of rim protection and possible switchability. As the Ringer’s NBA draft coverage points out, he’s a “theoretical shooter.” Indeed, he only attempted 1.7 3s per game at Texas, making 27.5% of them. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express attended Texas practices and says Bamba was frequently the best shooter on the team. That’s nice, but practices aren’t games and Texas wasn’t populated with great shooters. (Only two players shot over 35% from three for the season.) The mechanics of the shot aren’t particularly good either. He stays relatively set and brings it to an acute angle toward his head. The release itself is eventually pretty high, but his elbows tend to be pointed in odd directions. A pro jump shot is generally tighter and smoother. The shot needs considerable work before it will be reliable in the NBA.
On both ends of the floor he keeps a solid base for his frame but I can’t help but wonder if his high center of gravity will be a problem. He’s not that strong and I can see him getting pushed out of position by smaller guys a lot. He also looks pretty chill on defense which could be an issue when combined with his lack of strength. We’ve seen players bodies morph as they mature physically and get with pro trainers and dieticians. It’s not often the skinny ones who bulk up, but rather the heavier ones who trim down. How much bulk can he add? How much stronger can he get? Does he have the mass to guard the likes of KAT, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Hassan Whiteside when they want to take him to the block? Whiteside can be a real dog but if you don’t bring it he, like any other starting level NBA player, will beat your ass.
But how do you pass on a player with the upside he possesses? If he can really guard all five positions he’s in elite territory defensively. If he can develop into a 35-40% shooter from 3 he’s an elite stretch big man. He’s regarded as smart and inquisitive so there’s reason to believe he will be coachable and put in the work. That matters. He may be a truly end up being a uniquely modern player. We won’t know until we know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking him before DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic but anywhere after that is worth the risk.
Marvin Bagley put up gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers during his freshman year at Duke. This wasn’t just any freshman year because Bagley should have still been a senior in high school. That’s right. A guy getting 21 and 10 in the ACC shouldn’t have even been there yet. Bagley does it by running harder and jumping higher than most. He operates mostly inside the three-point-line – in similar spots to a younger Kevin Garnett. His effort and offensive skills profile reminds me of KG too. There’s some Toronto Chris Bosh there as well because he’s ultimately too low key a personality to be like KG.
It would appear the rest of his game hasn’t caught up with his scoring and rebounding. He couldn’t muster one block or one steal per game. Each of the other bigs at the top end of this draft bettered his 1.7 combined blocks and steals per game. During the final six games of the season, two ACC tourney and four NCAA tourney, he got two steals and blocked one shot. In six championship-level-competition games, the guy averaged .33 steals and .17 blocks. Not great. It should be concerning that an explosive 4/5 with a great second jump isn’t reading the game defensively. That’s a plausible answer considering how hard he runs and how well he rebounds. It’s not about effort, but something else. If you move as well as Bagley you ought to be getting your hands on some passes and shots. This is also where the comparisons to young KG and Toronto Chris Bosh fall apart.
Duke played zone pretty much all season. There were no fewer than four NBA players on the roster, including two lottery-projected bigs to protect the paint and rim. Yet their best option was to play zone? That’s an indictment on Bagley to some extent. How much he grows and develops defensively depends somewhat on where he ends up. There seems to be coalescence around Bagley to Sacramento at two. It seems legitimate that the Kings like him, but would they like him as much if Jackson Jr and Doncic hadn’t refused to undergo complete pre-draft evaluations? What does Bagley in Sacramento look like? He’ll score, and get rebounds. He wants those numbers just like he wants to be picked as high as possible regardless of the organization. Dave Joerger can coach defense but Duke playing zone and the lack of steals and rebounds really concerns me. The Kings’ roster isn’t good and it won’t get better in the 2019 draft since they don’t own their own pick. With Vivek and Vlade calling the shots it may never be. If Bagley is going there, he’s going to stuff the box score with points and rebounds. It’s going to be a hollow and unfulfilling 20 and 10.
