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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Category Archives: Summer League/Scouting
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.
January 5, 2019Posted by on
Somewhere in Florida, at a prep school called Nova Southeastern University, aka The University School, play two of the best non-NBA basketball players in the country of the United States of America. Scottie Barnes, a 17-year-old high school junior and Vernon Carey Jr, a 17-year-old senior, are runaway barrels tumbling down the hill of high school basketball, flattening obstacles that impede their inevitable progress. This isn’t about winning or losing, but about a unification of ability and skill that arrives before its time and lays waste – except when it doesn’t which is some of the time because teenagers, high school, imperfection.
Within their respective graduating classes, these players are ranked second (Carey in 2019) and third (Barnes in 2020). Theirs are games that flash with the brightest of lights like when Carey Jr goes coast to coast bulldogging his way through 175-pound, underdeveloped high school bodies, leaving carnage and hurt feelings in his wake. Or when Barnes pulls off the kind of interior pass that makes one think Draymond Green, not a high school junior. But, and probably less so, their games are littered with peculiar teenage funk and I don’t mean funk in a good kind of way, but in the kind of way where Carey Jr’s coast to coast forays are ill-advised with his handle too high, rumbling, bumbling, stumbling towards turnover town. Or you cringe when Barnes convinces himself that the pull-up contested three is the right decision even though there’s no shot clock and his shot is kind of broke and his release is something preceding the work-in-progress stages. This appears to be high school basketball and even the best players aren’t exempt.
I’m lumping these two together simply because they’re teammates. Beyond them being highly talented teammates, as players they have very little in common: Barnes, a 6-8 combo forward with guard skills, has innate ability and feel. When I first saw him as a sophomore against prep juggernaut Oak Hill Academy, his passing immediately popped and had me like Whoa (h/t, Black Rob). He’s an instinctual player who’s shot looks like it’s never been loved though I’m sure it has been loved and tended to. Carey Jr, by contrast, is a combination of highly refined skill mixed into the human form of a freight train: he’s listed as 6-11, 275-pounds. He has the jawline of a boxer and the shoulder-neck of a football player which makes sense since his dad is a 6-5, 340-pound former NFL player named Vernon Carey who had an 8-year career as an offensive lineman.
The giant Carey Jr is already committed to Duke for the 2019-2020 season. How his game translates at both the collegiate and pro levels isn’t difficult to imagine, but the degree to which he improves his game is harder to predict. Carey Jr’s already more offensively skilled than a lot of NBA big men – he’s highly coordinated, light on his feet with sound footwork and a fluid jumper. He has no issue playing the role of bully, muscling straight through or over shorter, weaker high school opponents. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a mean streak, but he’s happy to use his size and strength as a weapon. More often though, he defaults to catching in the post and then turning and facing. From the face up range, he has a variety of attack options, most of which involve putting the ball on the floor. While his handle exceeds that of many NBA centers, his decision-making and decisiveness do not. At times, it appears that he’s already decided he’s going to shoot before he ever assesses the defense which is unfortunate as he’s a capable passer with above average vision. Carey Jr negates all this well-developed skill when he lulls himself into pounding the ball and bailing out defenders with contested fadeaways.
Carey Jr’s biggest challenges as a senior have been against elite teams full of D1 players and athletes: IMG, Sierra Canyon, and Gonzaga-bound Anton Watson. The challenges aren’t all his fault. The University School lost two high D1 guards last season and there’s a thinness to the roster that has shifted much of the offensive load to Carey Jr and Barnes, neither of them equipped as primary initiators. The result of that imbalanced load, for Carey Jr in particular, has been forced attempts and default isolations. This is all well and good when he’s competing against Central Catholic of Oregon, pushing the grab and go and Earl Campbelling and Julius Randling through the entire opposition for monster dunks. Against the better teams and athletes though, the lack of facilitators leads to indecisiveness and contested attempts. While his handle is solid and he has some shake for a near-7-footer, on the move the handle gets looser and higher, making him vulnerable to swipes and strips. Against Villanova commit, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl of IMG, a versatile and sturdy 6-8 combo forward, Carey struggled to put the ball on the floor as the smaller player encroached on his space. Against more complex college and pro defenses, these types of weaknesses will quickly be exploited.
On the face up, Carey Jr is at his best when being decisive: catching, turning and attacking, usually to his left as he did against the aforementioned Watson at the Les Schwab Invitational over the holidays when he attacked hard to his left off the catch, never giving help defenders a chance to settle, and dunking straight through the 6-10 Watson. His footwork and tight spin move are advanced even for college kids. If and when he’s able to use the handle and footwork to create space, he has a fluid mid-range jumper that he shoots with confidence. Carey Jr can improve upon his decision making which will lead to greater efficiency and less isolation. This could be mitigated by better guard play and a more balanced court, but he can go a long way to improve his own reads and timing.
I struggle to assess high school defenders in part because the talent gap can be so massive, but so far Carey Jr’s defense could best be described as opportunistic disinterest: IE; if he can pick up a highlight help side block, he’s there. If not, sorry. He’s not the most expressive player, but his facial expressions and defensive effort and awareness call to mind another Duke Blue Devil, Jabari Parker and his “they don’t pay players to play defense” ethos. Going back to games I’ve seen of his as a junior, there’s a lackadaisical tendency to stand around and almost look bored on the defensive end. Against Watson and Gonzaga Prep’s cutting offense, he was easily beaten backdoor more than once and one occasion, he saw Watson cutting and didn’t react, giving up an easy score in the process. Part of the frustration around his defensive effort comes from his obvious ability. At his size and with his athleticism, he’ll occasionally get his shit together long enough to destroy shot attempts on help side blocks and based on how well he moves with the ball, it’s clear he can move well laterally. The lack of focus and effort are decisions he’s making or bad habits he’s forming. I’d expect these lapses to be directly addressed at Duke, but Coach K’s had plenty of players who never learn or commit to that end of the court and if Carey Jr produces offensively, it won’t be a surprise if he cruises on defense.