Like so many draft classmates, the bigs at the top of this draft will be forever linked to each other. They each possess unique gifts and common weaknesses; each offering something a little different from the rest. We’ll spend much of next year looking at rookie rankings and watching for signs improvement. We’ll inevitably rank and list them (we’re already doing it) as we look back at this draft. In the First Take sports culture so many people exist in, if one turns out to be a Hall of Fame player, then the rest have to be trash. It’s unfair that a player’s fate is tied to so many things he cannot control. Being big and picked early can be another one of those things.
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 7 – 12; alternately: The 3rd, 4th, and maybe 5th tiers/tears of uncertainty
June 11, 2018Posted by on
Taking risks is all well and good, but at my nature, I recognize that questions without factual answers are, and should be, fraught with uncertainty. If forced to answer, if forced to pick between say, Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges, I’ll usually think and talk through a litany of pros and cons for each player (Mikal the shooting defender with ineffectual off-the-dribble game, Miles the bouncy, broad-shouldered athlete with pedigree but questionable attitude [for me at least]), before determining that immeasurable variables (work ethic, team/scheme, coaching) will ultimately determine success and (in this moment) picking Miles even though just a few days ago I picked Mikal.
If I put together 10 more big board rankings between now and the draft on June 21st, there would be almost daily movement, jockeying between players by one or two spots. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t trust my rankings (or those of my friends), rather that this stuff is exceptionally fluid. And humans are and our perspectives are fluid and evolving. A different set of eyes (Steve Kerr) can see the potential in a person (Draymond Green) that helps to unlock a potential others (Mark Jackson) couldn’t conceive. ESPN’s Chad Ford (for the purposes of this view, I’m not concerned about Ford’s rewritten history as it doesn’t significantly change the points) had Green 20th overall on his big board which is well ahead of Green’s 35th overall draft slot, but no one that I’m aware of had him pegged as a generationally versatile defender. On June 25th, 2012, Ford wrote, “I’m hearing increasingly that the Pacers (26th overall pick in 2012) are very high on Green…I don’t think Green will slide past here.” The Pacers opted for Miles Plumlee instead, which Ford chalked up to a “messy soap opera” in the front office. In that same post-draft write-up, Ford chided Miami (#27, Arnett Moultrie – traded), Dallas (#33, Bernard James), and Washington (#32, Tomas Satoransky) for not taking Green. Even immediately after the draft, the consensus was that Draymond should not have fallen.
Draymond Green will forever and always be my go-to when exploring the variability of the draft. Green is an ultimate outlier because the variability of human participation; in this case, his own and those of his coaches, Jackson and Kerr. It can easily be speculated that Green would have trended into a strong NBA player with or without Kerr’s addition to Golden State as he only missed three games in his first two seasons while averaging over a steal and nearly a block-per-game in his second season despite getting just 22 minutes/game. But this? A three-time champion, multi-time all-star, two-time All-NBA player, and a Defensive Player of the Year?
Uncertainty abounds and you can tell me different, but I’ll probably be over here with Draymo (wishing I wasn’t), pointing to him as proof that all that probabilities, prognostications, and proclamations still rest in the infinitely fragile tissues of pathetically weak and impossibly resilient humans.
Michael Porter Jr. (Fenrich): Michael Porter Jr.is one of the harder (hardest?) lottery players to project in this draft. He transferred from a school in Missouri to Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School before his senior season. At Hale, his coach was former NBA All-Star and royal Seattleite, Brandon Roy. The team went 29-0 with Porter leading them to the top of several national rankings and garnering the Gatorade and Naismith Player of the Year awards. ESPN had him ranked as the second-best player in his class and an unnamed “ESPN Analyst” wrote he was “a possible number one pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.”
I put a little more emphasis on Porter’s high school bio because he appeared in just 53 minutes as a freshman at Missouri and now, a year and a back injury later and he’s a wild card. He’s 6’11” with a 7’0” wingspan. He has bounce, can handle the ball, snatch the defensive rebound and push it himself. He’s always been lean, but measured in at just 211-pounds at the combine which puts him on physical par with a younger Dragan Bender. I’m less concerned about the beef, as he was out for the entire season and hasn’t yet benefited from pro-level strength and conditioning. His range extends well beyond the college arc, but it doesn’t mean his form or accuracy are there. When I watched him at Hale, I didn’t love the form on his jumper and in his limited time at Mizzou, it didn’t look any better. His shoulders are shrugged and hunched. The form reminds me of Draymond Green’s but with more lift. Defensively, I’m reluctant to hold any of his NCAA time against him and so the slower feet and lateral quickness are merely a note instead of a criticism.