Stylistically, Barnes couldn’t be much more different from Carey Jr. At 6-8 with a 7-2 wingspan, per ESPN, his measurements compare to Al-Farouq Aminu and Jerami Grant; a pair of long, versatile, defensive-minded NBA forwards. Barnes, as a high school sophomore, was a better passer than both of those players are now as seasoned pros. He’s long, strong, and athletic with an ability to think the game. If Carey Jr plays with a poker face and obscured emotions, Barnes is expressive and plays with high energy. During the Geico Nationals telecast last season, he was described as the “alpha dog” of the team (as a sophomore) and in October, ESPN wrote of him at the USA mini-camp that “players gravitate to his joyful nature.”
Last season with University School, he was able to facilitate without having to be the primary ball handler. This year, Barnes has been forced at times to act as the primary initiator, a role that’s revealed more weaknesses to what’s an otherwise strong all-around game (jump shot notwithstanding). While he has a quality handle for a front court player, bringing the ball up against smaller, peskier defenders, Barnes is forced to turn and put his body between himself and the defender to protect the ball, Mark Jackson style but without the intent or ability to back the opponent down from 30-feet. Barnes is much more effective catching the ball in the half court set and attacking off the dribble or pushing in the full court. Off the dribble, he’s adept at driving and kicking or driving and dumping. His first step is quick enough and his handle tight enough that he can regularly get a step on defenders and when help comes, he’s elite at recognizing where the open man is before defenders have a chance to respond – be it on the perimeter or around the rim. No-looks and look-away passes are functionally executed and commonplace for Barnes.
Defensively, his engagement and effort are superior to Carey Jr’s in that he’s more physically capable and he tries. Physically he has the tools to be an excellent defender, but technique-wise, there’s room for growth. On the interior, he’ll lean on his man with arms straight up in the air and just stand there like a 6-8 turnstile hoping or expecting opponents to shoot the ball into his outstretched hands. He doesn’t move great laterally, but he’s long enough that as he develops his defensive awareness, his length can be used as a cushion against quicker opponents. As a high school underclassman, it’s not surprising that he can wind up out of position defensively, but against current opponents (many of whom include high-level D1 players) he’s still long and athletic enough and plays with enough effort and pride to recover.
The biggest cause for concern, and it’s visible in every game I’ve seen of his, is the shot. Be it the free throw line, on catch-and-shoot 3s, on pull-ups. It doesn’t matter where the shot’s coming from or even if it goes in, it’s just mangled and hasn’t improved much in the year I’ve been watching him. In four games at Les Schwab, he was 2-10 from 3 and one of the makes was an ill-advised side-step attempt that defenses would love for him to take. And his misses are bad misses: airballs, bricks, shots that are woefully short. I’m not a shot doctor, so I’ll borrow from ESPN on his shot description: “he’s a non-shooter who doesn’t show much potential to improve at this stage, with side spin and unconventional shooting mechanics.” Shooting is a critical skill necessary to fully unlocking his passing and creation. He’s not on Ben Simmons’s level as a passer, but he may end up getting the same type of treatment as Simmons at upper levels as teams just sag off and dare him to shoot. He’s also not as bad a shooter as Simmons. In 17 games of Nike EYBL play in 2018, he shot 12-33 (36%) from deep which, on its own, hardly constitutes a destitute shooter, but when viewed alongside his game tape, gives pause as a possible fluke. How his shooting potentially limits his playmaking is of interest at the next levels. Smart coaches will find ways to take advantage of his passing similarly to how Golden State’s continued to do with Draymond Green despite him shooting a career-worst 24% from deep. Less coherent teams will struggle to maximize his game and this is the risk of any player who has a massive hole in his game.
In an ideal world, Carey Jr commits to learning the defensive side of the ball the same way he’s clearly committed to honing his offensive craft. Barnes becomes a high-energy, high-IQ player who can impact the game on both sides of the ball and at least keep defenses honest with 30-35% 3-point shooting. What I’m asking for from either player is no small thing, but they are addressable things. Both players already have the requisite physical tools and skills for NBA ball which already place them in the upper echelons of a craft that our society places a massive monetary value on. They’ll both make the NBA, but the nits I’m picking at (defense, effort, shooting, and decision making) differentiate rotation players from starters, starters from All-Stars, and All-Stars from All-NBA players. As 17-year-olds, their destinies aren’t completely in their own hands. Team and scheme still matter and we’re already seeing how a departure of skilled teammates is affecting their current games, but Carey Jr and Barnes are complete enough already to chart their own courses, shape their own trajectories, land on their own moons. Whether they do or not is a burden they shoulder as minors beset with in-demand, cash-generating talents. What could possibly go wrong?
December 20, 2018Posted by on
I first saw Romeo Langford a short nine-ish months ago playing in the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage – which was when I first saw several players in this freshman class. It’s odd what sometimes does or doesn’t stand out to you about a player, but with the 6-5, 6-6 or so Langford, it was his ability to rebound in traffic. There he was, this skinny, straight-faced kid with long arms (6-11 wingspan), taking the rapid-rising elevator up, up, up above the towering trees and snatching that ball out of the clouds with strong hands. There’s something about seeing one triumphant leaper emerge from a mass of high-flying bodies, but at the McDonald’s events, that’s what Langford did and, in the process, snatched affections.
At the time, he hadn’t committed to Indiana and was waiting to see where everyone else would go or something. That seemed weird, but seeing him at McDonald’s and then at the Jordan Brand Classic, it was clear he was in the right place competing easily with positional peers, Keldon Johnson and Quentin Grimes. He out-leapt UNC’s Nassir Little on the boards and exploited Bol Bol’s defensive limitations with a lefty hesitation which was followed by soft touch on a layup high off the glass. I didn’t walk away from the all-star cycle smitten with Langford the way I was with Naz Reid, but I saw him with a higher probability of pro success and with that intrigue, eagerly approached Indiana’s November games with optimistic curiosity.