Like many of these one-and-done kids, assuming health (far from a guarantee for Porter who first sustained a back injury as a sophomore in high school), the physical foundation is obvious. He’s a massively fluid athlete for a kid his size, but I get nervous when kids try to overcompensate or prove themselves the way Porter’s done. During a combine interview, he told ESPN he was “without a doubt … the best player in this draft.” And again, while I’m reluctant to draw conclusions based on two appearances he made with Mizzou at the end of the season while returning from injury, he forced shots and looked fully immersed in a hero ball approach to offense or perhaps an acolyte of the new age “Mamba Mentality” – which can be interpreted many ways. Both the interview and the small sample shot selection are negligible, but when factoring in the injury history with a player who’s accustomed to dominating the game, the uncertainty elevates to a place that makes me uncomfortable. Assuming he regains health and commits to learning the game (his passing and playmaking need a lot of reps and improvement; particularly if he’s going to be attacking off the dribble), Porter has tools of a potential multi-time all-star – like a modern Tom Chambers or something.
Wendell Carter (Fenrich): First impressions are hard to get over and my first extended impression of Wendell Carter from a January game against Miami included this note: “First thought on his boards is Moses Malone.” Carter’s a bear or a bison or a big ass kid with long arms. He’s 6’10,” but measured a 7’4.5” wingspan at the combine in Chicago which helps to explain his activity on the glass where he pulled down 13.5 rebounds-per-40, 4.5 of which were offensive. It’s not just that he pulled down a good portion of misses, but that he did so with definitive emphasis: above the rim, strong-handed (which is interesting because he has comparatively small hands [8.5” width, 9” length], but of course size and strength are often not related), absolute rebounds like Moses used to do.
His activity translated to the defensive end where he averaged over two blocks and nearly a steal-per-game despite getting less than 27 minutes each night. This activity goes beyond just picking up stats. Carter bends his knees well, he’s not stiff. He can get down in a stance and slides well laterally against mismatches. This type of athleticism and commitment to defense should serve him well with the NBA’s present-day switch-happy tactics. In that regard, he reminds me of Tristan Thompson who, at his peak, was a key component to an NBA championship.
Carter took just 46 threes in his 37 games at Duke, but shot over 41%. From the line, he was near 74% on 4.5 attempts/game. His form on both is solid and replicable with a high release point (super higher given his length) and speaks to the overall polish of his game. For being just 19, he’s comfortable using the three to setup the dribble drive where he looks to shoot or pass. He’s a better creator than you’d expect, but the execution is still a mixed bag. Carter’s capable of seeing the pass, either in high/low situations (with Bagley) or off the dribble, but his ability to complete the pass is still developing. That said, just the vision and willingness are already quality. He averaged just 13.5-points, but given Duke’s stacked lineup, it’s hard to hold that against him; particularly when both his inside and outside attack is so varied and refined. That said, in the full games I watched and the clips I’ve seen, he has a strong preference to spin baseline off the left block. I only call this out because it’s the kind of thing NBA teams will book and take away.
Two final areas that pop for me when I think about Carter as a pro are his athleticism and his role. He didn’t participate in the athletic measures at the combine, but watching him, his explosiveness doesn’t jump off the screen. His strength is the most obvious attribute and he can throw it down with ferocity, but compared to teammate “Bagels” Bagley, he’s pedestrian – which is fine. Not all NBA bigs are pogo sticking gazelles, but a lot of them are and they’ll present a different set of challenges for Carter. Role is an interesting one for him. He was comfortable as a fourth option at Duke, but his offensive versatility indicates the ability to take on a larger role. A couple of us compared him to Al Horford and it’s easy to see why:
Carter’s younger, longer, and a better shooter. Aside from the obnoxious fawning over “MVP Al,” he’s had a great career as a five-time all-star and key piece on conference championship-contending teams. Part of Horford’s value over his 10 seasons in the NBA has been his malleability. Be it positional or role versatility, Horford adapts without sacrificing output. If Carter can live up to 75% of Horford, he’ll have a solid career as an NBA starter.
Mikal Bridges (Bug): Mikal Bridges is this draft’s poster child for the 3-and-D prototype. Bridges has a great combination of height (6’7”) and length (7’2” wingspan) for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. He’s coming off a breakout Junior season where we he developed from a 10ppg role player into an All-American caliber player. Bridges has a beautiful looking jump shot that he has refined over his four years at Villanova (he redshirted during the 2014-15 season), making him one of the deadliest outside shooters in the nation (43% from three). Bridges’ ability to get his feet set, square up, and get a three off on the catch reminds me of Ray Allen late in his career. He has a high release point on his shot which makes it easy to shoot over most wing defenders. He has some shortcomings as a ball-handler and a shot creator (for himself and others), but he is much more than just a spot-up shooter. He’s capable of finishing above the rim on drives or on the break in transition, just ask Gonzaga’s entire frontcourt.
Defensively, Bridges uses his length to give opposing wings and point guards headaches. He doesn’t have eye-popping steals stats, but he has active hands and is difficult to shoot over as evidenced by averaging over a block-per-game this past season. Bridges will need to continue to get stronger to be able to handle NBA wings. It is a bit concerning that he is still rail thin after being in college four years, but strength is something relatively easy to fix once he is on an NBA strength and conditioning program. He’s expected to come off the board somewhere in the 7-10 range of the draft and I believe he’d be a good fit on almost any team, but particularly on the Sixers at #10. They are already a defensive-minded club that will need shooting help if JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli walk in free agency. Overall, Bridges is one of the safest picks in this draft as he’s ready to step in and play right away. It’s unlikely he will ever develop into a star, but at worst he will be a high-level 3-and-D guy that will have a long career in the NBA.
Collin Sexton (Bug): Collin Sexton is one of the toughest players in this draft, both mentally and physically. Sexton’s signature moment from his short time at Alabama came in a crazy game in late November when he found himself playing 3-on-5 against Minnesota after a tussle left his entire bench ejected from the game. Facing a 13-point deficit, Sexton took over, scoring 17 points in the last 10 minutes of the game on his way to a 40-point night. ‘Bama didn’t win the game (they lost by five), but Sexton’s grit and will to win were on full display when most would have folded. Sexton is a blur in the open court, putting a ton of pressure on the defense as he pushes the ball. He uses elite quickness to get pretty much wherever he wants. He does a great job of attacking and getting to the line as evidenced by his 252 free throw attempts (7.6 attempts/game) on the season. At the next level, I would like to see him use that same attacking style to create more for his teammates instead of getting himself buckets, but I think that comes with a better supporting cast in the NBA. Another area for improvement is his outside shot. Sexton shot just under 34% from three on 131 attempts, and if he can be just a little more consistent from outside he will be a nightmare for defenders to stop. The fire and intensity he plays with should also serve him well on the defensive end of the floor, so there aren’t many concerns there. The low steal numbers (0.8 steals/game) are kind of surprising for someone with that much athleticism, but he’s not a bad defender by any means. I think the Eric Bledsoe comparisons are pretty spot on for what we should expect from Sexton in the league which makes him a worthy mid-to-late lottery pick. As far as fit goes with lottery teams, I think Sexton would make the most sense with the Knicks. They need a point guard that isn’t going to be afraid of the bright lights, and Sexton has the grit and toughness that the New York fans will love and appreciate.