We’re presently 12 games into what will likely be Langford’s only season in Bloomington, Indiana and what’s become painfully apparent, and what, when I look back over my notes from those all-star games was apparent then, is that he’s not much of a shooter. Through the first third of his freshman season, Langford’s made 9 of 44 3s (20.5%). He’s one of just 12 players in all of NCAA D1 who’s taken that many threes and hit so few. On 400 pre-college 3-point attempts in ESPN’s database, he’s shooting 30% so it’s hard to say if this 44-shot sample is a blip, a downward trend, or the result of greater opponents and pressures. In each of the three pre-college games I scouted, I commented on his form: “not fluid or smooth,” “Hit b2b contested 3s, but form isn’t great,” “C&S 3 form isn’t perfect, but it’s going in.” And in my first note from watching him against Arkansas, I was commenting that his pull-up was “forceful” – not as in a forced shot against set defense, but as in violent.
Despite my recurring notes implying there was a significant and concerning wart to an otherwise solid all-around game, it took me taking an aggregate view to accept how this skill has the potential to significantly lower Langford’s ceiling. If an NBA wing can’t shoot, they sure as shit better be able to do something or several things extremely well. There’s the Andre Roberson/Tony Allen route of defensive specialists with utterly broken shots. There’s the DeMar DeRozan path of being an elite scorer with an optimal mid-range game. Shawn Livingston, Rajon Rondo, and Elfrid Payton are playmakers who, at one point or another (or even the present), couldn’t or can’t shoot. Each of the aforementioned players counterweights his shooting struggles with some kind of uniquely packaged skill/size combination and even in a league where shooting has become one of the most valuable single skills a player can have, these specialists still survive, thrive, add value, and possibly most notably, they evolve – sometimes.
As a 19-year-old, Langford’s best attributes are his length and athleticism. He has a frame designed for basketballing with his long arms and catapulting legs and in a lot of ways, he knows exactly how to utilize these tools. Even though he’s not a threat to beat opponents from the perimeter, Langford makes a living at the line and the rim. Per-40 minutes, he gets to the line 8 times/game where he makes 69% of his attempts. On that list of 12 players shooting as poorly from 3 as Langford, he has the highest overall field goal percentage by far (49%) and is shooting 61% on 2s. Despite that abominable 3-point rate, his true shooting is a respectable 56% and it’s in part because he does so well attacking the basket. He has a quick, long first step he uses to get past initial defenders and he’s a good enough ball handler to drive effectively in either direction. If there’s much more than a sliver of daylight, there’s potential for this:
That dunk may have bounced off the back rim, but it’s not because he wasn’t high enough. Langford has a tendency to drive baseline and when he’s isolated, more often than not, he’s beating the defender. When help arrives and shuts down his driving lanes, the results are less effective. He’s not a bad passer, but he hasn’t yet exhibited great vision or decision making with any regularity. If he loses that driving lane, he’ll resort to picking up his dribble or looking for kickouts, but his decision making isn’t always fast enough to take advantage of the help. In the play below, he executes a beautiful leading pocket pass and this is the type of play he needs make more of, particularly if he doesn’t develop the jumper. From what I’ve seen of Indiana, they don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll with Langford and he doesn’t spend a lot of time at the top of the key. That’s not an excuse for his average decision making out of dribble drives though, but it does reveal an area where he potentially has more ability than opportunity:
Defensively, he has ability, but like his playmaking, he’s just average right now. He’s averaging over a steal and block per-game, but much of that is based purely on his length and athletic ability and not effort or technique. When he wants to, he can get low in a defensive crouch and moves well laterally. In terms of focus and intensity, like many 19-year-olds, he can be much better and more consistent. I’ve seen him lulled into ball watching and susceptible to backdoor cuts and he has a weird habit of keeping his hands and arms low when playing on-ball defense instead of being at the ready. I’m not convinced he’s lacking defensive intensity or if he just always has the same facial expressions. Whether dunking or locked into tough defensive assignment or standing in the corner waiting for the ball, Langford has proven inexpressive.
In his Game Theory podcast, Sam Vecenie described Langford’s jump shot as one of the draft’s biggest “swing skills” as in a skill that, depending on development, could swing a player’s future prospects in one direction or another. I thought this was an apt and accurate description. Langford’s average-to-good at a lot of things, but he hasn’t yet developed an elite skill or developed enough consistency in his playmaking or defense to offset shooting concerns. The DeRozan player type I mentioned above is similar to Langford in terms of neither player, as a college freshman, having an elite skill. DeRozan was bigger and more explosive which can mask some effort and skill deficiencies. I don’t write this suggesting Langford is on a trajectory like DeMar’s, but rather to point out that there are ways to overcome weaknesses or develop. On appearances alone, Langford seems to be getting more comfortable at the collegiate level; partially reflected by averaging over 6 rebounds and 4 assists in his past 3 games. He’s far from a finished product and a rugged conference season in a stacked Big 10 is likely to produce up and down results, but 12 games into his freshman season, Langford is far from a finished product. No one’s drafting him for today, they’re drafting him for a high ceiling and a floor that rests easily on awesome athleticism and measurables. I don’t think it’s as simple as hard work and dedication for Langford, but rather a confluence of opportunity, nurture, will, work, and stars aligning. After all, how many of us truly reach our potential? Some of us are content just snatching rebounds from on high.
December 12, 2018Posted by on
At some point, people are who we are. We have traits or temperaments that have either been hardcoded or fully realized through habitual refrain. Basketball players, as humans, are not exempt from this. Players become and evolve and settle. That doesn’t mean players can’t develop skills (Brook Lopez and three-point shooting) or become better versions of themselves (JJ Redick) or, in rare scenarios, tap into higher planes (Pacers’ Victor Oladipo). At what point the calcification occurs is hard to say: Is it age-based or experience-based? Is Karl-Anthony Towns forever a highly-skilled, but emotionally volatile contributor; fated to eternally be grasping for a potential he can’t attain?
Cam Reddish is the third banana of Duke’s Big Three freshman class (that’s not a slight on Tre Jones, but he’s not at the level of those three, not in terms of ability or perception which isn’t to say he won’t be a better pro than one of them, just that he’s not as good) which also includes Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Reddish, as a prospect, is both dependent on and exists independent of Williamson and Barrett, but I’ll scrape away at that later. He’s not third banana because he’s a lesser player or lacks their level of skill. He’s possibly the most skilled of the three. He’s the third banana musketeer (that sounds like a dessert) because of his approach to the game which has been described as passive or, in this case, as laissez-faire.
Maybe there’s something enigmatic in Reddish in the sense that for our elite athletes and basketball, even for the most gifted, hard work is a pre-requisite. Maybe a player can jump out of the gym and out-run Jon Ross in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn’t mean they can play a lick of ball. And in that hard work, there’s a baseline intensity that we expect. It doesn’t have to be Kobe Bryant, but we expect our best players to go hard and compete. Reddish has all the skill and ability: at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighing nearly 220-pounds, he already has the frame of an NBA player, but it doesn’t stop with his size. For 6-8 and 19-years-old, Reddish moves like he’s lived in this same body size for an eternity. He’s entirely graceful with long strides and great balance. In terms of skill, he plays like a kid who was taking AP Basketball courses at 14. A teenager doesn’t play this way without copious time spent in the gym, honing his game when the world and friends and kid stuff is beckoning from outside. His handle, with those swinging, loping arms calls to mind the peace of flowing water in nature, a running stream in its natural element with the ball bouncing easily, fully under his teenage control. To borrow from Bruce Lee, “be water, my friend.” His passing, probably being underutilized with Duke, isn’t just competent, it’s very good. He can see and execute a nice pocket pass and act as a primary ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. In transition, his ball handling combines with his athleticism, size, and court vision to weaponize him.
And his shot, specifically his 3-ball, which he’s launching over 7-per-game, is infinitely effortless, a casual, aligned, rhythmic toss that freezes time on aesthetic alone. That he’s shooting it at just a 36% clip with Duke on over 7 attempts-per-game and that ESPN’s Draft Express crew has him at 30% on 260 pre-Duke attempts doesn’t bother me although it probably should. I’m not concerned because it all looks so beautifully harmonic. My notes on Reddish are littered with exclamations about the ease of his jumper from distance and his pull-up. What can I say? At the end of the day, I trust his jumper – even if he doesn’t look, feel, or smell like he’ll reach that high-level volume/efficiency combo that separates the good from great NBA shooters. To be fair, most of those “good” shooters can’t handle or pass as well as even 19-year-old Cam.
It’s all very nice, but undertaken with the urgency of the collective world’s grandfather on a Sunday morning stroll in late spring when the birds are singing and he’s figured out how to finally, truly appreciate nature’s presence and has developed gratitude just for being. Cam Reddish plays basketball like that grandfather strolls (but probably without the gratitude because it’s harder for young people to fully articulate gratitude just based on volume of life experiences though there are certainly plenty of our young people who’ve seen and lived far too much in their short times on Earth). In games I saw of his in January and March, announcers had already picked up on the trend, suggesting he was occasionally “too cool” or telling us they’d “like to see a more intense approach.” In a story with the Philadelphia Inquirer from September of his senior season, Reddish responded to questions about areas of improvement with “motor and…defense.” The Inquirer story took place before those January and March games and so while young Cam knew his areas of opportunity, he struggled to make change.
This disconnect between effort and ability is strangely insulating at Duke where Cam has comfortably settled into a third option behind Barrett and Williamson. Zion is a black hole for attention, sucking in eyeballs and mindshares and tweets and highlights with his all-consuming gravity. Barrett is the team’s (Coach K’s?) un/disputed go-to-go-guy averaging 24-7-4 and for a while had missed more shots than Williamson had attempted. Barrett’s go-it-alone ethos in a loss to Gonzaga sopped up even more bandwidth from an audience trained to be ever-eager for scandal and someone to blame. And so Cam has settled into his role as a floor-spacing shooter who sometimes feels compelled to attack off the bounce. The reason this is semi-beneficial is that anyone who’s ever seen Reddish knows his game, particularly his offense, contains more than his Duke role implies. He can grab and go, he can pass, he can create for others. And as is sometimes the case with elite college players playing in well-established systems, the question becomes one of: Is this player in this role what we can expect at the next level? Or: Is this player being pigeonholed by a coach and system? In the latter scenario, Jaren Jackson Jr and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately come to mind as players who were limited by successful college coaches. Like an agent holding a player out of the combine or out of workouts, not knowing can work in a prospect’s favor. (Back in April during the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, I asked myself in my notes, “In love w/the 3?”)
While Reddish owns his own career, the presence of Williamson and Barrett is inescapable. They are black holes, vacuums, forces of nature that both obscure and force comparisons to Reddish. Alongside Barrett, Reddish is absolutely passive, a standstill shooting specialist who gums at defenses while RJ chomps. Against the perpetually-sweating, in-motion bulk of Williamson, Cam moves in slow motion uncertainty. As a prospect, he must be compared to them by proximity alone even though he remains his own, uniquely talented prospect.