Miles Bridges (Hamilton): Miles Bridges is one of the most explosive athletes in this class. He has great hang time when he goes up on drives, pull ups, or for blocks and contested shots. A physical player on both ends who is not afraid to challenge people, Bridges gives effort and competes. He dunks with ease in traffic and when putting back offensive rebounds. He is a capable three-point shooter, but has a tendency to settle for contested looks. His quick, lefty release with only a small elevation allows him to get these off but they’re not always good. He has good fundamental footwork upon catching the ball but appears a bit robotic in this regard. Bridges has some tunnel vision, looking primarily to score. While his ball handling improved in his sophomore year, his moves are still pretty basic and choreographed. One of the biggest negatives of his offense is he frequently stops the ball and holds it before attacking or swinging a pass. He seems to have a habit of using a lot of jab steps (Carmelo style) and looking to go one-one, when the better play is to quickly attack or pass. Despite the improvement he is still not a great ball handler as evident by his one- and two-dribble pull ups, and general lack of playmaking for others. Negatives aside, Bridges looks like a modern NBA forward who will eventually be able to play both spots well enough. Although he lacks the 7’0 wingspan of some of the best small ball forwards, like Draymond Green, PJ Tucker, or Harrison Barnes, he is a better leaper thus possibly minimizing his lack of length. As a small ball four on offense, Bridges’ shoulders should help set good, hard screens and shed bigger players to create space. His aforementioned footwork on offense should help him develop into a nice pick-and-pop screener. Physically he is ready to play right away, but his offensive skills will need to develop before he can be counted on to be a major contributor.
Kevin Knox (Hamilton): Kevin Knox has good size at 6’9 with 7’0 wingspan. He’s a natural scorer, with an array of shots from all over the floor. He’s crafty inside the three-point line, using floaters, short pull ups, and both hands to finish. He moves without the ball and finds open space to get his shots off. He has pro range on his jump shot with a high release and good rotation. Knox looks like the type of player you can go to late in a shot clock or broken set. Like Miles Bridges, thinks score first, second, and third. This may be an indication of his feel beyond scoring, which would be kind of weird because that comes so naturally to him. That mentality can create problems for him and his team. He frequently drives into multiple defenders in transition even when at a numbers disadvantage. When he finishes in those situations, there’s no harm done. At the NBA level he’s less likely to finish those plays, and we know missed layups in transition often lead to quick layups at the other end. Knox will have to be more measured in this regard or he will put his team in bad positions a lot. Scoring is his thing. The rest of his game is far behind his scoring. He’s a below average rebounder for his measurements; 6.7 boards per-40 minutes isn’t great. That and his defensive effort and awareness make me question how well he will ultimately fare in today’s NBA. It’s not uncommon for a player to come into the league with either offensive of defensive abilities far ahead of the other. But it is a bit concerning for a player to give great effort on offense while being almost nonexistent on defense. Knox could be coached up on that end and, if he buys in to the level of effort it takes, be a real impact player in the NBA. Otherwise, he could end up being the kind of player who gets buckets early in first and third quarters but isn’t playable during crunch time.
June 8, 2018Posted by on
We pieced together our initial big board about three weeks ago which, in the world of draft prospecting, feels like it was pieced together many moons past. Between now and then was the NBA draft lottery (May 15th), the combine (May 16th – 20th), agency pro days, player workouts with teams, and finally, the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to retain eligibility for college basketball.
Less than three weeks out from the draft, we’ve re-ranked our big board. Four amateur “scouts” (I use the term oh-so-loosely) looking at 54 players, two of whom are new additions to this board (Elie Okobo and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) ranked bottom to top.
There are some massive risers: Maryland’s Kevin Huerter, Donte DiVincenzo of NCAA Championship fame, Rodions Kurucs (I’m not certain why he rose), elite rebound collector Jarred Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech’s all-world athlete Josh Okogie (it’s a soft “g” in Okogie).
As for the fallers, speaking specifically for my own re-rankings, it’s often been a rank of circumstance where a player like Huerter who happened to test, measure, and play well at the combine, rose and pushed other guys down. The same can be said for Okogie and DiVincenzo whose athleticisms were elite in Chicago. It’s also worth noting, specifically with Huerter, a lean white kid with a head of red hair, how a player’s appearance can potentially skew our perceptions. Even the redheaded NBA players that come to mind in Brian Scalabrine and Matt Bonner, while contributors to winning teams in their own right, occupied a place of self-deprecation; a jokey awareness that acknowledged their status as visual demographic outliers. There’s even a hint of this in my original notes on Huerter, where I wrote, “Not to be hyperbolic and it’s probably just a height and shooting thing, but he reminds me of Klay Thompson when he was at WSU.” The use of hyperbole wasn’t inappropriate in the sense that it’s a stretch to compare most college basketball players to one of the greatest shooters of all time. Rather, somewhere in my subconscious was probably a touch of awareness that Huerter’s pasty white complexion doesn’t have a long history of success in the NBA. Racial bias, either conscious or unconscious, is something that exists. Throughout this process, in terms of both our player comparisons and general scouting, I’ve attempted to maintain an awareness of when my analysis drifts into simplistic appearance-based comps, but the truth is that I have frequently found myself, with players of all sizes, slipping into this lazy approach and have had to intentionally make attempts to avoid it.