Within all this compare and contrast and context forming, we’d be remiss to not touch on Reddish’s defense. In the pre-Duke clips I watched, he was a circumstantial defender with questionable effort and technique even more so than on the offensive side where his evolved skill and size could carry him through Sunday-stroll exertions. At Duke, he’s exhibited greater effort, but within his attempts has been revealed a poor execution. Through ten games, he’s averaging over 2-steals and has three games of 4 steals, but he has trouble keeping up with shooters when screened, is quick to bite on fakes even though he has just 2 blocks through 240 minutes of play, and gets turned around due to bad positioning. There’s work to be done here, but the most important thing is that he’s trying. It’s weird, but when you try, you’re vulnerable and an object for criticism. When you coast and take plays off, there’s no risk except looking stupid like James Harden on backdoors a couple years ago.
I’ve seen or heard Reddish compared to everyone from Kevin Durant to Tracy McGrady to Grant Hill because he’s tallish, smooth with a handle, and can shoot. Even if he had a more aggressive mentality, I think those comps are overly optimistic. Physically, he most resembles Hill or McGrady, but doesn’t have the explosiveness of either. He’s not the Swiss Army Knife Hill was and nowhere near the off-the-dribble attacker McGrady was. But he’s some thing, some laissez-faire basketballing thing who one hopes or imagines is just waiting to be unlocked like the mysteries of space or the Bermuda Triangle. I tend to think Cam’s role at Duke is the outcome of several factors: 1) The superior ability and aggressive approaches of Barrett and Zion, 2) Coach K’s schemes, 3) Cam’s own comfort slotting in as a supporting piece. Seen through this lens, he has the look of a player talented enough to contribute as a high level starter, but 3rd or 4th option on a winning team. The challenge with the NBA and a finite player pool is for Reddish to land in a spot where he’s expected to push a team over any humps. Team and scheme matter and as much as I like Reddish the kid (the Jay Bilas interviews on the beach in Maui were corny but I walked away from Cam’s thinking, “I like this kid”), he doesn’t strike me as a player good enough to transcend team or scheme.
But then again, maybe he’s just a malleable, ultra-talented, humble wing waiting for his James Harden-to-the-Rockets moment to grow a great big beard and unleash his full arsenal on an unready opposition. Maybe.
December 4, 2018Posted by on
Sometimes when I use Chromecast to watch ESPN+ games on my TV by way of phone, the stream chops up or reverts to standard definition and I fade into the pixels of my own distracted thoughts, unable to focus, uninterested in taking notes, just a breathing, beating being on the couch in a mind of its own making surrounded by striped pillows. Other times, the toggling between standard and high-def is nothing more than a minor inconvenience and the content, the game in all its magnificence, captivates and sucks me in like a magnet for my brain’s thoughts. The latter is what (mostly) happened on the evening of Monday, November 26th, 2018, the night I bought into the myth, the legend, the mystery of Ja Morant.
Morant is a point guard for the Murray State Racers, a college basketball team based in Murray, Kentucky near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, a couple hour drive from Nashville. The school has produced current NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan (recently cut by the Suns) and Cam Payne and based on the 40-plus scouts that attended the Murray-State/Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, Morant is a lock to join them as pro basketball representatives of the Racers.
This wasn’t my first experience with Morant. The Racers made the Tournament last season when Morant was a sophomore and draft heads have been gushing about him for a while. But impressions (first or otherwise) still matter and the lithe guard, who’s built like a shorter version of Jamal Crawford with equally supple limbs and joints, didn’t bother waiting to impress himself upon the ‘Bama faithful and NBA scouts on Monday night:
The defensive read and react is helping to push him towards 2 steals-per-game and is an example of risk-taking instincts that can be both a weapon and a hinderance. What’s not a hinderance is Morant’s ability to get it and go, to survey the floor, the speed, the opportunities and make optimal decisions. After the game, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said, “Oh he’s really good, he’s a problem solver.” If open court situations are problems or opportunities doesn’t really matter though “opportunity solver” is an awkwardly apt descriptor of the 6-3 Dalzell, South Carolina native. In this case, Morant doesn’t push pedal to metal, instead he takes an almost leisurely but intentional pace, looking, reading, and then accepting the screen which buys him the slightest edge against defender Kira Lewis Jr. The beauty happens at the next level when Bama’s Donta Hall steps up to help. Instead of attacking the big man immediately, Morant waits for Lewis Jr. to scramble back before hitting him with two moves: first the shoulder turn which forces the defender into a second scramble and then a left-to-right crossover which the defender overruns and creates space for the funky clutching jumper.
In the first 10 to 15 seconds of game action, Morant firmly impressed and imprinted himself upon the game and predictably, didn’t stop there. The subsequent 39 minutes and 45 seconds (of which he played every possession), were flush with highlights and not just the style-over-substance variety, but purely functional, occasionally improvisational. Morant is an athlete at work, the court some kind of stage on which the unchoreographed dance unfolds.
Basketball has blessed with a medium for the long, graceful, and athletic among us to soar, pirouette, and breath life into our imaginations. Morant does these things with what appears to be casual ease which isn’t to question his effort or the work he’s put into his game. As a freshman last season, he shot 52% on 2s, 30% on 3s. Just a season later and he’s cranked his 2s up to 67%, his 3s up to 33% while nearly doubling his attempts in both measures. He makes playing hard and effectively look easy.
Again, with Lewis Jr. defending him, Morant uses the screen as a decoy before explosively changing direction with a right-to-left crossover that easily beats the younger defender. Once the second level has been attained, Morant has a few choices: release valves in the corner and wing, a dump-off to the big, or take the shot himself. In this play, Morant’s speed both works for and against him: It forces the help defender to commit, but it also forces Ja to make his decision sooner and by the time he leaves his feet, it’s either dump-off or shoot. The pass itself is perfect, a laser like zipper into the waiting hands of his teammate. That ‘Bama’s rotations anticipated the dump and shot don’t take away from the read and execution.
These plays are borderline commonplace for Morant who makes a living beating first defenders. The combination of handle, quickness, speed, and pressure make for a difficult cover for any opponent. ‘Bama’s defensive stopper is a 6-7 sophomore wing named Herb Jones who has prototypical NBA length. As a freshman, Jones helped harass present-day Atlanta Hawk, Trae Young, into a 6-17, 5 turnover game last season and ended up matched against Morant a few times. On the switch below, Jones’s positioning is great: he’s low, moves well laterally, and seems ready for the challenge. Morant is too quick though and gets too low. For a moment, it seems he might go right, which is the side Jones has opened, but instead he smoothly goes right-to-left between his legs at which point he makes his first step, shoulders so low Jones can’t recover. The scoop shot finish is largely unmolested:
In the limited documentation we have of Morant, adaption appears to be a recurring theme – both in game and in role. Against Alabama, after proving indefensible in man-to-man coverage, Johnson began throwing double teams at the lean point guard and watching him change tactics in-the-moment made for a great study in his ability to adjust. The first pair of doubles he saw, he didn’t panic, but didn’t attack either, rather he just passed out. On the third double, he attempted to dribble out of trouble, but quickly passed out. By the fourth double, he put the ball on the floor and attacked before the second man could ever get there, leaving ‘Bama scrambling. His quick reaction didn’t create a basket, but it showed his ability to read and adjust on the fly.
In the below clip, we see Morant gathering the defensive board and pushing the pace but slowing it up for just long enough for a defensive miscommunication. When John Petty (#23) and Lewis Jr. (#2) mistakenly turn away from Morant, he immediately crosses the ball over and accelerates into the lane. This wouldn’t have been there if he had pushed the ball full speed. By the time he reaches the paint, Jones (#10) is sliding into position to take a charge. On the previous play, Ja had picked up a charge on a dribble, but this time he simultaneously dumps it off to Jones’s man while easily avoiding the stationary Jones:
Morant’s adaption doesn’t appear to be limited to in-game adjustments, but is inclusive of his role within the team. As a senior at South Carolina’s Crestwood High School, he was a 27-point-per-game scorer, but with last year’s Murray State squad, he played the role of facilitator with seniors Jonathan Stark (over 2k points in his college career) and Terrell Miller Jr. carrying the team’s scoring responsibilities. Now, as a sophomore, Morant is the undisputed go-to-guy, probably shouldering too great of a load with a usage rate over 37%.
His role is strikingly similar to Young’s with Oklahoma last season even if the players are strikingly different in aesthetic terms. Circumstance dictates that both players carry an outsized load and the outputs almost mirror each other:
Morant through 6 games: 34.4 minutes, 27.2ppg, 8.4apg, 6 turnovers, 37.3% usage, 52.4% ast, 22.6% turnover
Young 2017-18: 35.4 minutes, 27.4ppg, 8.7apg, 5.2 turnovers, 37.1% usage, 48.6% ast, 18.2% turnover
With Young last season, there were questions about whether Oklahoma Coach Lon Krueger was helping or hurting Young by giving him so much freedom. Was Young developing bad habits? For me, it was always about his decision making: How adept was Trae at deciding when to shoot, when to pass, when to leave his feet? 24 games into his NBA career and Young’s showing an ability to assimilate into a team structure while still filling the role of lead guard. Krueger didn’t stain him or lead him astray.
I doubt Morant will be faced with the same questions as it appears his physical abilities will transition to the NBA much more smoothly than Young’s did. And given that we’ve already seen him flex his style from his freshman to sophomore seasons, there appears to be a willingness to adapt.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream for Morant in Tuscaloosa. He had 10 turnovers and was 0-4 from three and his team lost by six. The turnovers were a mixed bag of losing footing or handle on dribble drives, bad passes, and being out of control and maybe this is me showing my bias, but I chalk a lot of this up to growing pains; particularly given the overall talent disparity between the teams. Morant’s body control and elusive slithering are Crawford-like. His handling and explosiveness are serpentine and unexpected. This is a kid who drove into the chest of West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, a shot blocking extraordinaire who has a solid 75 pounds on Morant, and neutralized his length in last year’s NCAA Tournament. At Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp over the summer, he caught a lob and his head was easily above the rim. He casually dismissed the efforts of ‘Bama’s version of the Plastic Man in Herb Jones. He’s not a perfect prospect (jumper, strength), but his kinetic, electric, poised fury has me maybe more excited about him than any guard prospect in this draft class (Kevin Porter?). I’m giddy, I’m geeked. Murray State’s home court is less than 600 miles away and I’m ready for a road trip.
November 25, 2018Posted by on
As of the morning of November 25th, 2018, University of Washington senior and NBA draft prospect, Matisse Thybulle has nearly as many steals and blocks as he has points scored. This strange inversion of accumulated stats is simultaneously distressing and impressive and also unlikely to continue, but such is the evolution of Thybulle’s game.
Thybulle is listed as 6-5, 190 pounds, but he looks a little bigger than that. Maybe it’s because he appears to have the wingspan of a condor (listed at 7-0, but he looks longer) or maybe it’s because accurate measures (see LeBron’s weight) are harder to come by than they should be. Whatever the case, the UW wing plays much larger than his size (6-5 or whatever he is). Six games into his senior season, he’s averaging a ludicrous 2.7 blocks alongside 2.2 steals which, when combined, is just a hair beneath a paltry 5.5 points.
If we go back to the high school hoops class of 2015, the year of Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, and Brandon Ingram, Thybulle doesn’t appear on ESPN’s Top 100 and is ranked somewhere between 104th and 126th nationally on 247sports.com. (For what it’s worth, 247 lists him as 6-7.) He came into UW with current NBAers Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss and has started 104 of his 105 games for the Seattle-based school. Even as a freshman, he projected as 3-and-D wing and his play has become borderline synonymous with the type. Through his first three seasons, half of his shots came from behind the arc while he stacked up multiple UW defensive records. As a junior, he was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year with per-game averages of 3 steals and 1.4 blocks; his steal (5.2%) and block (4.8%) percentages are rare and elite for any college player. The only other player in Sports-Reference.com’s database (dating back to 2009-10) to appear in at least 600 minutes with these block and steal percentages is Gary Payton II.