Then there’s the wrinkle of information dissemination. If you follow ESPN’s Jonathan Givony or Mike Schmitz on Twitter, you’re privy to a steady stream of firsthand reports on how players are performing at agency pro days. I get anxiety just watching these clips: basketball courts surrounded by NBA scouts and executives, all crowded shoulder to shoulder with their phones, clipboards, notebooks. They whisper to each other, seeming to be above it all, maybe even annoyed by the young men shooting, dribbling, and executing basketball maneuvers with their futures hanging in the balance. (And if you believe that landing spot, coaching decisions, team culture, and player development matter in how these young men evolve through the NBA, then yes, for the many of the kids participating in these pro days, whether or not they make a career out of the NBA is contingent on decisions made by the men [and I think it’s almost 99% men] watching them. Meanwhile, the kids, in their late teens and early 20s, exhibit a poise that makes me wonder how in the hell I would’ve performed in a similar setting at the same age. Of course, they’ve been groomed and trained for these moments for their entire lives, but that doesn’t diminish the pressure or largeness of the moment.) As we see Givony and Schmitz (and the Givonys and Schmitzes of the world) tweet out that Moritz Wagner “has been drenched in sweat every workout I’ve seen this pre-draft process. Goes Hard” or that Rodions Kurucs “helped himself after a tough year in Barcelona,” a few things can be taken away. First, it seems like every player is shining. The recaps of the pro days that I’ve seen are exclusively positive. Nowhere in the streams of tweets from Givony or Schmitz are critiques of ability or effort which isn’t to say their scouting reports, a more static piece of content, isn’t more well-rounded. But, for some players, there is silence. And silence in this setting, for me as a consumer of information that is exclusively positive, is akin to criticism.
Givony reported that there were “100 NBA reps expected” at the CAA pro day. NBA teams are plenty capable of drawing their own conclusions from full bodies of work just like the rest of us, but Givony/Schmitz actively influence the market valuations of these pro prospects and to some degree, have a likely hand in shaping where players land. It might be a the slightest of touches, the most delicate of nudges, but how we all land our assessments is influenced by both our own eye and the din of the chorus in all its varied forms and pitches.
Without ado and further meanderings, here are our revised big board rankings:
June 2, 2018Posted by on
This is the third installment of our 2018 NBA draft coverage where we focus on players ranked 13th to 18th on our Big Board. With the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to keep college eligibility passing on Wednesday, May 30th, we saw just a few guys from our big board head back to school. Most notably was the less popular Porter brother, Jontay. Our big board put him at 18th overall with a high of 16 (me) and a low of 24 (Maahs). It’s fair to say that after the combine where Porter had the highest body fat percentage, the lowest max vertical (tied), and the slowest three-quarter court sprint, that NBA scouts and front offices had him lower than our lowest rank.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have tentative plans to update the big board; likely in the upcoming week and I think there’d be quite a bit of movement. My guy Kevin Huerter from Maryland (I ranked him 37th) has been a high riser as has Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. Bug and Maahs are high on Mitchell Robinson and I’m still vacillating on my feelings on DeAndre Ayton which mostly boils down to effort and consistency. I even have trepidation about my number one overall player, Luka Doncic (mostly around his handle).
We’ll explore all of the above and maybe even get into the meaning of life as viewed through the NBA’s annual scouting and drafting in our next several posts. For now, we’ll focus on players 13 through 18 with an empty spot for the still-Missouri Tiger, young Jontay Porter.
Zhaire Smith’s unexpected rise could mean he’s either a late bloomer cut from the Russell Westbrook cloth, or, more simply an athletic standout whose skills won’t ever catch up. In his freshman year at Texas Tech he came out of nowhere both literally and figuratively. He was projected to play only 10-12 minutes per game but instead logged 28 on his way to 11 points and five rebounds with 58% eFG. This wasn’t your run of the mill Texas Tech team either. The clear number-two in the Big-12 ended up a three-seed and made it all the way to the Elite 8. Smith came out of nowhere literally by flying in for tip dunks and rebounds over bigger players. A 6’4” guard getting almost three offensive rebounds-per-game is impressive. He pops up around the ball a lot on both ends and plays hard. That effort combined with elite physical tools can carry a player a long way. Smith told the ESPN combine crew he played center in high school and didn’t shoot threes until his senior year. My fellow Iowan Ricky Davis had a similar career at Davenport North. He’s another NCAA/NBA wing with elite athletic gifts that didn’t get to adequately develop his perimeter skills in high school. Ricky transitioned quickly to the wing at Iowa, but I always had the feeling his development was a stunted a bit by playing out of position during formative years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for battling big players and learning to play in the paint. That may be even more useful in the modern NBA with all the switching and defenders guarding pretty much everyone at one time or another. Jimmy Bulter and Jae Crowder both played a lot of center at Marquette and have turned into two of the toughest and physical perimeter defenders in the NBA. Smith’s rebounding ability and instincts around the hoop show he picked up some things that may help him at the next level. A few of his weaker performances came against tough college defenses like Villanova (seven points, 3-8 shooting) and West Virginia (four points 1-4; nine pts 3-7). He’ll need to improve his ball handling, passing, and most of all shooting from outside to come close to the ceiling his athleticism has set for him. At this point he is just figuring out what do to with his powers and looks like a player teams picking between 10 and 15 will be afraid to take and afraid to pass up too.
Robert Williams (Hamilton):
Robert Williams has the physical profile of a contemporary NBA center. He’s a quick leaping big(ish) player who runs well and has great balance. He plays kind of like a smaller DeAndre Jordan but moves like Rudy Gay. He lacks the handle or shooting to be a wing player in the NBA, however. But there’s a nice career path for true small ball center offering legit rim protection. He tries to dunk everything around the hoop and many of his shots come in the paint and go up quickly via dishes, lobs, and rim runs in transition. He attempted an underwhelming 70 free throws in 30 games, only attempting more than five in four games. This could be due to how and where he operates but could also be a concerted effort on his part to not get himself to the line. I’d probably try to stay off the line if I shot 47% too. Defensively, he works himself into nice positions for blocks, often coming over from the weak side. For how well he moves around in tight space he probably should have rebounded better in his second season at Texas A&M. 9.2 is good but it just looks like he should be getting more. That sort of thing is the knock on him – he’s not consistent and leaves you wanting more. There were two significant stretches, one at each end of the season, during which he failed to get double digit points. It doesn’t seem that he lacks an NBA motor; instead he just doesn’t keep it in a high enough gear consistently. For reasons like this he’s just a little too feast or famine to be worth taking early. The fit matters even more for players like him whose engagement and effort are fleeting. Landing on a team with good culture that genuinely cares about player development is going to be key for Williams to get off to a positive start and could determine how long and how successful his pro career turns out to be.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a rare blend of height and length for a point guard at 6’6” with a huge seven-foot wingspan. Gilgeous-Alexander uses his wiry 180-pound frame to slither to the rim, finishing well with either hand. Despite his slender build, he’s a solid finisher in traffic and doesn’t get bumped off his spots very often. He shot a very respectable 40% from 3, but only took 57 attempts, so the sample size is small. Shooting 40% from deep at least shows he can be a threat from that distance. On the defensive end, he uses those long arms to bait opponents to throw passes that are well within his reach. That length also causes a lot of disruption for smaller point guards getting into the offense. The most noticeable flaw in his game is his lack of burst and explosiveness. He plays with a slow pace, and for someone with his length, he doesn’t seem to finish above the rim very often. Gilgeous-Alexander will need to add strength at the next level as well, but that is typically the case for most freshmen jumping to the pros, so it isn’t a huge concern. He seems destined for the late lottery where the point guard-needy Clippers have two picks at 12 and 13. He would be a good fit with undersized shooting guard Lou Williams to build a new core in Clipperland.
I’m uncertain why I’m somewhat enamored with Lonnie Walker IV, but since I saw him donning the orange and green of the Miami Hurricanes, I’ve been fond of him. He’s just under 6’5”, but sports a “pineapple” hairstyle which he describes as “its own person this point…people have been calling it a pineapple” that pushes his peak height up around seven feet. Imagine this kid, 6’4” or 6’5”, pineapple do’ bouncing atop his head, arms stretching out like a bald eagle (over 6’10” wingspan), sprinting, reading the arc of the ball, crouching and coiling in mid-step, and ba ba ba BOOM exploding into tip dunk motion with those long arms reaching and powerful legs propelling (40” max vertical) him into the rim. This is just part of Lonnie Walker allure. I’m not too big on coachspeak, but his Miami coach, Jim Larranaga, described him on a broadcast that he, “might be the nicest person I’ve ever coached.” Watching his NBA combine interview, I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying he’s the “nicest,” but that’s not really the purpose of the interview. He’s not quite Mo Bamba polished, but he was engaging and thoughtful, referring to himself as a “knowledge freak” and oddly suggesting “earth is an illusion.” A questionable statement, but not one that takes away from a jumper that looked good at Miami (31% from three on 3.5 attempts/game in his first 15 games at Miami coming off of a meniscus tear suffered in July versus 36% on 6.5 attempts in his final 17 games), but looked great at his agency’s pro day in late May. In the limited, non-competitive setting of the pro day, Walker’s form was refined and his range easily extended to NBA distance. But I’m not convinced what type of player he’ll be at the pro level. His handle was sufficient for the college, but he seems to struggle to shift speeds on dribble drives. His passing (1.2 assists to 1.2 turnovers in first 15 games versus 2.5 assists to 1.1 turnovers in his second) is similar to his ball handling in that it was fine for Miami where they had two other competent ball handlers, but will need work to be a secondary NBA ball handler. Physically, the foundation is there for a strong pro, but it’s the outside shot that already looks to be NBA-ready that lifts his ceiling so much higher. I put his ceiling comparison as Bradley Beal, but I’m not convinced Walker has the same instincts as a scorer. In high school, he averaged just 18-points as a senior and during his best stretch at Miami (an eight-game swing in the winter), he averaged 18 which was better than his 11.5 during the season, but still not indicative of high level scoring. I was probably over-ambitious in seeing Beal or even Eric Gordon (his mid-level comp) in his game, but given the league’s shift towards the three-ball, it’s not inconceivable that Walker is a better scorer in the pros than he was in either high school or college. That he’s engaging and appears willing to work at his craft only increase the likelihood that he can near his potential and are probably part of the attraction to the kid with the pineapple hair.
Troy Brown (Bug):
Troy Brown Jr. didn’t dominate the competition his freshman year like some of his colleagues near the top of the draft, but he still put in a solid campaign at Oregon with averages of 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Prior to his time with the Ducks, Brown had a decorated amateur career that earned him a spot on the 2017 McDonald’s All-American squad. He’s one of the few players in this draft with the size of a small forward that can also run point for his team if needed. Standing just under 6’7” with a 6’11” wingspan, Brown was blessed with a late growth spurt in high school after playing point guard his entire life. That’s a huge advantage from a fundamental/basketball IQ standpoint, and you can tell that he has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor. Some of the passes he finds his teammates with while he is attacking off the dribble are reminiscent of LeBron’s precise skip passes to wide open shooters. I’m not comparing Troy Brown Jr. to LeBron James, but he has an awareness of where all his teammates are on the floor that is similar to King James. The only glaring weakness Brown has is his outside shot, where he struggled at just 29% from three on 110 attempts. That lack of a consistent outside shot reminds me a lot of Evan Turner when he was coming out of Ohio State. Brown is expected to go somewhere in the 12-20 range in the draft, and still has a ton of untapped potential as one of the youngest players in this class (turns 19 in July). His NBA development is going to hinge on that outside shot progressing. He still has a high floor as a solid rotational player, with the chance to become a solid starter if the three-point attempts fall at a higher rate.
This spot will remain empty for 2018 and hopefully be filled by its rightful owner in 2019, Jontay Porter, an American teenager who strangely plays like a seasoned European and absolutely nothing like his older, and more highly-touted brother, Michael Porter.