Thybulle’s junior season coincided with the hiring of former Syracuse assistant and Jim Boeheim right-hand-man, Mike Hopkins whose go-to defensive scheme is the ol’ Syracuse’s 2-3 zone with Thybulle up top. UW’s previous and long-time coach, Lorenzo Romar employed a man-to-man switching defense that, by the time Thybulle arrived, had deteriorated into sieving unit that ranked 337th (2016) and 332nd (2017) nationally and that’s despite having Thybulle, the wiry, quick Murray, and a long rim protector in Malik Dime. Defensively, the whole was much weaker than the sum of its parts and Romar ultimately lost his job as a result.
With Thybulle at the top of the zone, his defensive strengths and instincts are being fully weaponized. With a wide stance and long strides, he covers more ground than opponents anticipate and fluidly moves between the paint and perimeter or side-to-side. At his best, he can shut down an entire quarter of the half-court not unlike a shutdown corner. Where he’s at his most dangerous is in his aggressive collapses into the paint to attack would-be shooters. In a way I haven’t seen many top men in a 2-3, Thybulle uses the element of surprise to drop down and block the shots of unknowing, blind-spot-having opponents: they make their move into the paint or towards the rim and the second they turn their head in the direction of the basket and elevate to shoot, Thybulle, who had already started creeping in the direction of the ball, is swiping out with those long arms, swatting a shot that never had a prayer. His length and timing allow him to exploit this blind spot the way most guards or perimeter defenders can’t or wouldn’t even think to and it’s driving that near-3 blocks-per-game. It’s not all roses though as he’s developed a habit of winding up and swinging at the ball – not quite wildly, but in a way that leaves him vulnerable to fouls or slightly off balance. That said, his timing is so good that he typically avoids contact. Against Santa Clara, this drop down technique was happening so frequently that I found myself wondering if UW’s backline defenders were funneling the offense into the lane to take advantage of the Thybulle drop down.
To be an effective defender at the next level, the shot blocks don’t need to carry over. With his length, positioning, and ability to slice through screens, he should be able to close space and make it a little harder for shooters to get clean looks at the hoop. I have seen him open his hips and bait ball handlers into driving so he can set them up for the shot block. He this against Minnesota’s sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington, but the savvy Washington took a scoop shot with the ball well out of Thybulle’s reach. This is the type of adjustment pros will use against his baiting tactics.
Where his defense has become an all-harassing one-man-gang, his shooting from distance has descended into ugly inaccuracy. Through his first 99 games, Thybulle shot 38% on over 380 three-point attempts. He was remarkably consistent as a standstill, catch-and-shoot option who could be utilized by Murray or, for a single season, Markelle Fultz. As a senior, he’s made just 3 of 22 attempts (13%). He’s perfect from the free throw line (6-6), but getting there with less frequency than his previous seasons and his two-point attempts are also down. UW has more options to score this season than previous years, but you have to wonder if his struggles from the perimeter are negatively affecting the rest of his offense. At a glance, his shooting mechanics don’t look to be fundamentally changed. He’s always had somewhat of a tall, erect form with a higher release point and I’m much more comfortable trusting his previous 358 attempts than his most recent 22.
His usage rate is down to 13.7% which is its lowest since he was a freshman playing just 24 minutes/game. His assist percentage (10%) and free throw rate (16%) are the lowest of his four years at UW, but watching him, he doesn’t appear to be tentative. Rather, UW’s offense is frequently stagnant and heavily dependent on sophomore Jaylen Nowell as its only creator off-the-dribble. Nowell is an off-guard whose primary instincts are to score rather than distribute. And when it’s not Nowell attacking, the Huskies dump the ball into senior forward and part-time blackhole, Noah Dickerson who sports a 36% usage rate. There just haven’t been as many opportunities for Thybulle who frequently ends up standing still on the wing. There’s very little cutting in Hopkins’s system which is unfortunate, because Thybulle, who looks more explosive this season, could be better utilized with more movement. When he does put the ball on the floor, it’s powered by a long and strong first step and not much wiggle. He goes one direction at a single speed, taking what the defense gives him and primarily looking to draw in defenders to kick out or dump off. If the daylight’s there, he’s more than able to smash dunk on the heads of unprepared opponents as he did against Auburn earlier this season.
ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has Thybulle ranked 45th on his big board and going 39th in his most recent mock draft. Between his game tape and measurements, Thybulle looks like someone who can defend at least the one through three and potentially small ball fours or even lesser-skilled big fours. In the NBA, that defensive versatility is slobber-worthy right now and is present across the league’s top teams. How well his defense translates at the pro level will be fun to see as UW’s zone is just bizarre as a defensive measuring stick. But if you find yourself watching a UW game this season, clear the clutter of the court and watch Thybulle operate at the top of that zone and you’ll see a master, hard at work, swinging, swatting, blanketing, blotting out an entire side of the court. And maybe watch the him on the offensive end as well and hope, with me, that his jump shot returns to form.
November 17, 2018Posted by on
When I first saw Andrew Nembhard participate at basketball, I was oblivious to him – his game, his story, existence. I tuned in to some Montverde Academy game to see all-world Canadian basketball phenom RJ Barrett, the current Robin to Zion Williamson’s Batman. Montverde is essentially a D1 college program. In addition to Barrett and Nembhard, the team featured Mike Devoe (now at Georgia Tech), Filip Petrusev (Gonzaga), Morris Udeze (Wichita State), Jermaine Cousinard (South Carolina), Josh Roberts (St. John’s), Kevin Zhang (Tulane), and Karrington Davis (Nebraksa) – and that’s just counting players that graduated in 2018, not to mention the D1-level underclassmen. This is an elite basketball factory that has helped to produce current NBA players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
And there was Nembhard, a high school senior playing ball at Montverde near Orlando, Florida by way of Aurora, Ontario. In a college freshman class that features a generational athlete like Zion, a prototypical wing athlete in Barrett, and a James Hardenesque manchild in USC’s Kevin Porter Jr, Nembhard actually looks like the 18-year-old he is. He’s 6-4 or 6-5 (depending on where you look), somewhere around 190-pounds. Among you or me, he’d be a tall kid; not big or physically imposing. On Montverde’s collegiately-sized team and on the Florida Gators’ actual college team, his appearance merely blends into the kids and young men wearing same-colored jerseys, most taller, some shorter.
It was against this embarrassment of riches that Nembhard somehow stood out. Playing point guard for a stacked team, he wasn’t faster or quicker, didn’t jump higher and reach longer than opponents or teammates. In the multiple games I’ve seen of his now, I don’t recall him ever dunking and my notes don’t indicate anything about a dunk. Yet, there he was in medium-sized glory, tall by point guard standards, splitting playmaking duties with the wunderkind Barrett. Point guards, for all the unselfishness that we associate with passing and facilitating, can be brutally ball dominant and taskmasterish, insistent on being the engine through which an offense runs. Nembhard, by contrast, has proven a modern awareness of positionless basketball. Alongside Barrett, he willingly shared playmaking duties and in his brief, three-game career at Gainesville, he’s shown comfort playing on and off the ball.
Nembhard’s overall feel for the game is what pops. I don’t believe passing and court vision are genetically passed on though some of the root abilities are likely transferred genetically. Despite my beliefs, Nembhard has the so-called passing gene. Next to his Montverde All-Stars, he combined sound fundamentals (head up, always kept his dribble, always knew where teammates were) with the occasional flair required of playing with an ensemble cast: no-look passes, lobs, and pinpoint outlet passes to streaking gazelles wearing basketball uniforms.
Where the passing gene has been forced to take on a different lens at the NCAA level has been a skewing towards functionality and Nembhard is nothing if not functional. Against bigger, faster college defenses, I haven’t seen the no-looks or even many lobs. That doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. He’s averaging nearly 6 assists and just two turnovers. Before he even played his first game at Florida, head coach Mike White said, “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program.” His offensive awareness, with head up and darting eyes, continues to be a weapon that takes in and computes the entirety of his surroundings: cross-court passes to unguarded teammates made easier since he can see over most college guards, wrap-around passes to players he can’t possibly see, transition passing to leaking runners, and of course the penetrate and kick or dump after drawing in help defenders. And that head up habit? His dad, who coached him since he was three, “taught Andrew to keep his head up when receiving a pass,” and said, “when Andrew catches the ball, his first tendency is to look up … to see if someone is open.”
He doesn’t quite have old man game, but you can see intention in the tactics he employs that call to mind more veteran players. Already at Florida, I’ve seen him beat defenders off the dribble and instead of straight line, single speed drives, he slows down, gets the defender on his hip and forces the defense to make a decision: switch over to help or stay home. This quick-read and upshift/downshift ability leverages his size, strength, and decision making. And when the help defender stays at home, Nembhard has a nice floater and can attack with either hand.
While he’s competent with both hands, his finishing around the rim is still developing. Against Charleston Southern, he attempted three lefty layups from the right side of the rim and missed all three. In each case, it didn’t look like he gained any advantage by going with the left hand. When he finally switched to a more natural right side/right hand attempt, he drew a foul. Given his feel for the game, these types of forays seem exploratory more than symptomatic of larger issues and 14 shot attempts on two-pointers is hardly statistically significant, but it will be telling to see how he adjusts as competition gets better.
On the defensive side, the Canadian’s court and spatial awareness translate. He keeps a wide base and slides his feet well though he appears to bend more at the waist at times instead of at the knees which likely limits his quickness. He’s not the longest guy (close to 6-6 wingspan) and he doesn’t present as a disruptive force on defense, but not everyone needs to be Robert Covington or Kris Dunn to play defense. Nembhard seems to always be in the right place – rotating at the right time, moving his feet to the right spot. There was a play against Charleston Southern where an opponent beat one of Nembhard’s teammates on a basket cut. Anticipating the defensive breakdown, he checked the cutter which slowed him down enough for his teammate to recover and for the window of opportunity to close. It was a small, micro-moment, but it showed how he’s able to both diagnose and react to plays as a defender.
ESPN had him ranked 28th overall in the recruiting class of 2018, but he doesn’t appear in their mock draft or on their top-100 big board for players draft eligible in 2019. At present, the point guards ahead of him just do more things better than he does: Darius Garland is quicker and a better shooter, Ja Morant is longer and more athletic, Ayo Dosunmu more explosive. This doesn’t imply Nembhard isn’t a pro prospect as his overall game is on par with any of the aforementioned prospects, he’s just not as athletic or efficient enough with enough volume from the perimeter to push into that upper tier of current prospects. But this is a kid who’s already competed with the Canadian men’s national team where he’s made two appearances and averaged 5 assists in just 15 minutes/game. Against the University School at the Geico High School National Championships, he scored 8 points and racked up 13 assists to zero turnovers. He’s a confident, selfless player who can pass his ass off. I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it. Whether that happens in 2019 or beyond, his ability to develop and persevere (look up volvulus) are both good indicators that his arrival in the NBA is question of when rather than if.
July 16, 2018Posted by on
There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.
Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.
This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:
- #1 overall pick: DeAndre Ayton
- #2 overall pick: Marvin Bagley III (aka Bagels, aka I’m not convinced he should be on this list)
- #4 overall pick: Jaren Jackson Jr (aka JJJ)
- #6 overall pick: Mo Bamba
- #7 overall pick: Wendell Carter Jr
- #36 overall pick: Mitchell Robinson
We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.
It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.
The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.
After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.
I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.
(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)
The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.
Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”
Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.
Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])
Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.
Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.
2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.
Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame: