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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Category Archives: Summer League/Scouting
November 25, 2020Posted by on
Andre Curbelo is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds of point guarding mastery from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, a municipality on the northern coast of the island. He arrived in the US at age-13, in Long Island to be specific, to play basketball to be more specific and to carry on some kind of basketball-playing legacy that began with his father, Joel, also a 6-1 point guard who played professionally for 18 years and was a reserve guard on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1996.
While Curbelo arrived in the states in 2014, I first saw him when he was 17, in April of 2019 playing with the world team at the Nike Hoop Summit where he was the second-youngest player in the game. His stats in a limited 16 minutes were pedestrian and don’t bare repeating, but he popped in a way that caught attention with an easy-to-remember and recognize name. So often teenagers imprint basketball games with athleticism that overwhelms or size and skill combinations that exceed their peers. For Curbelo, it was heady basketball and feel: a timely recognition on a give-and-go, drive-and-kicks to the corners, effective screening, textbook fast breaks, and occasional touch.
As I’ve seen and learned more about Curbelo, the 16 minutes at Hoop Summit foreshadowed an impressive development that bloomed throughout his senior season at Long Island Lutheran (LuHi) and flourished into something like a low key cult among some weirdo high school hoops followers on Twitter – a group I possibly belong to.
That play was from July of 2019 when Curbelo was, in my eyes, still going through growing pains which, as a just-turned 19-year-old, there are plenty more growing pains to come, but the leaps he made from July to February of 2020 when I last saw him, were significant.
There is an innateness to Curbelo’s game that is dazzlingly magnetic. His combination of anticipation and awareness make him a highly effective highlight reel despite lacking the requisite size and vertical athleticism so popularly associated with basketball highlights. As I stacked up his game tapes, and saw him repeatedly puncture defenses and beat them with wrong-footed layups, drive-and-kicks, and drive-and-dish, my brain, in its bad habited manner, defaulted to a Steve Nash comparison which is not the same as me suggesting Curbelo will become a two-time MVP who evolves into the engine of a prolific NBA offense. It’s merely a recognition that aspects of Curbelo’s game resemble the great Nash’s and when I think about how a teenage basketball player develops a low-calorie cult following, it’s because there are more than just dashes of greatness in his game.
Of course, where I thought I was semi-original with my Nash comparison was quickly smote as the announcer of his New Year’s Eve day game against St Francis and Dwon Odom said, “I compared him to Steve Nash with how he plays … his game’s a lot like Nash’s.”
If you don’t trust my highly-amateur assessment or that of an announcer from the Beach Ball Classic, perhaps Illinois’ coach Brad Underwood’s comments will come with more credence, “He is an elite passer. I compare him, and it’s unfair because he’s a high school kid, to Steve Nash in terms of his ability in ball screens to make his teammates better.”
High school seniors just weren’t seeing or imagining this pass when I played 20 years ago:
That type of pass is much more a product of a game with an open, spread floor, but to even execute from that angle takes exceptional strength, balance, and awareness. This is normal from Curbelo. In the same piece I linked above, Underwood also said, “I think he is, without question, the best passing guard in the country.”
I’ve seen most every guard in the RSCI top-100 and think the only one who can compare with Curbelo in terms of passing is top-ranked Cade Cunningham who may have an edge that’s based mostly on his height although at six inches shorter, Curbelo is able to sneak and slither into spaces the 6-7 Cunningham can’t. The innateness I referenced above in no way diminishes the work Curbelo’s put into becoming one of the top passers in his age group on the entire planet, but speaks to something flowing through his basketball brain and its articulation through playing the game: this shit is natural for him.
People who are great at their chosen endeavors tend to talk about their talents in matter of fact terms which makes complete sense because it’s their normal, their routine. Curbelo’s discovery, his ability to adapt his game to a successful output and receive praise and attention, his incentive so to speak, gives me Good Will Hunting vibes. When the young prodigy and Southie tough, Will Hunting is sitting with the esteemed Professor Lambeau in the middle of a particularly intense exchange, he shouts at Lambeau, Lambeau the genius, the MIT professor, the Field’s Medal winner, “You know how fuckin easy this is to me? This is a joke!”
In a paraphrase that makes me feel like the scarf-wearing professor: discarded, incapable, unable to see the full chessboard of the basketball court with the same clarity and ease of a young man not even half my age, Curbelo described arriving in the US and realizing the power of his pass:
I knew I was able to pass. Then when I got here, I kind of didn’t know I had that on my game. When I realized I was like, ‘Damn, this is working. I’m getting scholarships and everything. I’m going to keep playing the way I am because the coaches like it, college coaches like it, I like it. I feel great.’ I’m telling you, every time I get an assist, I feel better and happier than when I score myself.”
“Damn, this is working.”
It works for Curbelo because of an interconnectedness of skill, anticipation, and physical ability. His passing happens to be the most obvious output of a hyper awareness that fuels his other strengths: off-the-ball defense, off-the-dribble attacking, and rebounding.
Curbelo is at his best on the offensive side of the court with the ball in his hands. For a player whose jump shot is still in the work-in-progress stages, he’s remarkably able to marshal that entire side of the floor with the aforementioned interconnectedness. The reason he can beat defenses is his wild array of avenues for attack.
In the half court, he made a habit of exploiting the hell out of klutz-like defensive coverages in pick-and-roll, most frequently with Ohio State commit, Zed Key. Pick-and-roll coverages, even when drilled effectively, create decision points for defenders that involve the whole five-man unit and Curbelo, at 17 and 18-years-old, made it a point of manipulating, reading, and reacting to these coverages and the gaps they created.
It’s not just that he makes the right pass out of the P&R, but his ability to process when to make the pass versus attack the rim versus just pause and make the defense make a damn decision. The first clip here is my favorite of his P&Rs because he’s simultaneously improvising and dictating. As he comes around the screen, he intentionally gets his man stuck on his hip, the two help defenders pause when he pauses and uncertainty descends as the roll man keeps moving and his defender is compelled to drop with him (never mind the baseline defender is at least aware of his help role). In dropping, the help man fails to recognize Curbelo’s man is still in jail on his hip. But Curbelo reads the opening and drops in a floater. I’m not sure I agree, but speaking about that floater, one announcer said, “He may be as good as any point guard in the country at the floater, that’s his go-to shot.”
If the P&R is a scripted run-pass-option of sorts, Curbelo is equally adept attacking on the fly in the half court where he uses a blend of head and eye fakes, quick burst attacks, and change of direction to get into the teeth of defenses. It’s these unscripted scenarios where highlights emerge and cult fandoms are created.
Against Compton Magic in July of 2019, he effectively sold a fake dribble handoff no less than three times – two of them resulted in layups while the third, the clip below, was most impressive because the head/eye fake he put on the sell (I recognize this is an open court move, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness):
In this second version, the exaggerated head turn is all he needs to freeze the defender. Once the defender lets up for the slightest moment, Curbelo hits turbo, gets low and turns the corner. In July of 2019 at least, him finishing at the rim over a contest was the exception and not the rule.
And while adding a third variation of the fake DHO is probably overkill, the best he had (and he had a lot in the 10 or so games I watched) was against Walker Kessler’s Game Elite squad where the sell is so exaggerated that he runs the defenders right into each other while taking an easy stroll to the rim:
Alas, we’re talking about a maestro and focusing on just a portion of his oeuvre – the half court and just P&R and fake DHOs so far. These are bread and butter plays/moves that help to lay a pragmatic foundation on which Curbelo’s handle, passing, and processing can excel. As fun as they are, and seeing defenders bite his head fakes is pure entertainment, his improvisational game has touches of flair and proficiency that potentially open NBA avenues.
The sense of audacity and willingness to push passes through tight windows is part of the fun and his effectiveness. But for Curbelo, that audacity extends beyond the pass and into some wild, and occasionally suspect, realms of imagination. Here he is with the baby T-Mac off the glass:
It’s fun to ooh and ahh at these plays and while I have my doubts that he’ll try or be able to execute a pass to himself off the backboard in the Big10, the bulk of his highlights are functional plays executed with panache.
In the sample size that makes up this writing, Curbelo had an expectedly high usage rate and played primarily on-ball. In off-ball scenarios, he was quick to use the set of skills he uses to set up a dribble drive to set up backdoor cuts. Despite being a non-shooter, defenders across multiple leagues deny him the pass or overplay and Curbelo is adept at setting up defenders with hard moves towards the ball before a quick plant-and-burst for the backdoor. As much as the primary action, be it backdoor cut, fake DHO or crossover, takes center stage, Curbelo excels as the setup and the sell.
If we stick in the half court, but shift focus to his shot and finishing, the otherwise radiant aura of his game loses some of the sparkle.
Maybe I made a mistake in looking backwards with Curbelo, but in my tape review, I went from his 2020 high school season where he was, far and away his best, to his 2019 Adidas league and then FIBA games. This does bode well in the sense that he showed significant improvement from summer 2019 through winter 2020. What stood out in the summer of 2019 that was, to memory and notes, was a real and genuine struggle to finish against size and length. This challenge happened most frequently in Adidas and I attributed it to a few key weaknesses:
- Lack of hangtime – Curbelo is average as a vertical athlete with his leaping most effective rebounding the ball. He has (had?) a tendency to leave his feet around the rim, run out of airspace and outlets and be forced to fling up a shot that would miss wildly or get blocked.
- Rare use of jump stops – getting downhill, Curbelo’s instinct is to attack off of one foot and leave the ground. While finding effectiveness with this approach, he was frequently off-balance or, as mentioned above, ran out of air.
- Judgment – I put judgment last, because as he progressed into the high school season, his judgment was much more reliable and consistent. Against Wasatch Academy in December, he struggled against their size and was somewhat in a funk, but it’s the only high school game I saw where I felt like he wasn’t himself.
Curbelo’s shot demands our attention as well and this attention, for me, boils down to a few sources: FIBA and Adidas stats, my own completely unofficial and occasional tracking, my notes, and conversations with other people who may have a better developed eye for this sort of thing.
Within these sources, there are three additional components I want partition: Touch, mechanics, jump shot.
In 60 games worth of stats I have on Curbelo across FIBA (22 games) and Adidas (38 games), Curbelo shot as follows:
It’s not exactly inspiring any Mark Price comparisons and it’s why you can say he reminds you of Steve Nash, but caveat the hell out of it.
The above generally lines up with what I’ve seen from Curbelo which included an unofficial 1-8 or 1-9 on jumpers against Compton where the only make was a head-on unintentional banker from just beyond the free throw line. And while I don’t go too deep tracking pull-ups versus catch-and-shoots, the bulk of Curbelo’s jumpers are pull-ups. The form and release are consistent: he plants hard with his left foot and the bulk of his elevation comes from that foot/leg while the right kicks out and he drifts (typically from left to right) with an ever-present slight recline so his shoulders are always behind his hips. If he’s dribbling forward and stepping into the shot, think pull-up-three-in-transition, the drift is reduced. The release, from my view, is consistent and serviceable. And yet, his jumper is nowhere near reliable through February of 2020. In the clip below, he’s totally in-rhythm, and while the characteristic movement (kicking out right foot, drifting, leaning back) is all there, the mechanics aren’t faulty. (Also, please note how he sets up the crossover with his head/eyes – sheesh):
I’m not sure I believe there’s a disconnect between Curbelo’s mechanics and his shooting percentages, but as friend-of-the-blog, Ross Homan discussed with me, given the non-dumpster-fire state of his mechanics, combined with his free-throw percentages (consistently high-70s to low-80s with volume), relatively low-volume threes attempted, and, finally, his touch, the shooting should be expected to come around. The touch is the key and particularly on the floaters. The floater, combined with touch off the glass, has been a consistent staple of his scoring attack across competitions and acts as an alternative to (currently) less-efficient attempts at the rim.
This portion will be much, much shorter than the previous section. All the smarts and processing power Curbelo applies to the offensive side of the floor exist on defense as well. He’s a cheater, an opportunist, a sneaker who’s better defending off-the-ball than on it. Through some likely combination of preparation and pattern recognition, Curbelo drifts and rotates to general areas one or two passes away. By positioning himself towards the potential pass and interception, his closeout time is reduced and by anticipating where the pass will go, he’s often more ready for the ball than the opponent for whom it’s intended. And while not being a quick twitch athlete, he’s remarkably quick in his reactions and closing on passing lanes.
The same stalking mentality applies to dig downs on opposition bigs. He uses the element of surprise to feint-feint-dig-strip from angles that the big can’t see a la MJ’s immortal strip of the Mailman from the blindside in 1998.
Depending how you feel about lumping in rebounding as a defensive skill, I’m somewhat indifferent to. For his size and stature, Curbelo is a plus-rebounder. His hyper-awareness and focus allows him to have a nose for the ball and he’s fearless in its pursuit, never shying away from contact and showing strong hands on 50/50 contested boards. Despite not presenting as a leaper in rim attacks, off two feet for rebounds, he shows more functional lift.
A couple years ago when I started writing about high school players, one of the first I wrote about was an incoming freshman named Andrew Nembhard who I referred to as a “savant,” which is the same term I’ve applied to Curbelo which makes me think that it’s time to invest in new ideas and a new vocabulary. Self-critiques aside, Nembhard and Curbelo are dissimilar as players, but I’m drawn to them for the same reasons: beyond-their-years feel for the game of basketball expressed through the pass – basketball’s single greatest action. And I don’t denote it as such because there’s some relationship to selflessness and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the western world, but because the best passes, through slivers of space and mazes of giant limbs, are fucking dope and poetic like Walt Whitman’s best poetry and not his shitty racist ideas. Conveniently, both players are also possessed of inconsistent jumpers which lumps them into an odd family of non-shooting floor generals that includes Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and my favorite, Omar Cook, among countless others. At similar stages, based on my unreliable recall, Curbelo’s form is the best of this collection of point guards.
About Nembhard, I wrote, “I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it.” And in hindsight, I think I had that backwards: He can pass his way into it, we know that, but through his beautiful basketball mind, can he think and process ways into the league?
The same questions come to the surface for Curbelo even if, in this moment of appreciation for the pure craft, imagining a singular destination (the NBA) in such absolute terms seems simple in the extreme, the question, in its simplicity, remains: Can Curbelo reach (and survive) the NBA? I know he can pass his way in, but can the same brain/mind/body being that titillates with eyebrow-raising passes and okie-doke fake DHOs affirmatively answer the looming question of his shot and solve the riddle of giant athletes who only go under screens and don’t bite on the fake DHOs because it was clearly called out in the scouting report? In time, it will all be revealed but the answer really doesn’t matter. Curbelo is and will remain a master of his craft, be it in the NBA, the G-League, Spain, Croatia, Crete, Germany, or Puerto Rico.
Addendum of sorts:
The University of Illinois presumably is set in its starting back court with senior Trent Frazier (started 76 of 95 games at Illinois) and pre-season All-American Ayo Dosunmu although Curbelo fits the traditional “point guard” job description better than the upperclassman, Frazier.
Dosunmu will spend extended time on-ball and initially projected as a point guard. Thinking and looking long-term, Dosunmu, who dipped his toe in the NBA draft this past extended off-season, can likely develop more playing off of Curbelo, but it remains to be seen if that’s in the best interest of team-success in this basketball year of 2020-21.
Illinois ranks 8th in the AP poll as of this pre-season writing. Covid disruptions not accounted for, they will play Duke and Baylor before the Big10 season.
April 14, 2020Posted by on
I wasn’t sure we’d get here and thought about throwing in the towel numerous times, but against better judgment, I’ve spewed out a few thousand more words on a particularly curious set of players and in the process realized that I’ve mis-ranked probably close to half of these players. I’ll let my mistakes sit plain in the light of day, free to be criticized, ridiculed, laughed at. Alas, even the Mona Lisa is falling apart ..
- Usman Garuba
- Deni Avdija
- Kira Lewis Jr.
- Aaron Nesmith
- Theo Maledon
- Grant Riller
- Jahmi’Us Ramsey
- Devon Dotson
- Precious Achiuwa
10. Kevin McCullar, Texas Tech, trending up, Tier4:
I saw McCullar for the first time in March and it wasn’t love at first sight or anything, but it was a pleasant surprise in the sense of discovery that accompanies something new and unexpected. I tuned in to watch Jahmi’Us Ramsey and walked away semi-smitten with the 19-year-old redshirt frosh, McCullar.
Listed at 6-foot-6, 195-pounds, McCullar appears a bit bigger and plays bigger. He’s flashed strength in contested rebounding situations and shown a range of defensive versatility; able to toggle between guards and forwards without giving away advantages. And where I saw evidence of Ramsey struggling to smoothly integrate into Texas Tech’s defensive scheme, McCullar seems like a natural, a fish in Chris Beard’s water if you will. He’s rarely out of position, is quick to help and switch, and some of that may be attributable to him being in Lubbock a year ago and having familiarity with the program.
Offensively, he’s purely a supporting player with little actual offensive responsibility and this presently suits him fine. While just a 28% shooter from three and 30% from the corners, his ability to stretch the floor isn’t as good as it needs to be for him to be an optimal supporting piece. Like other non-shooters, he finds ways to contribute without adding floor space. He’s comfortable roaming the baseline, often ignored because he’s not a threat from distance, and flashing into space. From there, he’s able to quickly diagnose the floor and attack the rim with quick load time and enough strength to finish through contact or dump off ahead of rotations.
He’s not flashy, but with a near-4% steal rate and 58 TS, he brings a lot to the table without taking much away.
11. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State, trending up, Tier4:
My primary in-depth experience with Flynn was a shoddy 6-20 shooting night where he forced up one contested pull-up jumper after the next, hitting just one of his first 10 attempts, but of course that performance was highly irregular and untimely for Flynn and SDSU.
His Synergy profile is excellent with a nearly synchronistic relationship between effectiveness and frequency – IE; he was relatively most effective (96th percentile) as a P&R ball handler and 40% of his possessions came there.
Even in his struggles as a shooter against Utah State, his precision as a P&R maestro was evident. His timing was exquisite: in the clip below, he takes an extra dribble which creates the desired time and space to complete the pass. He shows a plus-vision and awareness in both P&R and open play situations.
And despite a poor shooting effort, Flynn was able to create good looks and spacing. He has a small but strong build accompanied by a tight handle, and good power that allows for balance and body control. He has touch in the paint as seen on a 68% shooting at the rim, but I worry a bit about his ability to finish over size and length in the NBA.
Flynn is a good guard I need to spend more time with. I slot him behind Grant Riller and Devon Dotson, but don’t believe there’s a massive gap between these three players. A person could place them in any order of three and easily make a rational case to defend their ordering.
12. Matthew Strazel, ASVEL, trending up, N/A:
Strazel is just 17 with an August birthday and isn’t draft eligible for a couple years yet, but he already has 16 high-level Euroleague games to his credit. I tuned in for his club’s match against Euro powerhouse, Real Madrid and if we’re being honest, I should have Strazel as an incomplete, but I enjoyed the feisty guard enough to share some thoughts.
As mentioned in my Theo Maledon write-up, he looks like the younger French cousin of Tyus and Tre Jones with a similar skin tone, torso-to-leg ratio, and over-exuberant on-ball defense. In a chicken/egg scenario, I’m uncertain if Strazel has always played an aggressive, reaching defense or if he’s a product of ASVEL’s Nolan Richardson-styled pressing. The source partially matters, but against Madrid’s Facundo Campazzo, he was an unrelenting pest, applying pressure to the older guard for 85 feet of court without any letup. The result was a persistent foul trouble on unnecessary reaches, but with good footwork, strength, and lateral movement, it’s easy to see an effective defender in Strazel as he fights through screens, exhibits consistent effort, and is able to cover ground laterally while continuing to apply pressure.
When able to dictate the game with the ball in his hands, Strazel’s speed and quickness are most evident and his greatest strength. For some younger guards, this is easier to see in transition when they can build up speed, but Strazel’s able to exhibit quickness and burst off a standstill and repeatedly beat Madrid’s seasoned defenders off the bounce and with direction changes; the 29-year-old Campazzo looked like he was standing in mud trying to keep up with the younger Frenchman. He showed touch around the rim (clip below) and competence running pick-and-pops (they didn’t run much P&R with Strazel at point). There was a lack of improvisational creation which isn’t to say it’s not there, but it wasn’t emphasized. Over 47 games in multiple leagues, he’s averaging around three assists to every 1.5 turnovers.
I’m intrigued to watch his development, but I do hold the small stature (6-0, 178-pounds) against his longer-term prospects. Even two inches taller would go a long way given his quickness and touch.
13. Saben Lee, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier4:
I first saw Lee in November of 2018 and was immediately captivated by his speed and pop. Finding out his dad is former NFL running back, Amp Lee, only ratcheted up the intrigue. Lee the younger is 6-2, 183-pounds of lean muscle who could be better-designed for football than basketball.
And yet, he plays somewhat like a football player, almost with a Dwyane Wade-ish carelessness for his body which careens around the court from one end to the next, faster than everyone save Kira Lewis Jr. and impressively strong given his lean build.
In 96 career games, he’s produced a FTr of 55% and was one of just three players 6-2 or shorter this season to attempt at least 29 dunks, per barttorvik.
I think, in part at least, I’ve been blinded by the electric athleticism and the thumper-like ethos with which he attacks the game, but basketball life is more than violent dunks.
Lee’s shown an ability to create for others and led Vanderbilt with a career-best 32% assist rate against a career-low 16% turnover rate. His judgment and decision making improved over his three seasons at Vandy, as did his shooting which peaked this past year with a 58 TS. His offensive skill developed in tandem with the improved stats. He’s shown good vision in the half court and is able to find the open man on drive-and-kicks, which is frequently an option given his speed and ability to get past the first defender. Passes zip off his fingers and are typically on-target, but he still has a propensity to get out of control on drives and/or strap on blinders for the basket. With the speed and quickness, he mixes in hesitations that are somewhat unguardable given the acceleration off the pause. He’s also shown an ability this season to link together more than one move at time – crossover into up-and-under with a head fake and necessary footwork.
His shooting (33% on 265 college threes) leaves something to be desired, but if he can continue to develop his ability to run the pick-and-roll and potentially use his strength/athleticism to defend both guard spots (will be a stretch against bigger twos), he’s athletic enough with just enough skill to carve out a spot in the league. Key for him, like a lot of college guys, will be figuring out how to remain effective with fewer opportunities.
14. John Petty, Alabama, no change, Tier4: no updates from 2/28 post
15. Jared Butler, Baylor, no change, Tier4: no updates from 2/28 post
16. DJ Jeffries, Memphis, no change, Tier4:
Obviously he didn’t appear in the Memphis/Houston game on March 8th, but I wanted to note my fondness all the same and if we’re being honest, this is probably a bit of an over-reach for Jeffries, but as we say, the heart wants what the heart wants … even if the mind knows better. Jeffries turned 20 in December which, among 158 freshman birthdays I have in my “database,” ranks as the 15th oldest. I don’t believe age alone can or should deep six a prospect’s status, but if he was 19 in December, I’d be even more confident in his development.
Jeffries is a big 6-7, nearly 230 pounds and had his freshman season limited to 19 games due to a partially torn PCL. In that time, he showed effectiveness as a rim protector (4.2% blocks) and shooter (39% on 41 threes). He finished well around the rim (72%) and was sound (74%) from the line at an anemic 22% FTr.
Stats and rates aside, Jeffries compliments his size with a good motor. He goes hard on both ends and is able to anticipate particularly well defensively. At times that same energy works against him as it feels like the game can get going too fast. This was less evident as the season went on, but it still cropped up with the occasional forced play, pushing the ball against a disadvantage, or firing up an air ball in transition.
As I look back over my notes from EYBL, I see the same propensity to rush the jumper or force plays on offense. He had more playmaking opportunities with his Bluff City Legends team, but showed passing vision and improvisational ability passing off the live dribble.
He kind of reminds me of a harder-playing, smaller version of Naz Reid with more defensive ability and commitment, but like Reid, an offense that needs to mature before he can reach his potential.
17. Nate Hinton, Houston, trending up, Tier4:
Like Strazel, Hinton, a 6-5, 210-pound sophomore should probably be an incomplete, but damn it, we must, at times, rush to judgment, however rash it may be.
Hinton’s a bit tricky in that he played big on a small Houston team and had the mentality and physicality to pull it off. As a 6-5 forward, he led Houston in rebounding and snagged nearly 16% of all available rebounds. With strong hands, active ball pursuit, and a willingness to mix it up for contested rebounds, he can out-rebound his size and position. These same traits are prevalent in his defensive makeup. Hinton can guard against a range of perimeter players and is able to get low into a defensive crouch and harass with active hands without committing fouls. In my limited viewing, he didn’t spend time defending Memphis bigs, nor does he project as a rim protector with just eight blocks in 68 career games at Houston.
On the attack side, Hinton’s profile inspires a bit of meh. He’s a shooter, but not a knockdown kind of guy: 39% on 119 threes this season and 44% on corner threes. In the game I watched, he made six shots and five were off-the-dribble pull-ups; primarily long twos. This was an aberration from his season where the bulk of his spot up possessions (61.3%) become no dribble jumpers, per Synergy, and this is what he’s good at with 1.16 points/possession against .79 ppp on pull-ups. I didn’t witness him attacking the rim much, but he’s just average there hitting 55% of his shots at the rim per barttorvik.
Hinton is a good intangibles player with ability as a spot up shooter and above average effectiveness as an on-ball and team defender. If he can hit the three at a similar rate in the NBA and defend well against much better players, he can stick in the league, but the lack of finishing and the jump in competition level give me pause. If I re-ranked these players, he’d likely drop a tier, but not a ton of spots.
Tier 5: more ranking, less writing (not sure if my audience is saying this or if I’m saying it to myself)
18. Lester Quinones, Memphis, no change, Tier5:
I wrote the below about Quinones back in November and while I still subscribe to those comments, I want to add that he’s a super smart player, is able to direct teammates into position on both sides of the ball and carries himself as a leader. There’s a lot of polish needed though and I’m not convinced Memphis is the place for that.
6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes.
19. Scotty Pippen Jr. Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier5:
I saw Pippen Jr a few times with Sierra Canyon and always thought he could play as he has good feel, high BBIQ, and plays at a controlled pace, but suspected his slight frame would hold him back and in some cases (defensively, particularly against quick guards and finishing at the rim – just 51% per barttorvik) it has, but Pippen was extremely effective as a freshman with a beastly 68.7% FTr. He was one of four players in the country and the only from a P5 conference with an FTr above 65% and assist rate over 25%. Once he gets his dad’s growth spurt, it’s on. In hindsight, I’d likely bump him up two to three spots.
20. Terrence Shannon Jr. Texas Tech, no change, Tier5:
6-7 lefty forward, plus athlete (see clips), probably thinks too much at this point, and even when effective (see clips), it’s sometimes in spite of questionable choices. Needs to develop better instincts and applicable fundamentals, improve decisiveness and focus. Good shooter from the line with a 52.5% FTr who has NBA potential.
21. Kai Jones, Texas, trending up, Tier5:
Consensus top-50 recruit at 6-11, 212-pounds. Skinny kid spends lot of time on perimeter for Texas and has a decent looking jumper despite poor percentages (7-24 on threes, 3-15 on non-rim twos). Flashes of creation off dribble (see clip) so there’s some potential attacking closeouts. Has some perimeter defensive mobility and was deployed at times as the tip of the spear on Texas’s press. Nearly 7% block rate.
22. Jaden Shackelford, Alabama, no change, Tier5:
Something to be said for guys who can miss five in a row and chuck without pause on the sixth. That’s Shackelford and Alabama with Nate Oats as coach is the perfect spot for him. Surprised he had a 31% FTr; one of four players in country (Markus Howard and Anthony Edwards included) to attempt over 230 (235) threes with FTr that high, per barttorvik. And, to his credit (I think?) did it with a 21% usage rate compared to the 29% and higher from the other qualifiers.
23. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas, trending up, Tier5:
Huge (7-0 with 7-7 wingspan, listed at 270-pounds) with improving mobility and doesn’t turn 21 until September. Shot 41.6% on 315 free throws in four seasons, shoots no jumpers. Can he purely be a roll man and rim protector? Age is in his favor and he’s shown a lot of development since arriving at Kansas, but anything more than a rotation big-to-spot starter seems like a reach. Probably deserves to be higher, but in this same tier.
24. Sam Merrill, Utah State, trending up, Tier5:
6-5ish with a solid build and 47-42-89 shooting splits for his Utah State career (759 threes and 503 FTs), finished career with 62 TS in 132 games. Turns 24 in mid-May, has lightning quick release and range, can make basic reads. Lacking in burst both vertically and laterally. Missed his only dunk attempt in college career. Seems like a stretch to stick in the NBA, but between shot, quick release, and size, it’s possible.
25. Marcus Garrett, Kansas, trending up, Tier5:
Kansas’s best initiator and best defender; a 6-5 near-200-pound combo guard. Struggles shooting (33% on 52 attempts this year, 61% on 92 FTs), but has made strides since freshman year (27% on threes, 49% on FTs). Lot of craft with the ball that I fear will be underutilized until he can shoot at a better clip. Is he good enough as an initiator and defender to sacrifice spacing in a second unit? It’s doubtful, but can he be a fifth man as a secondary initiator with a shooting unit? Perhaps.
TIERS 6 & 7: 20-man lightning round
26. Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending down, Tier6:
Smallish (6-3, 175-pounds) combo guard who gets after it defensively and shoots a pretty shot, but can’t make shots (33-32-68).
27. Ochai Agbaji, Kansas, no change, Tier6:
6-5 wing with 6-8 wingspan, has bit of handle/wiggle, but always fades to background with this Kansas group. Nothing bad, but nothing stands out either.
28. Christian Braun, Kansas, trending up, Tier6:
Solid build/shoulders as 6-5, 205-pound frosh who turns 19 in mid-April. Deliberate with exaggerated and effective ball fakes; can shoot it off catch (44% on 72 3pas) or attack off dribble and get to rim or make pass. Per Synergy, 94th percentile on spot up possessions (71 total possessions) and 99th percentile as P&R ball handler (18 total possessions). If I re-ranked, I’d likely slot him between Pippen Jr and Shannon Jr. I like Mr. Braun.
29. Camren Wynter, Drexel, trending up, Tier6:
Saw him by chance while watching Grant Riller. Decent size as a point guard (6-2, 175), but he plays both on and off-ball and shows good instincts in both positions. Lot of cuts and setups for cuts – fake towards ball and when defender momentum shifts with him, bursting the opposite direction. Probably not good enough shooter (35% on 190 career threes, 72% on 190 FTAs) to get by with average size and athleticism. Probably closer to the 36-37 group in this set.
30. Andrew Jones, Texas, trending up, Tier6:
Blown away by how good he looks as a 22-year-old sophomore who battled leukemia over the past two years. Former top-25 RSCI, got better as season went on including three-game stretch averaging 18p/game while making 11-19 threes. Showed lot of craft attacking off the bounce, able to get his own shot or drive-and-kick/dump. Partial to seeking out his own shot at this point.
31. Donovan Williams, Texas, no change, Tier6:
Gangly freshman wing averaged three points/game on 37-24-70 shooting. Wears knee-high socks that make him look even skinnier like Elliot Perry used to do. Potential to be blown away by strong wind although listed at 180-pounds with a 6-6 frame, excellent as a leaper, but struggles with strength and contested rebounds/loose balls. Can make basic reads and the shot isn’t broken. Ultimately needs to develop core strength and is over-ranked here.
32. Dylan Disu, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier6:
6-9 freshman shooter/floor spacer, shot 29% on 173 threes in 32 games (over five 3pas/gm); 75% 3PAr. Two stocks/game with 2.2% steal rate and 3.7% block rate. Appears to have good length and standing reach, shows ability to anticipate on defensive side. Uncertain about athleticism, but needs to develop offensively or at least get better shooting it.
33. Quentin Grimes, Houston, no change, Tier6:
True sophomore doesn’t turn 20 until May; has good size at 6-5, 210-pounds with square shoulders. Had shown ability as a playmaker/passer in high school, able to see and think the game, but something or other happened in Lawrence and his confidence appeared to fracture. Form on jumper is still clean, but release looks a little awkward at times, like his wrist whips out to the side. Looks the part with the frame, shot, and clean handle, but there’s an edge that’s missing or was lost along the way.
34. Tyson Etienne, Wichita State, trending down, Tier6:
No clue what went wrong for the Shockers this year, but they’ve had something akin to a mass exodus and as of this writing, Etienne is still there. Is cousin of DeAndre Jordan and nephew of Marcus Camby. Good shooter from distance (39% on 160 tries), but struggled mightily from two (35%) and at the rim (46%). More of an off-ball player, but at 6-1, despite a muscular upper body, it’s hard to see his game translating at NBA levels unless he can finish better. Has some burst and makes basic pass reads, but shooting is his calling card.
35. Neemias Queta, Utah State, trending down, Tier6:
The only Portuguese prospect on this list, Queta is 7-feet-tall with a 7-4 wingspan, inconsistent footwork, a lack of mobility and flexibility, but surprisingly impressive passing ability including some watered down Wilt Chamberlain-esque passing to cutters out of the post. Not all 7-footers are adept as rim protectors, but in the Mountain West, Queta is effective both blocking shots and generally protecting the goal/acting as a deterrent (9.4% block rate over 57 career games). He’s not the quickest or most agile and against SDSU, struggled to contain 6-11 Yanni Wetzel. He’s probably better than he was as a freshman, but improvements around the margins (passing, reading the floor, free throw shooting) while he continues to lumber and be a slow load big aren’t enough to enhance his pro prospects.
36. Dexter Dennis, Wichita State, trending up, Tier6:
Good NBA body at 6-5, 207 with definition and some bulk; utilizes effective footwork with pivots and patience to find openings on offensive end. Capable attacking off bounce and enough strength/body control with touch to finish over size/length. Inconsistent to poor finding bodies to box out on the defensive glass. Was 37% on twos and 45% at the rim (per barttorvik) this past season. That’s not good.
37. Davide Moretti, Texas Tech, trending up, Tier6:
22-year-old 6-3 junior shooter probably destined to excel in Europe (he’s Italian and has played in FIBA events since 2013) unless he gets an unlikely growth spurt. Career shooting splits: 49% (twos), 40% (threes – 416 3pas), 90% (FTs – 235 FTAs), and 62 TS. Scraps and doesn’t shy away from contact, but size and athleticism will be massive hurdles to overcome at NBA level.
38. Chris Clarke, Texas Tech, no change, Tier7:
Odd player, kind of hunched over, plays low to the ground at 6-5, 215. Above average passer and rebounder; has plus-strength, hands, and strong base which he utilizes defensively. Likes to use off arm while dribbling almost like a stiff-arm to hold defenders at bay. Reads and anticipates game well on both sides of ball. Dennis Rodman-like aversion to shooting (seven FGAs/40min) and not particularly good at it (2-12 from three, 48% on twos, 56% at the rim, no dunks). Made 14 of 33 threes (42%) as a junior at Virginia Tech, but was 4-21 (19%) in previous two seasons.
39. Marcus Sasser, Houston, no change, Tier7:
Strong-built combo guard at 6-1, 200 is nephew of SMU’s Jeryl Sasser and Texas Tech’s Jason Sasser. Those Sassers combined for over four-thousand career NCAA points. Sasser the younger doesn’t project to be that type of scorer (eight points/game on 36-35-76 as a freshman), but I like the physical frame combined with competitive, rugged defense and a decent shot from three (73% 3PAr). If I re-ranked, he’d be closer to #50 with Will Baker and Clarence Nadolny.
40. Caleb Mills, Houston, trending down, Tier7:
Leading scorer for a 23-win Houston team, Mills, like Sasser, is a smallish (6-3, 165) combo guard. Unlike Sasser, he’s of slight build and erratic shot selection. He’s a gunner whose go-to shot/move is a one-legged fade/drifting jumper. Despite a smaller frame, he’s strong enough to absorb contact (61% at the rim) and carry a 29% usage rate. Shows some ability in the drive-and-kick game, but is extremely partial to getting his own shots even though he’s only 33% on non-rim twos (on 180 attempts). Would bump up to #34 in a re-rank.
41. Courtney Ramey, Texas, no change, Tier7:
Not really sure how I feel about Ramey. As a freshman, I thought he looked smaller than his listed 6-3, but as a soph, I noted he looked taller. Players grow, but like the Geto Boys, I feel like my mind’s playing tricks on me. Paranoid confusion aside, I liked Ramey more as a freshman when he appeared to play a greater role as an initiator and shot the three better (38% against 31%). He can still create his own looks and has decent form on his pull-up, but the BBIQ I saw frequently as a freshman just wasn’t there with regularity. Some of that could be adjusting to the switch from Kerwin Roach to Jones or just non-linear development. After all, his free throws and non-rim twos improved significantly.
42. Yanni Wetzell, San Diego State, trending up, Tier7:
Fun New Zealander at 6-10, 240, but all out of eligibility after this season. Was more than able to hold his own both laterally and vertically against the higher-ranked Queta; able to beat him on contested boards and beat him with quickness/decisiveness out of the post. Plus effort and IQ, but not great length (from my eyeball). Needs to shoot it better than the 28% on 56 career threes in order to go from G-League prospect to NBA cup of coffee.
43. Herb Jones, Alabama, trending down, Tier7:
Weird to think this is a guy who I first saw making life difficult for Trae Young back in early 2018, but here we are and while Young’s star as ascended, Jones’s flattened out to the point that he’s probably underrated/underappreciated. He has size (6-7, 206) and length to hover around two stocks/game for his nearly-100 games at Alabama, but an inability to improve as a shooter was compounded by a wrist injury (and a shoulder as well, I believe) to completely kill off any shooting progress in his junior season (1-14 from three). He can pass and make semi-advanced reads, but despite a 59% clip at the rim, he doesn’t exhibit good touch there. With his size, decent athleticism, and ability to impact a wide range of scenarios on the defensive side, he should be better than he is. And if I’m being honest, even though his junior season was frustrating, his probability of getting to the pros isn’t any worse than Camren Wynter, Andrew Jones, or Donovan Williams.
44. Freddie Gillespie, Baylor, no change, Tier7:
Thick but undersized as a center (6-9, 245), Gillespie has a little jumper outside the paint and while he plays his ass off, he doesn’t consistently move well enough laterally to guard in space or have the strength to bang with big true fives. He’s kind of a poor man’s Xavier Tillman.
45. Dejon Jarreau, Houston, trending down, Tier7:
Jarreau has positional size to play as a lead guard at 6-5, but beyond the size and ability to make basic reads, he’s unreliable as a shooter with somewhat pedestrian athleticism. He can get to the line (~50% FTr over 91 career games), but made just 7 of 40 threes this past season.
TIER 8: Still awake?
46. Mark Vital, Baylor, no change, Tier8: no change from 2/28 post
47. Matthew Mayer, Baylor, trending down, Tier8: no change from 2/28 post
48. Tristan Enaruna, Kansas, trending down, Tier8: has size and length, doesn’t turn 19 until June, I get the potential, but at some point I need to see flashes of it and I haven’t.
49. Matt Mitchell, San Diego State, trending up, Tier8: beefy with a good jumper, likes to dribble.
50. Will Baker, Texas, trending up, Tier8: skilled big, can shoot, pass, and handle it a bit, but took a while to settle into frosh season. In perfect world, he probably would’ve redshirted this past year.
51. Clarence Nadolny, Texas Tech, trending down, Tier9: Looked better against Mega Bemax back in August 2019 than he did in Big12. Potential for mini-leap in sophomore season.
52. Erik Stevenson, Washington: transferring to University of Washington, part of chaos at Wichita State, good athlete who goes balls to the wall, has sound BBIQ, spent lot of time as a soph playing completely out of control.
53. Grant Sherfield, Nevada: transferring to University of Nevada
54. MaCio Teague, Baylor, trending down, Tier9
55. Mate Okros, Drexel, no change, Tier9: British/Hungarian kid; shot it well as a freshman (44-41-79), started all 33 games, low-impact (less than .5 stocks/game), but competent team defender.
56. Alex Lomax, Memphis, no change, Tier9: smart college PG and much-needed stabilizer on young Memphis team, but frequently cooked by bigger players at NCAA level.
57. Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change, Tier9: Smart and versatile, but refuses to shoot and when he does shoot, misses a lot: 44-29-56.
58. Jaime Echenique, Wichita State, trending up, Tier9
59. Russel Tchewa, Texas Tech, no change, Tier10: large, 20-year-old freshman from Cameroon, plays hard, sets a good and effective screen, currently has poor hands and should not dribble the ball.
60. David McCormack, Kansas, trending down, Tier10: stubborn sophomore big and former McDonald’s All-American, has legit size and some touch, but just insists on shooting and dribbling regardless of dis/advantage.
61. Matt Coleman, Texas, no change, Tier10
62. Isaiah Moss, Kansas, no change, Tier10: 23-year-old grad transfer for Kansas, game looks better than he produces.
63. Oton Jankovic, Vanderbilt, no change, Tier10
64. Malcolm Dandridge, Memphis, trending down, Tier10: Memphis had wanted to RS him, but with Wiseman gone, he played and wasn’t ready. Team-worst 38% turnover rate, but 64% FTr, 64 TS, and 76% at the rim. He can do some things, but like lot of Memphis players, has to polish, develop, and fine tune. Absent a dedicated film study, covid-19 is going to make development for these players harder than it would be in normal circumstances.
65. Justin Bean, Utah State, no change, Tier10: smart and savvy passer, somewhat of a rebounding savant who seems like he could’ve played in the 60s. Numbers exceed eye test.
66. Kyler Edwards, Texas Tech, trending down, Tier10: 40% from field, 32% from three, but those numbers drop down to the 20s when I watch.
Incompletes for DNPs: Gerald Lidell, Jericho Sims, Tyreek Smith
Part 2 of a Multi-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: LaMelo Ball: Between Lazy and Opportunistic
December 30, 2019Posted by on
NOTE: This piece was originally written as being inclusive of both LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton and the opening couple paragraphs read with that intention in place. However, after slipping into the writing process and realizing I had a lot to say about Ball’s passing, shooting, and defense, I opted to keep the focus of this piece on LaMelo and change what was supposed to be a 3 or 4-part series into an open-ended “multi-part” series. Thank you for your patience as my attempts at planning and self-restraint are clearly lacking.
Beyond the novelty of two American-born basketball playing teenagers venturing thousands of miles away from home to prepare for certain induction into the NBA, exist two young men who are ascending as pro prospects, positionally ranked side-by-side, yet performing and projecting as polar opposites: LaMelo Ball, a being who sits at the center of his world, on and off the court, with teammates and cameras and narratives orbiting around him. The other, RJ Hampton, comparatively anonymous, but apparently utilitarian as a basketball player, a peacock of sorts comfortably clothed in muted grays, whites, and blacks.
For context, I have already written about Cole Anthony and still have Nico Mannion, Tyrese Haliburton, and Kira Lewis Jr.to cover in part three (and likely Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, and Killian Hayes in a yet-to-be-considered part four). As tiers are a core theme of classification in the draft Twitter realms, I’d probably bucket Cole and LaMelo together and then Hampton, Mannion, and Haliburton in a second tier with Lewis Jr at the back. Hayes, Maledon and Maxey would be dispersed between tiers two and three. I mention this because the separation between these point guard prospects is tenuous at best. Specifically tenuous in the sense that I’m plagued by deep self-doubt about under-ranking the Tyreses (Haliburton and Maxey) who are barging their way up up up my list with consistency of output and effort.
Overall context aside, let’s hop in with two feet, two hands and any other appendages you want to bring along (yours or someone else’s – with consent) and differentiate our American-gone-Australia/New Zealand teenage point guards.
Ball is fascinating as a prospect. His game and ability are most similar to Mannion’s in that they each have a deep feel for the game that reveals itself primarily in their passing and vision, but also crops up in opportunistic defensive situations. What’s ironic about Ball’s feel coming through on the defensive end is that his lack-of-consistent defensive effort rivals that of MVP-year Russell Westbrook or peak-YouTube James Harden and once seen becomes near impossible to unsee. This dichotomy isn’t new for an NBA player, but in a prospect who presents as Picasso on one end (passing, creation) and a muppet baby on the other (defense), before even arriving in the NBA, it’s kind of disconcerting.
Let’s start with Melo’s offensive gifts. I think, with the right kind of eyes, you can see rainbows and starbursts shooting from his fingers on certain passes. There’s an audacity to high level passing, a feeling, a self-confidence, a willingness to risk it all (or maybe just risk one single, itsy bitsy turnover) in exchange something like selfishly orchestrated cooperation. These are the attributes of Melo and they exist in a lanky, 6-foot-5 frame with loose Jamal Crawford limbs that lack the elder Crawford’s control, yet still obey Melo’s wishes on demand.
He’s long and a legitimate point guard. While lacking plus-speed or quickness, he has surprisingly good acceleration, particularly off the defensive glass where his long strides and ball control allow him to get out and take advantage of scrambling defenses. But Melo doesn’t need the advantage of a break away to push the defense on its heels. His basketball IQ is expressed through a bottomless feel, hyper awareness (not just of teammates and defenders, but seemingly of teammate strength and preference), and improvisation that translate just as well to the half-court. Being tall and imbued of passing genes and vision makes life easier and despite having just turned 18 in August and still physically maturing, Ball is at home in his body, able to take full advantage of his size.
His size and vision/feel combination make his passing the strongest skill of any player I have in the lottery. It’s a talent that exceeds Anthony Edwards’ athleticism and pull up game, is better than Cole Anthony’s tight burst and shooting, exceeds Mannion’s passing, goes beyond James Wiseman’s rim protecting potential and Onyeka Okongwu’s skillful bullying. In an NBA that’s evolved into a chess match of floor spacing and geometry, a passer with Ball’s panoptic ability and size can bend the game in ways that he may not have been able to in the past.
Passing is the primary, the raison d’etre, but it doesn’t exist alone. We desire that the offensive skills should work in concert with one another and in Melo, this is partially the case and where we will segue from strengths into weaknesses and opportunities. For his passing to be fully weaponized, his shot and handle require fine tuning and efficiency. The handle is there already with those floppy arms and dexterous hands, the ball is an extension of the hand which is under control of the mind. In LaMelo, it works together in a simultaneously choreographed and improvised ballet: the moves, from the head and eyes to the arms and hands, to the hips and feet executing in sequences born in Chino Hills, fine tuned in Lithuania and Ohio, and finally being upgraded in Australia at the youthful age of 18. Because the handle is so strong, Ball can beat stronger defenders and force help and this ultimately creates the same type of advantage of a fast break: defense scrambling, teammates cutting and spotting up, and Melo orchestrating.
If the handle and passing are two pieces of the puzzle, the third is the shooting – inside and out, off the catch and off the move. It’s not good. In his 12 games with Illawarra, he’s shooting 37.5% from the field while hitting 25% on 80 three-point attempts and 46% on twos. For context, there are just two NBA players (Jordan Poole [24%] and Russell Westbrook [24%]) shooting this poorly with similar or greater volume and no college players. The inefficiency from deep doesn’t stop Melo from chucking as he’s attempting nearly seven threes/game. It’s too early to abandon all hope though as Melo’s shown in-season improvement from deep. He started the season 3-26 (11.5%) from deep and over his last 54 attempts, is shooting 31.4%. It’s still well-below where you’d like him to be but it shows development and adaptation. It could also show streakiness.
I don’t have any advanced shooting stats on Melo, but in viewing his NBL games, there’s a strong preference for shooting threes off the dribble with traces of the bad habits of pulling from Steph Curry range that simultaneously made him a household name and make one question that otherwise radiant basketball IQ. His shot selection is poor and self-indulgent. It’s possible he’s using the NBL as a laboratory of sorts and exploring what he is and isn’t capable of in game-speed situations, but that’s really the only explanation for some of the ill-advised deep threes he shoots and far-fetched at that. That he occasionally hits one doesn’t validate the shot. Sticking with the decision making, if he hits one shot, there’s a good chance he’s pulling up off the dribble on the next attempt. Existing in a state of heat check when you’re a 25% three-point shooter is hopefully just a sign of immaturity rather than deeply ingrained habit, but again, it calls into question his ability to combat his own on-court impulses and somewhat reduces his otherwise galvanizing playmaking.
While he’s partial towards the pull-up three, his catch-and-shoot threes tend to look quite a bit better with greater symmetry and balance, but still that funky release. This isn’t a surprise, but there are pros and cons to it: On the pro side, it shows that his mechanics aren’t broken. He has touch that translates on rim drives, the free throw line (72% in NBL), and C&S threes. The con is that he rarely gets C&S opportunities as he’s rightly a primary ball-handler. I’ll turn to friend-of-the-blog, Cameron Purn for a deeper description of his shot mechanics and some of the problems that stem from it:
Both of LaMelo’s elbows flare out wide, and his release point can sit as low his nose. His right hand sits on the side of the ball as opposed to the bottom; his left thumb is involved in the shot motion to counteract the spin from the right. His base sees variance from time to time with the right leg periodically sticking out to begin the motion; can land with both feet facing perpendicular to the rim. Amount of knee bend and lower body involvement has been inconsistent. Sometimes inserts a backwards lean involving a kick-out, which offsets his balance. Follow-through has been inconsistent. Outside shot is technically a set shot; doesn’t generate much lift
From my own viewing, the inconsistency Cameron references in Ball’s knee bend and lower body are a key source of his inefficiencies. His misses often are not close misses, but airballs and bricks that are a byproduct of his frequent imbalances and high-degree-of-difficulty shots.
But where his deep ball is an inconsistent shitshow of outcomes, he exhibits remarkable touch on his floater and finishing around the basket. The handle and threat of the pass, often set up by head and eye fakes, is such that he can frequently break down defenders and get into the paint. He’s somewhat deceptive in terms of athleticism. During the warmups of one game, he was attempting the off-the-bounce, ball-through-the-legs dunk with relative ease. This doesn’t imply functional athleticism, but in Ball’s case, he gets up quickly, if not terribly high. Combined with his in-air ball control, he’s shown ability to finish. His strength still acts as an impediment though as against NBL defenders, he can be swallowed and have his shot smothered. The inability to do small things like create space by bumping a defender off balance with a shoulder limits his overall attack.
I’m not convinced the off-the-bounce three-ball comes around and if it doesn’t, it somewhat calls to mind the treatment given to a young, three-point-averse Rajon Rondo. To be clear, Melo’s a better shooter as an 18-year-old than Rondo was even in his late 20s and so getting a Ben Simmons-type treatment isn’t going to happen. That said, there’s an efficiency low point where defenses start playing off him, daring him to take the shot and living with his infrequent makes. Is it 30% on seven attempts? 25% on five attempts? I’m not sure, but him reaching average off-the-dribble levels of three-point accuracy is far from a guarantee.
Before probing the festering sore of his defensive woes, it’s worth acknowledging that his preternatural feel for basketball reveals itself on the defensive end and inspired the subtitle: “Between Lazy & Opportunistic.” In the NBL, he’s shown a strong grasp for team and help defense, a skill that seems propelled by an ability to anticipate and react. The problem with this ability is twofold: 1) it occurs infrequently so it’s not something his team can presently depend on. Maybe he’ll anticipate and react, or, more likely, he’ll be standing stiff-legged with his hands at his sides. 2) this anticipation is a form of opportunism and requires an awareness of where the ball is that often leads to Melo losing his man. This opportunism is embodied by the ball acting as a magnet of sorts. He can force turnovers through his anticipation and quick reactions and rebounds decently for his position due to his size and ball tracking.
So while his defense isn’t a complete wash, that he shows occasions of positive impact almost acts as a source of frustration at the rarity of occurrence. His defense is awful despite any positive impact. And it’s awful in multiple facets.
Probably the most glaring weak point of his defense is his uneven effort, particularly off the ball. More often than not, Ball can be found on the defensive end standing straight-legged with his arms at his sides, not necessarily resting or conserving energy, but just standing, usually watching the ball. This position of unprepared ball fascination makes him an easy target to be backdoored and cut on. And because he’s not in a ready position, even when he does have the “oh shit” realization that he’s lost his man, he’s neither quick enough or in a defensive stance that would allow him to quickly react. This statuesque ole bullshit reminds me of Roger Dorn in Major League, the aging third baseman who’s more concerned about taking a grounder off the face than he is about making the right play. Melo doesn’t seem to have the same concerns, but the outcome is the same.
On-the-ball, he’s an easy target for screeners as his lithe frame and lack of fight allow him to be taken completely out of plays. Throughout my notes, I reference him dying on screens. On occasion, he’s shown a willingness to lock in and get through the screen, but similar to his team defense, the effort and engagement are so inconsistent as to be unreliable. His physical limitations don’t stop on screens. Against other NBL guards, older and stronger in almost every case, he’s plowed through like inanimate traffic cones or Saints defenders circa 2011 trying to wrangle Marshawn Lynch. In football terms, he’s an arm tackler easily run through by opponents, his resistance nominal at best. Similarly, the lacking strength and effort make his boxouts, when they do occur, ineffective at best. While he can rebound well with good hands and nose for the ball, he completely detaches from his man when the shot goes up, and is prone to giving up offensive boards on errant misses.
It’s fair to acknowledge his age as the key factor in his strength and even his focus, but as is the case with Anthony Edwards and his shot selection, the questions come back to habits for LaMelo. Are these habits deep enough that he can’t unlearn them or are the occasions of execution and effort indicators of presence and potential? He’ll get stronger in his upper and lower body and I think there’s an element of oversaturation with Melo that makes us think he should be further along than he actually is because we’ve all been seeing him since he was a skinny kid shooting from half court three or four years ago.
Trying to figure how LaMelo transitions and translates to the NBA is an exercise with greater uncertainty than most for me. He’s third on my big board with probably the second highest upside (behind Edwards), but it feels more dependent on circumstance than other prospects. Within his realm of possible outcomes, I see the mediocre shooting and inconsistent defense of a late-20s Rondo. The elite passing and ineffective defense of Trae Young. It’s the presence of the attributes, not the players themselves where I see similarity. I project and assume LaMelo will gain strength and fill out as he ages. Now in his third season as a 22-year-old, his brother Lonzo Ball has begun to fill out physically, but he always had a sturdier frame and tighter core than his brother. Even if his defensive effort remains poor and inconsistent, being stronger at 6-5 will make him more difficult to run through. In terms of finishing, even slight strength gain and improved core and lower body strength would significantly improve what is already a diverse attack and allow for more efficient finishing and more fouls drawn.
The mental side of the game is harder to predict. Assuming Ball is coachable (I’ve never seen or read anything suggesting otherwise), then I’d like to imagine he can improve his shot selection or just reduce the amount of heat checking and deep threes. I don’t project him as ever having sustained above average three-point shooting because the mechanics, from top to bottom, are too inconsistent and too out-of-whack. That’s not to say he can’t evolve to respectability over time a la Jason Kidd or Rondo, but even these players never quite developed any reliable off-the-bounce three and had to settle for slower, catch-and-shoot options. Ball is a better overall scorer and shooter than those players were at a similar age and while that doesn’t guarantee he’ll shoot better over time, having at least the presence of a pull-up game increases his range of outcomes.
Sticking with the mental side and coachability, I mentioned above that he’s dependent on circumstance and what I mean by that is he needs the room to fail and grow (as all NBA teenagers do). His game is fraught with bad decisions, a likely by-product of his pre-NBL days of playing three-plus years in what essentially amounted to a circus-like all-star atmosphere designed to draw attention rather than develop as a basketball player. The muscle memory and need to put on a show is still there and it will drive some coaches or GMs crazy. But there’s a fine line between optimizing towards the strengths of a savant and asking Picasso to paint inside the numbers. With the bad habits he’s developed, the learning curve from flashy passer to contributor on a winning basketball team seems like it will be longer for Melo than others, but with a significant upside. In a perfect world, he lands somewhere like New Orleans, not just because his brother is there, but because with David Griffin at the helm, there’s a sobriety of expectation and understanding of development. The clock is ticking on the Pels, but it’s not a clock resting solely on LaMelo’s shoulders. Conversely, a destination like New York, with its top-down dysfunction, uneven player development, and NBA 2K-styled roster building feels like a place where bad habits can flourish and calcify.
Between New Orleans and New York are myriad outcomes that offer a million choose-your-own-adventure outcomes for Ball. While his passing and ability to make the game easier for teammates will, with extreme certainty, translate to the NBA, the remaining skills and abilities, from his cockeyed shot to his lazy defense, are wildcards in ways that exceed the question marks of his 2020 draft class compatriots. Were he even average in other areas of his game, he’d be my top-prospect overall, without peer. But he’s not and it’s unclear if he’s willing or able to become average. That I still keep him in my top-three and that ESPN has him number-one overall in their latest mock draft (to the Knicks of all places) is testament to creative genius, to positional size, to potential, possibility, and to the inspirational power of the imagination.
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: Half-cocked Ideas and Hairbrained Theories feat. Cole Anthony
December 23, 2019Posted by on
This post was supposed to be about players I reviewed back during Thanksgiving Feast Week or whatever the hell that cavalcade of games was marketed as. I scouted/watched 60-some-odd players that week and ranked 47, but the more I marinated and ruminated and procrastinated, the more it became clear that the bundle of point guards at the top, players not named Anthony Edwards, deserved their own inquisitions.
Six of my top nine from that week project as some form of NBA point guard and I presently have them ranked as such: (This list only includes players I watched that week so you won’t see Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, etc.)
But there’s something that feels oh-so-fragile to this exercise in subjectivity. We were recently alerted that Cole Anthony, son of Greg, would be out six-to-eight weeks for surgery on a meniscus injury. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton of the NBL are both in the midst of their own injury-related hiatuses. The opportunities for scouting these young men are growing less by the day and thus the opportunity for inaccurate assessment grows. I will be wrong. I will change my mind. I will doubt myself. I am human, born to make mistakes.
So why Cole at the top? I came into the season with Cole Anthony as my number-one overall prospect based on a powerful athleticism that none of the other point guards on this short list can compare with and that goes for Kira Lewis too. Anthony’s strength and elevation exceed that of his fellows. To top it off, in 21 games of the 2018 EYBL season, he shot 89% on 195 free throw attempts alongside 38% on 142 threes. When the best athlete is arguably the second-best shooter (Nico Mannion the best), is passable as a creator, an elite guard rebounder, and flashes defensive potential, it’s easy to get giddy, and overlook gut feelings that I’ll explore further below.
Too, every one of these players has warts. If a massive aspect of scouting is projecting how these players develop and what they become as pros, then deeply understanding their flaws and how deeply ingrained they are in relation to the strengths, which we so rightly celebrate, is a requirement of the exploration.
WARTS & STUFF
Cole: average-to-above average passer/creator, possibly lacking in feel, questionable defensive IQ, questionable finishing and release angles, old for class
LaMelo: defense defense defense inclusive of strength, focus, and effort. Shooting, shot release, core strength, lower body strength
RJ: shot and touch, uncertain if he’s a full-time point guard, ability to defend smaller/quicker guards, developing defensive awareness
Nico: average athlete, average length, can be stymied by team length, lacking vertical explosiveness, ability to generate good looks for himself
Tyrese: creation for others beyond pick-and-roll, attack instincts, shot mechanics, strength
Kira: passing instincts, point guard feel, strength (I’m fully aware that Kira is young for his class), defensive consistency
It was a combination of Anthony’s EYBL and Oak Hill tape, bolstered by the stats above, that drove him to the top of my list. But what’s happened in his month of competitive play at Chapel Hill that tilted the narrative and exposed some of those vulnerabilities?
Anthony shot out like a rocket in his debut against Notre Dame with 34-points on 65 true shooting and 11 rebounds. For all its small sample size, it appeared his strengths would translate seamlessly. But if Anthony chooses to shut it down following his knee surgery, that game will be his collegiate high-water mark, the points, rebounds, threes made, and true shooting all career bests. Against Notre Dame, he performed in his templatized style: an array of pull-ups from two and three, an omnipresent threat attacking off the dribble, and a general physical imposing of will.
Even in high school, when Anthony dominated, there were hints and tics of potential inefficiencies that I should’ve better sniffed out and over his subsequent, post-Notre Dame games, they surfaced with greater frequency and clarity. Unlike Mannion or LaMelo, Anthony is not a pure point guard in the sense that he’s not a natural facilitator. I believe the notion of “pure point guards” is overblown gatekeeping nonsense, but in this case, it merely serves to articulate that Anthony neither defaults to the pass or can pass/read with the gusto of some of his peers. Of the six points in this scout, I’d say he’s on par with Lewis as the two least-talented passers of the bunch. In his nine games as a Tar Heel, Anthony picked up 34 turnovers to just 31 assists, easily the worst ratio of any guard in this set.
The UNC challenges don’t end there. Anthony, like many players before him, has succeeded, has thrived, in spite of himself. His combination of athleticism and highly developed skill has meant he can excel in high-degree-of-difficulty scenarios. Case-in-point are the pull-ups he loves so much. Further, looking back over my notes from his Oakhill days, I called out his challenges in both generating clean looks for himself and finishing around the rim. At UNC, I’ve seen a series of odd-angled shot releases on penetration, particularly upon making contact with help defenders. He has the strength and hangtime to make in-air adjustments and absorb contact, but how he adjusts and gets off his shots, often while pulling back in-air instead of driving all the way through, seems like it hurts his ability to finish.
Defensively, I don’t tend to get concerned with guards this age unless effort or physical ability are significant red flags. With Anthony, he’s averaged nearly two steals/game with a 3.2% steal rate, which are both fine. He’s shown an ability to focus in on-ball situations, has great feet and hips that allow him to easily and fluidly change direction, and a hyper burst allows him to recover on plays where he’s been otherwise beaten and positively impact the play. In terms of off-ball defense and drill fundamentals, he has a lot of work to do. He loses his man from ball watching, has off-ball lapses, and multiple times this season, I’ve seen teammates physically push him into right position or shout instructions to him as he’s failed to execute the right coverage. Again, he mostly gives full effort and with his physical tools has plenty of upside. The work comes in the less sexy realms like pick-and-roll coverage and help defense.
All of this leads to an attempt at answering what does a pro version of Cole Anthony look like? What translates? What doesn’t? Or, to what degree do his skills and abilities translate? I believe in the athleticism: the burst, elevation, strength, and balance. As a foundation, his physical/athletic profile is vastly superior to the other guards with the exception of maybe RJ Hampton, who Anthony is still more athletic than, just not by as great of a degree. The athleticism, build, and effort mean he should be able to hover around average defensive impact for a guard with the potential to be much better. Stubbornly, I trust in in Anthony’s ability to assimilate and adapt as a scorer at the NBA level. With better spacing and a commitment to developing as a finisher –in terms of touch, decisiveness, and release – his scoring profile would be well-rounded with room to grow in efficiency and decision making. The clip below exemplifies Anthony’s wide range: he uses his burst and handle to split the double, but his eyes are only on the rim. To be fair, he’s surrounded by non-shooters, but the commitment to the shot is a limiting habit at present. It’s also a good of both his inconsistent touch (it comes and goes) and what could be an inability to decelerate – a recurring trait I’ve seen on his drives.
To go deeper on his offense, there’s a subtlety of skill that will lend itself to his eventual NBA transition and acts as a good reminder that he’s the son of an NBA player and has spent much of his life around NBA gyms. Anthony is adept at getting the most out of his screens: he’s patient and when he does decide to go, he rubs shoulder-to-shoulder with the screener. He’s also a bully who knows how to impose himself, both vertically and horizontally, against smaller guards. While he won’t see many guys in the NBA as small as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (6-0, 190 which seems generous) or Virginia’s Kihei Clark (5-9, 155), against both, Anthony leveraged his strength on drives to the rim, easily finishing through both of the smaller players. In EYBL, he’d even take taller players into the post where his strength and two-foot rise gave him an advantage. His off-dribble game is effective in part because of his excellent body mechanics and ability to dribble hard, stop, square, and rise in one (mostly) fluid motion. In high school, he showed a greater utilization of head fakes and feints, but in his limited UNC stint, I saw this less frequently. These skill-based attributes are advanced for a college freshman and are further evidence of how and why his scoring ability can translate.
And in a world where the above prognostications are spot on, my greatest concerns aren’t addressed or resolved. Against Virginia, in a game where Anthony was already dealing with the injury that will keep him out for the next one to two months, I had the stinking, sinking realization that he wasn’t elevating his teammates and despite what I’ve observed of him as an engaged and encouraging teammate, he wasn’t making guys better. As a shoot-first lead guard, he hasn’t figured out how to operate off the ball and is prone to existing as an all or nothing offensive piece. He can make the pass if he can get to the read, but my interpretation of his attack is that his mind and eyes are seeking avenues to score first, distribute second. It’s not that a modern point guard must be pass first either. Trae Young and Luka Doncic both score a shitload of points while using dynamic scoring and vision in a complimentary fashion: the scoring opens up the passing and vice versa. Anthony doesn’t have to be Young or Luka to be effective, but he hasn’t yet exhibited consistency for advanced reads or passes or an ability to reliably utilize one skill to set up the other.
Despite trending down, I still have Anthony as my second-ranked prospect in this draft behind Anthony Edwards. There are worlds where he can follow paths or styles that resemble Jamal Murray or Kemba Walker. I get the Russell Westbrook comps too, but don’t see Anthony reaching that level of passing. In a draft class severely lacking in high-degree-of-confidence stars, Anthony slides in as a flawed, but somewhat ready-made player, a physically mature player whose upside exists in nuance and mechanics. He exists for me as a high-floor prospect with a low likelihood of achieving his potential and, as currently constructed, unlikely to be a significant contributor on a winning team.
December 6, 2019Posted by on
Welcome to the second scouting/prospect dump of this 2019-20 prospect season. (I almost titled this “Scouting Dump #2” but opted against for what should be obvious reasons.) (I added the “prospect” descriptor because these are not exclusively scouting reports though there are layers of scouting, from Chicago deep dish thick to buttermilk biscuit flake thin, accompanying each player and rank.) I write these completely in arears and have seen several of the players included here play in Thanksgiving tournaments and those games will no doubt influence these rankings and commentary.
The purpose of these rankings is multifold: to sort through my own reactions and thoughts, to compare and contrast prospects, to rank and re-rank as we move through the season and player traits and skills solidify or dissolve. There’s a point, even in a 35-game season, where a player establishes himself as the present version of himself. Last year, I didn’t need to watch much Zion Williamson to understand who or what he was. This year, in the short span of a month, RJ Hampton went from spindly-legged athletic point guard in New Zealand to broad-shouldered, symmetrical-man-athlete. This can happen when we’re watching teenagers grow up before our eyes and it makes a weekly (or bi-weekly or whatever) exercise valuable and insightful.
As always, rankings are fluid and entirely possible to be inconsistent from week-to-week. 45 total players pulled from the following games:
- 11/19/19: Pepperdine @ USC
- 11/21/19: South Dakota State @ Arizona
- 11/21/19: Ohio vs Baylor – snippet
- 11/21/19: Texas vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
- 11/22/19: Mississippi State vs Villanova
- 11/22/19: Duke vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
- 11/24/19: Florida vs Xavier
- Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending up:
Mannion deserves his own piece and at some point during this draft season, perhaps I’ll sit down to it. For now, I’ll content myself with a snippet of a profile: he’s listed at 6-foot-3 although he looks shorter to me with a negative .5” wingspan per 2019 Nike Hoop Summit. While possessing what appear to be Chase Budinger hops (can elevate with a runway, but also goateed white basket-athlete), he’s not going to sky over bigger players for rebounds or roast defenders with quickness. His physical and athletic profiles have not proven a hindrance to his ability to produce at the high school, AAU, or college levels. Through a brief nine-game sample, he’s scoring 15-points on 52-43-78 shooting splits while flirting with a 3:1 assist:turnover ratio in just 29 minutes/game. He drives a high impact on offense by dictating game flow as a multi-threat player with optimal decision-making ability. He can score off quick-release pull-up jumpers from well-beyond the college three-line, attack defenders either direction with a low, tight handle, has a mature runner off one-foot that appears to be master class already (CLIP), and can pass with the type of improvisational imaginative functionality that expresses the poetry of basketball (CLIP). He is exquisite, technically functional without being robotic. Defensively, his impact is significantly lower, but he is a plus as a team defender, able to recognize rotations and anticipate ball movement and positioning. In a game against Wake Forest on December 1st, I saw what appear to be vestiges of a John Stockton/Kyle Lowry-styled defensive nastiness that borders on dirty when Mannion was switched onto a big and instead of passively accepting his fate as barbeque chicken, he pushed, kneed, and thighed his way into better position. He is, and continues to be, a joy to behold.
- Onyeka Okongwu, USC, trending up: Very little to add since what I wrote a week ago. I’d still have him behind Wiseman, but like Bone Thugs in 199-whatever, he’s creepin on ah come up.
- Josh Green, Arizona, no change: Like Mannion, the 6-6 with 6’10”+ wingspan Green deserves his own piece. I’ve been high on him for a couple of years so I’m not surprised to still be high on him, but rather to be high on him for his role which, as is so often the case, makes perfect sense in the hindsight of present reality. Against Wake, Green didn’t score his first bucket until a few minutes into the second half and yet was arguably one of AZ’s most impactful players through rebounding, offensive facilitation, two-way effort, and individual and team defense. Watching him grab-and-go off the defensive glass, seeing his quick hands create problems for Wake players, and his plus-instincts as a passer (in both full and half court), I suddenly believed he could be an Andre Iguodala-type super role-player. This isn’t to say he’s the second coming of Iguodala, so please put away your tar and feathers. Rather, the similarities I see are elite athleticism (positional strength, vertical and horizontal explosiveness, and quick reactions) coupled with plus-IQ and effort, and facilitator instincts. That he’s currently shooting 38% on 29 threes with 81% on 32 free throws only add to his well-roundedness.
- Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova, no change: The 6-9, 235-pound Robinson-Earl is the son of former Kansas and LSU dunk maestro, Lester Earl and where his pops was a bundle of unrefined athleticism with two legs, two arms and whatnot, Robinson-Earl is basketball refinement manifested and requisite parts included. He projects as an NBA four with stretch-five potential (41% on 17 3s at Villanova), has excellent size, average length, and a sturdy build. For a freshman, he shows a high basketball IQ as he frequently flashes into space, plays the game at a measured, unrushed pace, quickly diagnoses and reacts to defensive assignments and rotations, and generally exhibits an ability to rapidly process the game. Even when JRE makes the occasional misread defensively (failing to drop on a pick-and-roll cover or getting beaten on an overplay denial), he recognizes the mistake and it’s easy to understand what he was going for. He has plus-footwork inside, knows how to use his wide body as a screener/box out man, and consistently runs the floor hard. He doesn’t strike me as ever reaching All-NBA levels, but his high-floor game replete with effort, intelligence, and fundamentals, should translate well to the NBA. Reminds me a bit of David West but without the wingspan or reputation.
- Scottie Lewis, Florida, trending up: Lewis is a 6-5 defensive menace with a wingspan sniffing 7-feet. He’s older for a freshman, turning 20 in March, but he’s just a damn dog on the defensive side of the ball where he channels a best-in -class intensity into constant harassment and impact. Through eight games, he’s averaging 4.4 stocks/game, many of which are the highlight variety. I see shades of Matisse Thybulle in his dropdown blocks: the DNA of a hunter stalking in silence and pouncing (CLIP). The way he moves his hips, mirrors opponent movements, crouches and slides call to mind a defensive back – but at 6-5 and with a huge vertical. His defense is what will get him to the NBA. His offense? He’s shooting 74% from the line with a 46% FTr and with his speed and stride length can be effective as a straight-line driver. Beyond those two attributes, he’s been limited at Florida. He can make the right read and pass, but isn’t expected and probably not capable of doing much more at present. From October of 2018, Draft Express had him as a 33% career three-point shooter, but he’s just 4-17 (23%) at Florida. In my viewing, his threes have primarily been catch-and-shoot. The shooting mechanics don’t appear to be broken, but one gets the sense that the same intensity that makes him so dangerous defensively has an adverse impact on his offense and shot.
- Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change: listed at 6-11, 240-pounds, Nnaji somehow plays bigger than his size. On the interior, he establishes position with a deep, wide, almost crustacean or arachnid-like base. He’s proficient around the basket, shooting nearly 80% at the rim per Barttorvik and tied with Obi Toppin for the most close twos made, but equally impressive has been an uber-confident and decisive mid-range game which extends to the elbows. Outside the rim, he’s shooting 68% on 28 attempts. With a 79% rate on over five free throws/game, he shows some potential as a floor spacer although it’s not being utilized beyond the mid-range at all. Plays with intensity and focus on both ends, covers lot of ground with long strides and in defensive slides. Arizona frequently uses him to help trap ball handlers on the perimeter and he’s shown ability to be a disruptive there while also capable of recovering to his own man. While not statistically foul prone (four fouls/40), he’s gotten in foul trouble in multiple games I’ve seen. He has upside and probably projects better as a team defender than a rim protector (1.5 blocks/40) which, unless he can extend his range, limits his overall potential impact.
- Saddiq Bey, Villanova, trending up: The 6-8 Bey is a 21-year-old sophomore shooting 54-47-78 through the first quarter of the season. His three-ball, in my viewing, has been primarily off catch-and-shoots. He’s a bit of a do-everything power wing who can handle with both hands, create for himself or others off the bounce, defend multiple positions, and overall contribute positively to winning basketball. While his minutes are largely unchanged from his freshman season, his usage has leapt up from 14.4% to 22.2%, a change that’s been accompanied by 57 to 65 jump in true shooting, nearly doubling his assist rate (from 8.6% to 15.3%) and a flat turnover rate (up 0.3%). He’s functionally strong, able to use his frame to create space on the glass or, as he is apt to do, back down opponents, draw in help, and kick to the open man like he does in the clip below though his shoulder fake to shift the defense away from the corner man is some next level shit. Like his teammate, Robinson-Earl, Bey processes the game quickly and is decisive in attack. For me, it’s easy to get lulled into the idea that Villanova players project as role players who contribute to winning in the pros. That may be Bey’s destiny, but depending on where his output and impact plateau, he could exceed that already-lofty designation.
- Vernon Carey Jr. Duke, no change: Carey is a super-sized, offensively skilled lefty big who’s listed at 6-10, 270-pounds. For a while, he was the top player in the 2019 high school class, before his defensive foibles (typically effort-based) ultimately caught up with him. Carey’s per-40 numbers are as impressive as they were predictable: 31-points and 15 rebounds with 4 blocks and 13 free throw attempts. There was never any doubt Carey, with his massive size, power, and skill, would struggle to deliver in college. In terms of scoring, he can do pretty much anything you’d ask of your collegiate big: go to either shoulder with his back to the basket (CLIP), finish with power or touch, shrug off contact like a hippo flicking away a Spud Webb, bulldoze the offensive glass, turn and face. He doesn’t have Kevin McHale’s footwork or post moves, but he has an effective and versatile arsenal. He has touch, but it’s struggling to carry over at the free throw line where he’s just below 60%. And despite over two blocks/game, defensively is where he struggles to maintain focus and where his few athletic shortcomings are evident. He lacks high-level bounce and is not particularly long which limits his rim protection ability. He has, and has had, the terrible habit of taking entire defensive possessions off, standing stiff-legged, and unfocused. This was hideously evident against Georgetown as he was soundly beaten off the dribble by basketball-player-in-training, Qudus Wahab. This type of play was the norm and not the exception during his high school days and if he’s unable to correct it, his NBA path could follow that of fellow Duke big man, Jahlil Okafor. My last note/thought on Carey is that I believe he has some potential as a shooter. He’s just 4-5 from three this season, but his mechanics are sound and he’s exhibited touch from other areas of the floor. He can produce, but it remains unclear how much he can help a team win.
- Isaiah Mobley, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
- Keyontae Johnson, Florida, no change: 6-5, 225 pounds with the neck of Marcus Smart or the neck of a boxer, your choice. Johnson isn’t the glass eating defender Smart is, but he goes hard and is a significantly superior vertical athlete (CLIP). As a flawed human myself, I think it makes sense to fall in love with flawed basketball players and maybe love is too strong a feeling to ascribe, but I do enjoy Keyontae. His greatest attributes are his strength, build, and athleticism; all of which are good enough at present to carry over to the NBA. On the skill side, things are a little less clear. He’s shooting 38% from deep on 79 career 3pas, is up to 71% from the line compared to 64% last year, and is just a hair under 63 TS. He has a one-dribble pull-up which he can hit at a decent clip and consistent, steady form on catch-and-shoot threes. On the inside, he has a little right-handed flip shot he’ll use with good touch. Where he gets in trouble offensively is his decision making. As a passer, he makes both bad reads and bad passes with the poor habit of trying to force the ball into post situations that aren’t available. His handle isn’t bad, but he occasionally tries to do much with it. Defensively, he’s not a great stocks guy (1.3/40) which seems to be based on average-to-slower-than-average reaction speed. He’s shown an awareness of how to use his size to gain advantage on offense, but I haven’t seen him consistently wall/chest up defensively. The NBA seems to be placing a higher emphasis on strength and mass and Johnson has all the natural tools coupled with adequate skill on which to build and ideally find a rotation/specialist role in the league.
- Colbey Ross, Pepperdine, trending up: At 6-1, 180, Ross isn’t much to look at, but against USC a few weeks back, he was a diminutive juggernaut, a small man lacking muscular definition attacking USC from all angles: changing directions, changing speeds, sweating confidence, crying competitiveness: busting asses. It so happens that I tuned in primarily to see his teammate Kessler Edwards, but it also happened that Edwards was relegated to wallflower status while Ross made mincemeat of USC’s guard rotation to finish with 38 on 13-20 shooting with an array of long bombs and cutting penetrations. He carries a gaudy workload on a not-so-great team and it shows in a 20% turnover rate alongside a usage rate just under 30%. I don’t believe he projects as a starting point in the NBA given his slighter stature, but given his shooting (42-40-92 on the season, 40% on 318 career 3pas), playmaking and competitiveness, it’s not hard to see him as a 2-way or UDFA guy who figures out how to assimilate his game into value for an NBA team.
- Wendell Moore Jr. Duke, no change: Moore is a strong, broad-shouldered 6-6 freshman wing for Duke who fancies himself a playmaker of sorts. This fancying may well be true, but it hasn’t translated with any sense of efficiency in his nine games at Duke where he’s shooting 42-33-63 and averaging 5 turnovers/40min. But for all the broken eggs Moore produces, the occasional delights show themselves as glimpses of an idealized, stabilized, maximized future. With his powerful build and burst, he’s great at getting past defenders with his shoulders low and capable of finishing on his own or with the drive-and-kick. He’s a bear in transition with plus-body control and speed. As a passer, he’s shown more vision than the ability to actually execute the pass. Too, there’s an improvisational element to his game (CLIP) that is largely unteachable. While these moments are outweighed by the larger story of his inefficient stats, they still exist as a notion of possibility and sometimes in this world of cloudy days, possibility is all we need (That would not be a good draft strategy.).
- Matthew Hurt, Duke, trending down: I kind of feel like going to Duke or Kentucky as a highly-touted recruit is like being Chris Bosh going to the Heat with Bron and Wade – but without the financial security or mental/emotional maturity. Last year we saw Cam Reddish struggle to integrate with better players and this year Hurt seems to be navigating a similarly bumpy transition. Statistically (10-points on 45-42-86 shooting), he’s around what you’d expect, but visually, he’s looked unimpressive for stretches. He bottomed out in the Georgetown game when he played just five minutes and struggled mightily on the defensive end with slow feet and an inability to sit low in his stance; guarding in space was always going a concern and, at times, it has shown itself as a weakness. In high school, Hurt excelled in and around the paint; he welcomed contact and used balance rather than power to navigate it, mixed in fakes, finished with either hand over either shoulder, and was efficient around the rim without being explosive. Per barttorvik, he’s shooting just below 54% at the rim. I’ve seen enough of Hurt to trust his skill-level, but trusting his ability to ratchet up the skill and adapt to a longer, more athletic opponent set while maintaining his confidence in a system where he’s getting less touches is something I’m less comfortable in. For what it’s worth, in three games since the G-Town debacle, he’s averaging 15-points on 51-50-80 shooting.
- Tre Mann, Florida, trending down: I loved Mann coming out of high school as an initiating off-guard with oodles of skill as a ball handler and shooter. What I overlooked was his lithe physical profile. At 6-4, 180 (Where are these pounds? I cannot see them.), Mann is close to scrawny. Guys wear weight different and his doesn’t appear to translate into much mass. It’s worth noting that we’re looking at a tiny sample already and that sample was interrupted by a few-game absence due to a concussion, but Mann’s best skills are shooting and scoring and he’s currently sitting on dismally abysmal 32-21-44 shooting splits. He appears to be adjusting to the speed and physicality of older, stronger, faster players, but I posit some of this is pure confidence and comfort. At moments, he’s been able to create his own looks off the bounce, but the frequency is such that it’s difficult to establish rhythm and confidence. One could make the case that Mann’s assessment should be N/A, but the physicals and the shooting, even in isolation, are enough for me to cock an eyebrow in concern. To be clear, I am not jumping ship on the young man, but patiently waiting for an injection of that insane Scottie Lewis confidence into Mann’s skinny arms and shooting fingers.
- Cassius Stanley, Duke, trending up: 20-year-old Duke freshman is better than I expected. Stanley has a compact, muscled 6-6, 193-pound frame topped with a small head and resting on thick legs. In high school, I saw him as this oldish (for his class) athlete dominating kids and falling in love with pull-up jumpers. There were flashes of playmaking and passing, but his reputation was that of a dunker. As I look back through my notes, there are hints of the player he’s been at Duke: scrappy, intense, active defensively. He’s likely out until January with a hamstring injury, but in his first eight college games, he’s shooting 47% from three, averaging 2.6 stocks, and getting two offensive boards/game. If Hurt has struggled somewhat to find a happy home on the court in Durham, Stanley has kicked in the door and announced his presence (CLIP) with an edge this particular Duke team needs. In terms of prospect, being 20 as a freshman lowers the ceiling somewhat, but with his physical tools and temperament, and if his shooting is anywhere near real, then he projects out as a rotational two in the league.
- Reggie Perry, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-9 or 6-10 big with plus-length and athleticism, broad shoulders and high motor. Good in pursuit of ball off glass. Shooting it well this season (7-18 from 3 for 39%, 79% at the rim) and showing touch around basket. More opportunities to show passing chops as key initiator and handler for Mississippi State and surprisingly thriving there (25% ast rate). Still waiting to see if the shooting is real; 54% from line isn’t reassuring. And while showing signs defensively, would like to see bit more impact on that end. Great signs of development at FIBA U19s this past summer. Have seen some shades of Kevon Looney in his game (not counting the handling/playmaking), but that could also be because they share similar builds.
- Jason Preston, Ohio, trending up: super small sample of this 6-4 Ohio point guard. Has +size for position, good pop on his passes, decisive with ball and crisp, accurate passing off live dribble (CLIP). Can handle with both hands, but maybe partial to right hand and not completely sold on handle in traffic. Crafty with look-aways and hesitations; makes up for less-than-elite quickness/burst. Probably carrying too heavy a load at 37 minutes/game, nearly nine assists, and over four turnovers. 51-33-79 shooting splits, 58 TS, no dunks thru nine games.
- Tre Jones, Duke, no change: The sturdy-bodied point has made some marked improvements from his freshman year. He’s improved his deep ball accuracy and volume: from 26% on three 3pas/game to 34% on four attempts. He’s still below average, but alongside a nearly 80% from the line, it shows growth and progress which old Lev Tolstoy would appreciate. Without the ball dominant RJ Barrett and uber-prospect Zion, Jones’s usage is up from 15% to nearly 24% and his FTr has spiked from a paltry 19% to 43% — possibly the biggest improvement in his game. With the increased usage, he’s more than doubled his turnovers, but still has a 2:1 assist:turnover rate. Seeing Jones this year, his most impressive attribute has been his passing. With increased opportunity has come better passes thrown with greater frequency. This makes me wonder how much better Duke could’ve been a year ago with the ball in Jones’s hands more than RJ’s. Is he just a younger version of his brother or is he willing to take the risks and push boundaries to exceed his brother’s metronomic reliability at the risk of soft failure? Nothing is permanent except death, I suppose.
- Naji Marshall, Xavier, no change: I initially had Marshall (6-7, 222, turns 22 in January) 13th, but given his age and lack of 3-point shooting (23% this season, 28% on 259 career 3pas), I had to drop him down. What he is/does: at 6-7, extremely crafty and decisive player, ball doesn’t stick in his hands, he catches and acts, ton of shiftiness, good size and length translates as strength to offense and defense, has touch on runner, attacks with both hands, mixes in lot of fakes, good, not great athlete with excellent body control and lateral mobility. What he isn’t/does do: shoot it well from deep; form and mechanics need lot of work, despite being strong initiator, his decision making (particularly on pull-up threes) sometimes leaves you asking questions. Like a lot of players, shooting is his swing skill. (Should be lower than #19 on this list.)
- Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State, trending up: Sophomore power wing with significantly improved shooting, less-than-desirable FTr, and lots of violent dunks.
- Cole Swider, Villanova, trending up: 6-9 sophomore shooter who appears to have a thick build though also wears a t-shirt under his jersey which makes it difficult to assess. Uses perceived bulk well defensively. Shooting splits: 57-49-100, 11-13 at the rim, zero dunks. 74 TS.
- Paul Scruggs, Xavier, no change: fun, creative, improvisational player who kind of reminds me of Detroit’s Bruce Brown. Low likelihood, but if he carves out an NBA role in his mid-20s, I wouldn’t be surprised.
- Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine, trending down: funny looking release on his jumper, but shooting 19-37 on the season (51%) after 37% as a freshman. Was miserable in game I saw him against USC: zero points on 0-7 shooting, zero free throw attempts, 32 minutes. An aberration, no doubt.
- Andrew Nembhard, Florida, trending down: one of best passers in college hoop as a 6-5 point, but bad shooting is somehow getting worse: 46 TS, 6-17 at the rim (35%) per barttorvik with some just awful missed layups.
- Jermaine Samuels, Villanova, no change: does it all except shoot well for Villanova as a versatile combo forward. Strong awareness and passing.
- Ethan Anderson, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
- Iverson Molinar, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-4 off guard, just found out he’s a 20-year-old freshman and that changes things. Solid college guard with potential to score at all three levels.
- Josh LeBlanc, formerly Georgetown, trending down: currently in transfer portal; facing legal issues, had seen significant decline in output as a sophomore.
- Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up: 6-4 reserve point with 26 assists to three turnovers and shooting 14-28 from three. Pushes it with pace, but control, luxury piece as a backup point. Shooting 36% on twos. Shoulder/neck length seems longer than normal.
- Tyson Carter, Mississippi State, trending up: Slender volume shooter (37% on seven 3pas); capable handler out of p&r, shoots off catch or bounce.
- Justin Moore, Villanova, no change: freshman shooter with decent build and BBIQ: very on-brand Villanova player.
- Kerry Blackshear, Florida, trending down: maybe it’s the knee braces, but mobility seems limited. Smart player liked more by GBPM than me.
- Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down: nothing to add from last week.
- Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown, no change: wears a lot of accessories, 26 points and 15 rebounds per-40.
- Jamorko Pickett, Georgetown, no change: caught my attention with his length and defense against Duke.
- Omar Payne, Florida, trending up
- Qudus Wahab, Georgetown, trending up
- Douglas Wilson, South Dakota State, trending up: Des Moines, Iowa product from my alma mater. Highly aggressive in attack, likely averages a double double in 1970s NBA.
- Matt Coleman, Texas, no change: small (6-2 listing seems generous) shooter, 16-32 from three, 20-24 from line, better than 2:1 ast:TO.
- Mark Vital, Baylor, trending up: 4.4 stocks/40 for 6-5, 230-pound four man. Burly player who can jump out of the gym, but can’t really shoot for shit: 42-14-54 shooting splits.
- Mac McClung, Georgetown, no change
- Elijah Weaver, USC, no change
- Noah Locke, Florida, trending down
- Jericho Sims, Texas, trending down
- James Akinjo, formerly Georgetown, trending down
November 25, 2019Posted by on
The below ranking is made up of players exclusively scouted from 11/12/19 thru 11/16/19. All rankings are fluid. Some I changed while writing and didn’t want to rework everything. I will no doubt be filled with regret and seek to course correct as the season goes on. Zero flags have been planted in the writing below though perhaps in some cases, land is being probed for potential flagpoles.
- 11/12/19: Memphis at Oregon (in Portland)
- 11/14/19: Michigan State at Seton Hall
- 11/15/19: West Virginia at Pittsburgh
- 11/15/19: Gonzaga at Texas A&M
- 11/16/19: USC at Nevada
- James Wiseman, Memphis:
Stock change: no change
To be honest, USC’s 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman center Onyeka Okongwu has probably passed Wiseman, what with his overwhelming 21 free throws attempted against Pepperdine on November 19th, but I’m leaving Wiseman ahead for now. It’s probably less out of stubbornness on my part and more out of familiarity. The best I’ve seen of Wiseman shows me an emphatic, intimidating giant of a young man who swats shots with the vigor of Mitchell Robinson and snatches boards with the aplomb of Dikembe Mutombo. These skills have a higher likelihood of translating to the NBA, the only problem is that they happen in spurts and that was no different in a loss to Oregon on November 12th. Wiseman spent the first half in foul trouble, then picked up zero fouls in the second half on his way to 14 points and 12 rebounds (four offensive) and only one or two truly head scratching jumpers. We also got to see him switched on the perimeter: first against combo guard Will Richardson and then against point guard Payton Pritchard. Wiseman struggled to stay in front of Richardson and gave Pritchard too much space. It’s a tiny sample size, but both in terms of mobility and technique, there’s a lot for him to work on.
- Onyeka Okongwu, USC:
Stock change: rising
This is probably unfair since I watched Okongwu kick the ever-living crap out of Pepperdine a night ago, but Big O, Double O, Onyeka, or whatever the hell you want to call him is a bully. I mean that in the most positive way possible. In basketball competition, he’s an explosive brute who’s built kind of like J.J. Hickson and kind of reminds me of Hickson as well. Okongwu’s dunks have a bullish ferocity to them, but his athletic exploits aren’t limited to dunk shots. Rather, he puts it to work on the defensive end where he’s good as a rim protector and help defender and is at least showing good instincts and execution sliding his feet in help situations. On the glass, he highpoints the ball with strength and precision. He’s shown hints of having a mid-range jumper though he needs to wind up and has a slower release. He shot threes in the AAU circuit, but it doesn’t appear to be part of his USC arsenal yet. I look forward to see him go against NBA caliber bigs at some point.
- Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia:
Stock change: rising
Tshiebwe is a walking, breathing brick wall. He’s got around 15 pounds on Okongwu, but looks quite a bit thicker and strong which is saying something. There are a few quick things to get out of the way with Oscar: He plays in Bobby Huggins’s hyper-intense defensive scheme and is averaging over six fouls-per-40 minutes. This player/coach fit is ideal in that Tshiebwe has a motor that doesn’t quit and a coach like Huggins can deploy him like a modern-day Danny Fortson, but the flip is that he’ll wind up in foul trouble and deliver uneven performances. I was lucky enough to catch Oscar’s best game (of three played to-date) against Pitt and it’s true: Oscar is a physical marvel who sucks rebounds up like a giant human vacuum inhaling all in his orbit. His hands and fingers appear to have built-in stickum and vice grip-like strength. This is what we knew coming in, but against Pitt what impressed me were the smaller, more nuanced parts of his game. Pitt threw a zone at the sizable WVU front line and the result was an oscillating triangle of Mountaineers rotating through the post and flashing high into the lane. From this middle spot, Tshiebwe had opportunities to show some passing chops, decisiveness and awareness while also incorporating a show-and-go move that the defender unwisely bit. On another possession, he worked and reworked, using his feet instead of his bulk, to get into ideal position with an inside seal and then mix in a change of direction to free himself up for an easy finish. The physical makeup and effort will get him to the league. The nuance and skill development will allow him to excel there.
- Xavier Tillman, Michigan State:
Stock change: rising
Oh hey, another 6-9, 240-some-odd pound big man. What Tillman, a junior, lacks in terms of Onyeka’s and Oscar’s athleticism, he makes up for with far superior passing and basketball IQ. Tillman can attack a closeout, make plays out of the short roll, and his offensive awareness allows him to react quicker than the defense, swinging the ball to open shooters or picking up hockey assists. His perimeter shot, from mid-range and three, looks fine, but he has a slower release hasn’t shot it too well this season. Given his mechanics, I imagine he’ll be able to develop into a serviceable standstill shooter. Defensively, he’s shown himself to be an excellent team defender, able to help and recover while utilizing his bulk and length to harass attackers. Against Seton Hall’s massive front line (7-2 Romaro Gill, 7-2 Ike Obiagu, 6-10 Sandro Mamukelashvili), he struggled at times on the offensive end which, for a player who doesn’t have a great jumper and isn’t a high-level leaper, is something worth noting. Overall, Tillman’s skillset is significantly more advanced than the three centers above him while his physical tools and upside put a lower cap on his ceiling.
- Myles Powell, Seton Hall:
Stock change: rising
Best scorer in college basketball perhaps? Scores at all three levels with NBA range. Can score off bounce, off catch, off the move. Can hit all the shots, all the time. If this was a fun ranking, he’d be at the top of the list; particularly with his performance against Michigan State: 37 points on 6-14 from three and 7-9 from the line. I had Powell ranked in the 30s before he pulled out of the draft last year and like him quite a bit more than St. Johns’ Shamorie Ponds – a somewhat comparable player as a smaller scoring guard. I’ve seen comparisons to Lou Williams which are probably unfair given Williams’s long-term scoring and playmaking development. Beyond the scoring though, the Williams comparison raises another issue with Powell’s current utilization: he has his highest career usage rate with the lowest assist rate (14.5%) and assists/gm (1.8) since his freshman year. I don’t doubt Powell can generate points at the pro level, but can he do it efficiently and within the framework of a winning offense? I didn’t get a good enough read on his defense to comment here, but plan on seeing him in person in December and will relay to you my findings at that later date.
- Aaron Henry, Michigan State:
Stock change: rising
Henry is a sophomore lefty who has the requisite size at 6-6, 210-pounds, along with mobility and athleticism that projects well as an NBA wing. While watching him against Seton Hall, I learned he hates clowns. He also had a nasty ankle roll, but was thankfully able to play through it though it did appear to hamper his elevation and he sat out their next game. Henry is partial to attacking with his dominant left, but is capable of finishing with both hands. While not quite an initiator, he’s shown flashes of making good reads and passes. Defensively, he’s competent and capable with strength and awareness. Against both Seton Hall and Kentucky, I saw him get visibility frustrated – once with the refs and once with a defensive miscommunication. This is hardly a red flag and is rather standard in the NBA, but in terms of scouting, it’s usually: See something, say something. Also worth noting that Henry’s broad array of skills and size likely make him a more transferable pro than Powell although none of his skills currently rise to the level of Powell’s shooting or scoring.
- Cassius Winston, Michigan State:
Stock change: Rising
I look at Cassius Winston and his 43% three-point shooting on 460 career attempts, his round Bonzi Wells-ish face, and stout build and I think Kyle Lowry, Jalen Brunson. I don’t think these are accurate comparisons, but merely surface level. Though, like Lowry, Winston can impact games and fill box scores without flashing a little leg. As a four-year acolyte of Izzo and a three-year starter, Winston is college basketball’s embodiment of stability. He might have that little Clyde Drexler-like leg pump on his jumper, but what’s it really matter when he can hit threes off catch or bounce at that 43% clip? His handle is competent, if a tad loose, but again, over a 113-game stretch, he’s at a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He runs the pick-and-roll with veteran savvy, can drop the pocket pass, sees and typically makes the right pass, and is generally a highly effective college basketball player. Given the development and impact of players like Fred Vanvleet and Devonte’ Graham, I find myself wandering in a forest of uncertainty with these four-year point guards. If nothing else, the shooting seems to translate and if it does for Winston, that’s a path to an NBA role.
- Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga:
Stock change: Rising
I’m probably higher on Petrusev than I should be, but against A&M, and in other games, he’s just been a model of composed, refined big man play. He lacks the power and athleticism of the top-four centers on this abbreviated list, but at 6-11, he has a mature understanding of how to utilize his size. He keeps the ball high on catches and boards, has touch off the glass, and a good nose for the ball on rebounds. With his back to the basket, he reads the floor well and against A&M, had numerous plus-passes including cross court and picking out backdoor cutters. Defensively, he shows engagement, focus, and competitiveness. He may be a bit light in the pants for beefier or more athletic bigs, but between his competitiveness and length, can be serviceable on that end. Like Okongwu, I look forward to see Petrusev against higher levels of competition as the A&M bigs offered little challenge.
- Malik Hall, Michigan State
Stock change: Rising
I’m happy to own this as a near-term over-rank with potential for some longer-term validation. Against Seton Hall, Malik was incendiary off the bench. He shot 7-7 including 3-3 from three on what were exclusively unguarded threes. Having seen Hall in EYBL, he’s always had an Izzo-player type sheen to him with good footwork, consistent effort, above average BBIQ and athleticism, and an ability to play big. For a stretch, Izzo had him playing some center against Seton Hall’s monstrous frontline and instead of being devoured by the 7-2 Ike Obiagu, Hall was on his David & Goliath, stretching the big man out of his comfort zone and using his feet to navigate around Obiagu’s meager attempts at posting up. Hall doesn’t project as ever being a star, but he already gets the finer points of playing winning basketball and is in a program that will nurture it.
- Isaiah Mobley, USC
Stock change: no change
Right now, Mobley’s probably more fun than he is effective. At 6-10, 235-pounds, he has a bag of tricks filled with all types of moves that are mostly foreign to 19-year-old basketball players. There’s a European style to his play: hyper aware on offense with a bevy of craft and deception, high-level fakes and footwork that remind you that basketball is art and can be an expression of a higher plane of the mind-body meld. I see Mobley and I see shades of Naz Reid, but also Dario Saric, just loads of skill and imagination bringing glee to basketball fans young and old. On the flip side, as I watched Mobley against Nevada, I noted, “not too fond of bending his knees.” Defensively, he’s rarely in a ready position. He stands straight up and down, susceptible to being beaten by quick, decisive moves on or off the ball. Between his lack of engagement on the defensive side, average athleticism, and a body lacking strength, Mobley will have some straightforward challenges at the next level, but his skill level is so high and unique at his size that he can and should be able to survive and contribute at the pro level.
- Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga at Seton Hall, trending up: I’ll admit this is probably me playing to my favorites more than it is a genuine rank of prospects, but the 6-5 sophomore point guard from France has elite quickness, wiry strength, plus-length, an ability to attack with both hands, and well above average BBIQ. He can and does do a bit of everything when he’s on the court and has been impossible for me to take my eyes off at both FIBA U19’s this past summer and with Gonzaga this season. His shot needs work, but hot damn, his per-40 numbers are: 11-points, 7-assists, 13-rebounds, and over 3 steals.
- Anton Watson, Gonzaga, no change: Smart people whose opinions I respect (Ross Homan, Mike Gribanov, Jackson Frank) are super duper high on Watson which means in all likelihood that I’ve overlooked Watson’s shine in favor of Ayayi, Drew Timme, and Corey Kispert in Gonzaga’s games. If anything else, it gives me another area to focus my attention in future Zags games. I’d seen Watson in high school and noted an advanced skill level and consistent effort. He has a strong handle, can pass or get his own shot, and competes defensively. He plays at a mature, unrushed pace filled with nuance and timing. I’m assuming he’ll climb my rankings as I consume more Zags games.
- Corey Kispert, Gonzaga, up: side note: for the longest time, I thought his name was Cody. Kispert is 6-7, 220 pounds with a rock solid build. He looks like he’s in a state of perpetual sweat and, from what I’ve seen, is prone to going balls to the wall (BTTW). He’s from Edmonds, Washington (just north of Seattle) and I’d been aware of him from his high school days, but never thought much of his pro prospects until I saw him against Alabama State earlier this year when he went for 28 points on 10-13 from the field and 5-6 from 3. For his Gonzaga career, he’s shooting 37% on over 300 attempts. But I don’t think the shooting is his best skill; rather it’s his wing size, defensive versatility, athleticism combined with the shooting that make him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect.
- Emmitt Matthews, West Virginia, trending up: Good sized (6-7) shooter with offensive awareness, plus passer (lot of zip on passes), who needs to get stronger.
- Xavier Johnson, Pittsburgh, trending down: great size (6-3, 190) at point guard, strong kid with length, at his best going downhill, powerful change of direction, decent vision, form on jumper needs work: shooting 40% on 3s, 33% on 2s, 57% from the line. Sloppy at times with ball control: nearly 4 turnovers/game over 39-game career. There’s a prospect here, but he’s still learning to be the best version of himself.
- Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending: no change: good shooter, strong athlete, competes on both ends, would like to see more of him.
- Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending down: 20-year-old 6-9 freshman shooting 47% from the line. Good feel passing and moving without the ball. Struggling to adapt to defending at college level, can’t just out-physical opponents like he could in high school. All the physical tools, but long way to harness it all. I’m not certain what his NBA skill or role are at present.
- DJ Jeffries, Memphis, trending up: At 6-7, 225-pounds, Jeffries projects as a big wing who plays bigger than his size. Against Oregon, he was up and down, but showed flashes of rim protection and the versatile offensive attack that initially attracted my attention in EYBL. He’s a good athlete with an above average handle for his age and position, he can make improvisational reads and passes off a live dribble. While just six games into his college career, it seems he’s still trying to settle into the pace of play, particularly in Memphis’s young, stacked offense. Averaging 2.7 stocks in 26 minutes/game.
- Lester Quinones, Memphis, trending up: 6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes. Won’t be surprised to see him put up 40 in a G-League game in two years.
- Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change: first time seeing Baugh, a 6-3, 185-pound combo guard. Strong, pass first guard can attack off bounce, pick out open man, run pick-and-roll, and compete defensively. Odd allergy to shooting: scoring 9 points and taking 5 shots per-40 minutes.
- Drew Timme, Gonzaga, trending up: fun big listed at 6-10 though he looks shorter to me. Excellent passer with great footwork and feel for game. Doesn’t shoot threes (zero attempts in five games) and very little presence protecting the rim although averaging a block-per-game. Would like to see him develop some sort of jumper.
- Will Richardson, Oregon, trending up: Probably one of my favorite things with young players is seeing how they develop physically from season-to-season. Richardson is a 6-5 combo guard with twiggy arms and legs as a freshman and while he’s no Tshiebwe as a sophomore, he’s filled out quite a bit and it shows in an improved ability to attack off the bounce and absorb contact. Richardson was a point guard in high school and has retained his ability as a passer with high BBIQ in addition to becoming a more confident three-point shooter. He’s only taken eight threes in five games this season, but is 5-8 in addition to shooting 11-13 (85%) from the line compared to 67% a year ago. He just looks more confident. His craft and IQ help to compensate for average athleticism. He’s almost like a smaller, less hypnotic version of Kyle Anderson.
- Payton Pritchard, Oregon, maybe trending up: Pritchard’s a four-year starter at Oregon, a career 36% three-point shooter and 78% free throw shooter who’s shooting career worsts in both, but a career-high 63 true shooting on the strength of 68% on nearly eight two-point field goal attempts/game. At 6-2, 195, he’s not going to overwhelm you with size, speed, or strength. He shares Myles Powell’s size, but nowhere near the breadth or depth of his scoring ability. That said, against a young Memphis squad, he was able to use his experience to hunt mismatches against Achiuwa and Wiseman. Against Achiuwa, he bumped the younger player off balance for a clean look while he took advantage of Wiseman giving him too much of a cushion on the perimeter to bust his ass from three. He competes, but doesn’t project as an NBA player.
- Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending up: fresh off a 27-point, 16-rebound, 5-steal game against South Dakota State, the 6-11 senior, Rakocevic used all his refined fundamentals and relentless motor to shit all over Nevada (24p on 10-15, 11r). He’s a legit 6-11 with narrow shoulders, a high motor who’s exceptional running the floor and an above average passer. He’s not a great rim protector and while he’s a smart player, he hasn’t blown me away as a team defender. He’s shown a turn-and-face and mid-range game at USC, but is just 2-9 from three in his career. Absent stretch ability and rim protection, it’ll be hard for him to land in the league, but his energy, effort, and smarts give him some potential as a two-way player. More Zeller than Plumlee.
- CJ Walker, Oregon, trending: no change: Walker’s a spindly 6-8, 200-pound combo forward for the Ducks. He committed three fouls in five minutes against Memphis and is averaging less than a point in his first five college games. Early returns aside, Walker is a high-level athlete with questionable BBIQ who has long-term potential as a multi-position defender due to his length and high-energy play. He also has potential to get lost in the shuffle.
- Chandler Lawson, Oregon, trending up: The younger brother of Kansas’s Dedric Lawson, Chandler is a 6-8, 205-pound Memphis native who’s similar to Walker in that he’s rangy and plays with energy. Based on the Memphis game alone (8p on 2-3 shooting, 4-5 FTs, 4r – 2 offensive), he’s the more college-ready player. His activity and length translate well and he’s a competent and capable passer. His strength and handle are areas he can improve upon.
- Jazz Johnson, Nevada, trending up: Gotta love a 5-10 combo guard who’s shooting 42% from three on over 440 career attempts. Johnson doesn’t have the athletic pop of shorter guys like Isaiah Thomas or Chris Clemons, but he’s probably a better long-range shooter and defender. Longshot for the NBA, but likely G-League or overseas guy.
- Jalen Harris, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Jalen Harris before Nevada played USC, but he’s a 6-5, 195-pound incoming transfer from Louisiana Tech. According to coach Steve Alford, he’s an “elite athlete with great BBIQ.” The athleticism was easy to see, but he was 3-19 from the field and just kept firing up contested looks. He’s at 46 TS on the season so the cold streak wasn’t limited to one game. That said, Harris has feel for the game. On a Nevada squad lacking in playmaking, he’s one of their primary initiators with nearly 4 assists/game. He’s a plus-rebounder (over 6/game) with a strong frame and potential as a multi-positional defender. In an ideal role, he’s a standstill shooter who can attack closeouts and defend both guard spots.
- Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall, trending: no change: Mamukelashvili is an unconventional big, a 6-10 native of Georgia (Stalin’s Georgia, not Dominique’s) who’s not particularly good at rim protection or shooting, but is a primary creator on Seton Hall’s Powell-heavy offense. He has a fluid handle and moves well with a great feel for the game on both sides of the ball. His fundamentals are sound and he’s strong as a team defender. Against Michigan State, he was able to attack off the dribble, but struggled to finish through contact and control the ball. He was 3-7 on twos with four TOs. He’s a fun player, but one who likely has to many holes to succeed in the league.
- Derek Culver, West Virginia, trending down: A 21-year-old sophomore, Culver is a hulkish 6-10, 255-pounds with boulder shoulders and an average-to-below average feel for the game. He showed some unreal athleticism in the clip below, but for the most part, his athleticism doesn’t pop in game. He shows flashes of intrigue with the occasional nice pass or he-manish rebound in traffic, but there’s a lack of consistency to his game and his defensive awareness is consistency lacking as evidence by his 7+ fouls/40 minutes. He does have some touch and is currently shooting 88% from the line on 24 attempts this season.
- Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending up: near-seven-footer with decent looking jumper (0-5 from three this season) averaging over six blocks/40 this season. Rail thin. If he can increase volume on three ball and put on weight, shows touch of potential as a Channing Frye-type specialist.
- Rocket Watts, Michigan State, trending: no change: Believe his destiny is as a point guard, but alongside Cassius Winston, those opportunities are few and far between so the 6-2 freshman is a steward of sorts, charged with not fucking up and through four games, he’s done well in that role with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His shot isn’t broken by any means, but he’s shooting just 3-17 from three and struggled at times in EYBL. Solid build, willing competitor and defender, rebounds well for size.
- Gabe Brown, Michigan State, trending up: lefty shooter with defensive versatility at 6-7; spent lot of time guarding Powell in game against Seton Hall. More athletic than I expected from a guy with a reputation as a “shooter.” In limited game film, handle hasn’t looked great. Shoots it well off catch and movement.
- Lindsey Drew, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Drew before this season, but he’s a 6-4 point guard for Nevada who’s started 98 of 105 career games and has averaged 2 stocks/game for his career. Added a three-point shot this season and is shooting 40% on 5 attempts/game. There’s almost a laziness to his game in that his dribble and playmaking unfold slowly as he pokes and prods for holes in the defense and excels at keeping his dribble alive. He has a slower wind up on his catch-and-shoot jumper as well. Against USC, he struggled to stay in front of his man on defensive side and was limited in his overall defensive impact. He’s trending up here because I’d never even heard of him or considered him. Nothing to something equals rising.
- Ethan Anderson, USC, trending up: at 6-2, 210 with a thick neck, Anderson looks more football player than point guard, but the freshman is a consummate lead guard for USC. He’s averaging six assists with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He plays with poise and despite his lack of experience, doesn’t get sped up by the defense. He can change speeds, change direction, and mix in eurosteps as needed. His passing translates in half court and transition settings. The glaring issue with Anderson is his Omar Cook-like shooting: 42 TS through six games including 32% on 25 twos. If the shooting comes around, he’ll climb pretty quick for me.
- Shakur Juiston, Oregon, trending: no change: Not much to say. Broad shoulders, rebounds well.
- Savion Flagg, Texas A&M, trending down: looks the part at 6-7, 223 with a ripped frame, but maddening to watch with poor ball control and defensive lapses and miscommunications. 3.5 turnovers to 2.5 assists with a 22% usage this season.
- Tyrese Samuel, Seton Hall, trending down: has potential as a stretch-4 (6-10, 220 with a pretty jumper), but only sniffing the edges of the Hall’s rotation. Work-in-progress.
- Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: 6-6, 225-pound grad transfer at USC. From 16 and 5 for Akron in the MAC to 20-minute/game role player with USC. Utomi looks like a brick shithouse with broader shoulders and sturdy frame, but is presently relegated to a supporting dirty work guy with this USC team. He can shoot it (39% on 7 3s/game last two seasons at Akron) and defend and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him starting or playing as sixth man for this USC team. Pro prospects: unlikely, but physical tools are there.
- Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down
- Trey McGowens, Seton Hall, no change
- Ike Obiagu, Seton Hall, trending down
- Francis Okoro, Oregon, trending down
- Jordan McCabe, West Virginia, no change
Unranked players that I noted, but didn’t get a large enough sample: Au’Diese Toney, Gerald Drumgoole, Karim Coulibaly (I do like him), Miles McBride (WVU reserve PG, probably better than McCabe), Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis (64% on 31 3pas this year – should be in mid-20s of list above), Foster Loyer, Emanuel Miller, Jay Jay Chandler, Andre Gordon, Nisre Zouzoua, and Justin Champagnie
November 6, 2019Posted by on
The following is a piece based on a few hours spent in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. ~25,000) at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) watching a JUCO basketball game with the principles being Jay Scrubb (John A. Logan) and Tyon Grant-Foster (IHCC).
The Hellyer Life Center is home to the Indian Hills Community College Warriors men’s basketball team. It’s a small gym with modern plastic maroon-colored pull-out bleachers and an upper balcony of sorts. To reach the court level, you walk down a staircase and your proximity to the court is that of a high school gym. Everything and everyone is accessible. I’d ordered my tickets for the game online, apparently I was the only person to do this because I saw my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the ticketing desk when I showed up. I was given my choice of any open seat and chose center court: eight dollars.
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, about 90 minutes northwest of Ottumwa and when I was just a skinny teenager with a full head of hair in the late 90s, knew of IHCC for its prodigiously winning men’s team. But in all my years, I’d never made the trek to see the JUCO juggernaut and was reminded of their dominance upon walking into the Hellyer Center and seeing the banners: 89-straight wins and three straight national championships from 1997 to 1999. They were led by Cincinnati Bearcat and eventual Euro MVP, JUCO par excellence, Pete Mickeal.
The stage was more than up-to-par for a battle between the country’s top two JUCO players: 6-foot-6 wing Jay Scrubb from 4th ranked John A. Logan, committed to Louisville and 6-foot-7 wing Tyon Grant-Foster from IHCC, committed to Kansas.
This was less a head-to-head comparison either in my intent (I didn’t go down there to crown Scrubb or Grant-Foster) or in their on-court matchup (they were rarely matched up with each other), but drawing comparisons and contrasts is only natural and the first ones we make are typical surface level. Scrubb looks the part: he’s more physically developed, lean but with square shoulders and the face of a young man with mustache and goatee. He looks like he was cast for the role and carries himself as such. By contrast, Grant-Foster has the look of a high schooler, his facial features soft, his chin hairless, his long arms dangle but without much definition.
And of course, there are my own biases and preconceptions. Scrubb was the prime attraction. He averaged 20-a-game as a JUCO freshman on 55-46-79 shooting. He was the only freshman to make the JUCO D1 First Team All-America squad and prior to committing to Louisville, he flirted with going pro after his sophomore season at Logan. Scrubb was the main attraction, Grant-Foster an intrigue, a recent Kansas-commit who averaged just 8 points as a freshman; I was more intrigued by KU coach Bill Self’s interest than my own.
Off the opening tip, IHCC made their intentions with Scrubb clear by face guarding him with the solidly-built 6-2 Chris Childs (it does not appear he’s related to the former NBA player though of course it’s entirely possible). This portended what would be a long night for the Cardinal commit who would struggle get breathing room for all 38 of his on-court minutes.
Breathing room be damned, it was easy to see how Scrubb’s game comes together. At 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan and listed at 220 pounds (this seems generous but people hide weight in strange places), he has a pro ready frame though his functional positional strength looks to be an area he can improve upon (more on this below).
He moves extremely well, on and off-ball, guarding ball or defending off-ball. He gets low with a strong knee bend on post-ups, which appear to be part of his repertoire though, again, his strength holding a seal is something I’ll get into, and does the same guarding the ball. His lateral and hip movement are effortless and his focus and intensity, particularly on-ball, are high; he locks in well. Off-ball, he had the occasional bad habit of turning his head and losing sight of ball in order to stick with man, but this is relatively easy to correct.
Scrubb’s been reported as having a 40-inch vertical and his functional elevation was easy to observe; most notably attacking the offensive glass and on his pull-up jumper. He averaged over one-and-a-half blocks as a freshman and given his lift and length, it’s easy to see why. In this game, he attacked the offensive glass, but with limited success. IHCC was great putting a body on Scrubb and his instincts were to elevate for boards instead of seeking out optimal position. That said, he shows good awareness attacking the o-glass in the first clip below. Unfortunately, going backdoor against an overplaying defender wasn’t a route he frequently sought out.
On the night, Scrubb shot just 4-15 from the field which isn’t that big of an issue. The IHCC defense was keyed in and focused on slowing him down. John A. Logan surprisingly did very little in terms of off-ball actions to help create space for him, opting for the occasional ball screen or post-up, but mostly settling for a balanced shot distribution. While I didn’t chart all 15 of Scrubb’s looks, I want to say 13 or 14 were contested and probably 11 or 12 were outside the paint.
He’s clearly more jump shooter than slasher and emphasizes his elevation to create space on pull-ups. The errant try below felt like a shot more out of frustration than anything else. While it’s a bad miss (and many of his misses were bad bricks), the lift and form are evident. His mechanics don’t break down from three and while I felt his release could use a bit of work, his balance and body control are strong:
As mentioned above, Scrubb sought out post-ups throughout the game and while he was able to establish position, he struggled to maintain it. Credit to IHCC’s coterie of defenders who, even when losing position, contested all entry passes, but some of this was an inability from Scrubb to hold the defender on his hip for extended periods. I don’t anticipate him doing a lot of posting up in the ACC, but it’s interesting to see how and where strength does or doesn’t translate. While not being the strongest player, he didn’t shy away from physical contact on either side of the ball or lose his cool over IHCC’s physical play.
In a lot of ways, seeing how a player reacts to adversity is ideal and between his shot being off and IHCC’s parade of physical defenders, Scrubb played within himself with the exception of a short stretch in the 2nd half when he sought out contested jumpers. His effort remained high and his offensive gravity allowed teammates more operating space. He projects out as an off-ball player, ideally operating off-the-catch with catch-and-shoots and attacking closeouts. In this 38-minute sample, he threw a couple of good passes and lost his dribble in traffic a couple times, but ultimately the sample was too small to draw any significant conclusions on his creation and playmaking though it seems secondary to seeking out his shot.
Part Jordan Crawford, part Jamal Crawford? Maybe it’s the similar skin tone or looping languid limbs, or maybe it’s the sharp handle, comfort freelancing, or heat check pull-ups, but Tyon Grant-Foster brought to mind those two Crawfords.
On a night when NBA scouts and Bill Self were in attendance, Grant-Foster navigated some early foul trouble to put together a signature second half. After a mostly forgettable first half marred by foul trouble, I didn’t write off Grant-Foster, but rather shrugged my shoulders and envisioned him as a future end-of-the-bench Jayhawk.
That he came out with a 22-point second half is less interesting than how he did it. While playing wing, Grant-Foster is one of IHCC’s primary initiators though he’s presently much better suited to create his own shot instead of creating for others. This is evidenced by a negative assist-to-turnover rate over his 34 career games at IHCC (1.5 turnovers for every one assist). That’s not to say he doesn’t vision or awareness as he exhibited good feel passing off the dribble, rather it’s an area he’s working to improve.
But getting his own shot? In both half court and transition, he showed ability to break down defenders, rise for the pull-up, and finish in traffic. For Grant-Foster, like Jamal Crawford, it all starts with the handle. An assortment of hang dribbles, hesitations, and crossovers kept defenders off-balance all night. Once he achieved advantage, he opted primarily for pull-up threes or slashing attacks. From deep, he shot 4 of 7, including some huge clutch makes while IHCC clawed back from a double-digit deficit, but there were some questionable attempts and his release could probably use refinement. Grant-Foster doesn’t hold his follow-through at all which isn’t a death knell to the jumper, but over longer samples, I’d expect struggles with accuracy. In the clip below, his wiggle and confidence are on display, but that quick release, almost fling, is worrisome:
When not banging in heat check threes, Grant-Foster attacked the basket. He got to the line seven times and showed natural instincts for getting to the rim. His wiggle combined with the threat of the outside shot allowed him to beat primary defenders. His change of pace and direction allowed him to beat help defenders while his length, craft, and touch helped him to finish inside. And while not the explosive leaper Scrubb is, Grant-Foster showed good lift finishing one dunk and just missing a second one in traffic.
Where he can expand his attack is in creating for others off-the-dribble. He’s good enough to beat defenders and while he was able to connect on a couple of drive-and-dumps, a combination of spacing and more consistent awareness will help bump him to the next level. The other area that was of some concern was his dependency on somewhat of an isolation-heavy, freelance approach. IHCC desperately needed him to takeover this game, but he’s prone to pounding the ball east-to-west (and back, and back, and you get the point) trying to shake a defender and there’s likely fine tuning to occur there. That said, I’m somewhat loathe to mess with a player’s natural expression, particularly if it’s effective and would be interested to see if and how frequently Grant-Foster goes on these forays. He’s not a selfish player, but he is a self-interested, confident one.
Defensively, I didn’t get near as good a sense of his game as I did Scrubb’s. He was engaged on the defensive end and looked to pounce on passing lanes at times, but by focusing on Scrubb’s offensive game, I missed out on finer details of his defense. Purely looking at his stats, he definitely makes an impact defensively. Through a short two games, he’s averaging 1.5 steals and a single block, but last season he put up a gaudy 7.5 blocks/40 minutes. That number’s ridiculous enough that I wonder if he was just leaping at everything trying to swat balls into the bleachers.
Driving home in the dark with a quarter moon hanging low on the horizon, smoke curling into the sky from factories and plants sitting miles off the highway, it still struck me as random that out here, in southern Iowa lives and breathes a JUCO basketball hotbed that’s produced 22 current NCAA players, over 30 current pros, and five NBA draft picks. My dad had driven up to Ottumwa from where he lives in Kansas City and was kind enough to bake some chocolate chip cookies for me and I drove, eating cookies while the moon finally dropped below the horizon, pondering that basketball history and the spaces being carved out in the present by young men half my age like Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster. Future pros in some league somewhere; perhaps as obscure as Ottumwa.
October 18, 2019Posted by on
It’s fitting to start off this 2020 NBA draft prospect season with the incoming freshman who’s widely recognized as the top prospect of the 2019 high school class: James Wiseman. But it’s also fitting for a blog that rarely takes hard and fast stances to pick a player who the experts love, but draft Twitter cocks a skeptical eyebrow towards. And I’m an appropriate author of such a piece as my viewing experience has revealed a case of not one or two Wisemans (Wisemen?), but multiple Wisemans. More appropriate yet is that these schisms in style are part of a long tradition of basketball playing big men whose basketball-playing selves (to say nothing off their non-basketball playing selves) are caught in a crisis of uncertainty between how others view their potential and they themselves view it. Or, to quote the writing of the great Leo Tolstoy, “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”
For Wiseman, there’s not much doubt about how he sees himself. It’s expressed in his play and through his words, “I’m a very versatile player, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can run the floor really well for my size.” He’s “patterned” his game on “Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, and even David Robinson.” His high school coach, Jevonte Holmes, sees KG, Bosh, and Marvin Bagley and his new coach at Memphis, former NBA player and portrayer of the fictional Butch McRae, Penny Hardaway, also sees Bosh. It makes good sense to model your endeavor, whatever it may be, on the best. I think there was a time where I fancied my writerly self some kind of Jack Kerouac even if my style and talent in no way matched. Wiseman at least shares physical dimensions with the aforementioned and I may have shared similar measurements to Kerouac. Wiseman appears longer than his comps (although his long-reported 7-foot-6 inch wingspan may be closer to 7-foot-4) with a massive 7-1, 240-pound frame that moves with the fluid ease of the Mississippi rolling along Memphis’s border; it’s a body that expands and explodes to block shots as though it were a natural birthright.
The clips I’ve watched of Wiseman span from the 2018 EYBL season up through the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit with his 2018-19 high school season in between. The player I’ve watched is wildly inconsistent, a player capable of flattening oppositions like that giant lizard-dinosaur and that gorilla in Rampage (these characters appear to be unimaginative knockoffs of King Kong and Godzilla, but are not those name brand giants) in one sequence and morphing into an overdribbling, fade-away shooting wannabe Kobe Bryant (but without the touch) on others. Younger players will inevitably be less consistent than their older, more physically developed and experienced players, but with Wiseman there appears to be a yawning gap between capability and even moderately efficient reality.
As far as identity is concerned, Wiseman isn’t alone and isn’t completely at fault for any incongruities between what he is and what he thinks he is. Basketball and big men have a long, strange, unimaginative history that has taken creative, experimental minds to untangle. A year ago, inspired by a draft class of versatile bigs, I wrote about basketball’s relationship with its tallest players, a relationship that for years yielded to orthodoxy. In that piece, I argued that players like Bob McAdoo, Dirk Nowitzki, and Draymond Green, paired with creative coaching in Jack Ramsay, Don Nelson, and Steve Kerr, redefined not just what big men could be, but what was required of them. As presently deployed, James Wiseman is the experiment gone too far.
From 2005 to 2012, Dwight Howard was mostly an ideal marriage between ability and execution. I say mostly because, despite being surrounded by shooters, for every assist he threw, he turned the ball over twice. But beyond the occasional detour into playmaking or advanced post moves, Howard dunked home over 40% of his 4,000-plus made field goals. He set screens, rolled, caught and dunked. He anchored what was consistently a top-five defensive team with defensive awareness, effort, and scheme combined with an idealized mix of size, length, and explosiveness. He won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and was MVP runner-up in in 2011. But throughout Dwight’s history of being elite Dwight, there was the insistence on being an offensive focal point which were accompanied by mumblings and rumblings desiring a greater share of the offense and in his recent vagabond years, even an expressed a desire to become “his own version” of Kevin Durant or Draymond Green. The problem isn’t that Howard wants to expand or improve his game, it’s that his strengths and abilities don’t align with his stated role models.
The original big man who navigated a complex on-court identity crisis was Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t believe him to be the greatest of all time or even the most dominant, but I have no issue with people who make those statements about a man once nicknamed the “Big Musty” for his overwhelming body odor. But Chamberlain was a sensitive man who heard all the criticisms and responded with an almost childlike obstinacy. Peter Vescey, then of the New York Post, wrote in 1999:
He once told me the one regret he had was that he didn’t play more aggressively against Russell. Red Auerbach would say stuff and get into his head, and the papers would write stuff and get into his head. He let the criticism affect him.
Following the Jayhawks’ 1-point defeat to unbeaten UNC, Wilt never could seem to shake his loser’s image. A couple insufferable setbacks in championship games to the Celts and everybody readily bought into the perception. Maybe even Wilt himself, who became more insecure and defensive as Russell’s hands swelled with rings.
Somewhere along the way, Wilt, like everybody else, got numbed by his numbers, blinded by his brilliance and spoiled by the spectacular.
Rather than bully people, he badgered them. Instead of becoming vengeful, Wilt often got passive. Instead of piling it up from point blank range, he upgraded his degree of difficulty. Instead of dunking on people’s domes, he aided them by adopting a fadeaway. Other times, he hardly shot at all in an attempt to prove critics he could accomplish anything he wanted. One season he decided to become league leader in assists, refusing to pass the ball to cutters whose field goal percentages didn’t warrant the risk. Wilt became consumed with proving his success wasn’t based on brute force, but elan and aptitude.
In his GOAT: The 40 Best Careers in NBA History series, Ben Taylor made the case that Chamberlain’s (9th all-time on his list) “four best teams, by far, come from his non volume-scoring years, and the last two come from his ‘Tyson Chandler’ vintage.” Chamberlain was unstoppable on the offensive end, but, Taylor shows, that dominance didn’t make his teams better offensively. And as Vescey points out, he got in his head to lead the league in assists, but as Taylor again articulates, “he was letting defenses off the hook by looking to pass too much.” Chamberlain’s greatest contributions to winning were done on the defensive end as a rim protector, rebounder, and fast break initiator and yet he was almost dragged, kicking and screaming, into this role by Los Angeles Lakers coach Bill Sharman. It’s not that Chamberlain should have played like Russell, he was far too talented offensively to be an equal cog in the wheel, but that his utilization required a moderation that he struggled to accept and likely never fully accepted. Chamberlain was a great scorer and excellent passer, but instead of a steady diet of either, much of his career was spent overexaggerating these skills at the expense of team success because, like most everything Chamberlain did, he did it to excess.
Which brings us back to James Wiseman, the 18-year-old supposed Chris Bosh. I’m not bringing Howard and Chamberlain (a Hall of Famer and future Hall of Famer) into the conversation to make any comparison in terms of ability, but rather to draw direct and emphatic comparisons regarding the fickle nature and deployment of NBA big men. At this point, it’s even fair to pose this as a chicken/egg question with Wiseman. If he never fell in love with the top-of-the-key three-ball or shitty fadeaways, does he elicit the same excitement and “unicorn” hyperbole? If teenage Wiseman operates as a back-to-the-basket dunker and rim protector (I suggest that because the roll man role doesn’t exist at the high school levels in a way that allows a player to define himself), is he still as attractive to the scouting world? Put another way, Clint Capela is not sexy.
If Wiseman can escape the ghost of Bosh and play his game, what can he be? Despite a lanky build, Wiseman is sturdy at 240 pounds, but it’s a 240 that he’s still figuring out how to use. While not being the most physical interior presence, with his size, footwork, and ability to squat low into position, he’s exceptional at gaining position on interior seals and being a big, high-reaching target for lobs. Against college teams with advanced scouting, this type of action won’t be as readily available, but Wiseman has an improving basketball IQ and if he can incorporate his interior seals and spin moves into improvisational reads, he’s fleet footed enough to get easy, high-percentage attempts more frequently than most players.
Wiseman has exhibited inconsistent competence in reading the floor out of the post – in isolation and against doubles. While his reactions to doubles aren’t the quickest, he’s able to use an escape dribble and his size to find an open man, but this comes and goes. Sometimes he’ll look calm reacting and seeing the crosscourt pass while others will find him panicking to get rid of the hot potato before someone steals it. The skill is further mitigated when he takes a premeditated shot; which he’s shown a tendency to go from catch-to-post move all in one motion without regard for the lay of the court or defense. He can make basic reads and occasionally advanced reads, but in the EYBL circuit specifically the lack of spacing limits these opportunities.
His greatest strength at present is his defense. This was best on display at the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit in May when he blocked seven shots in under 23 minutes of play. This was on an NBA court (Portland’s Moda Center) with a 24-second shot clock and against high D1 players. Wiseman was on full throttle, but he remained in total control of his effort. Instead of swinging for every shot attempt like pros Hassan Whiteside or Mitchell Robinson are prone to do, his contests were measured, but relentless. While he blocked seven, he deterred or forced adjustments on many more. He was most impactful as a help side defender as the World team struggled to make him pay for helping, but in one-on-one possessions against Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and N’Faly Dante (Oregon), he frequently stayed between man and the basket while holding his ground despite giving up pounds to both. In the clip below, he blocks two shots and contests a third in about a five-second stretch which, maybe it’s because I’m 38 and overweight, but it’s exhausting considering jumping with exertion that many times in a row.
If Wiseman is capable of bringing that type of defensive effort with consistency, he can directly impact winning in both college and the pros. In the 10-plus games I scouted, unfortunately, this effort wasn’t consistent. Against four-star big man and fellow 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, Wiseman’s effort was semi-catatonic, a 7-foot pylon outworked physically, unable or unwilling to compete. It was the kind of performance that triggers red flags. When fully present and working, defense is the greatest utilization of his copious physical gifts and given his size and athleticism, it has the potential to translate early on. In terms of switchability and perimeter defense, I haven’t seen a ton of examples showing he can or can’t move his feet on the perimeter. I have seen him use his length to get out on jump shooters and contest shots that typically be clean looks. While this ability doesn’t mean he can move laterally, he’s long enough that he can use his length to create somewhat of a cushion, but again, less than his ability to move side-to-side on the perimeter, consistent effort will be the deciding factor in his effectiveness.
In terms of weaknesses, the biggest issues arise on the offensive side of the floor where Wiseman is maddeningly inconsistent. His offensive decision making, particularly his shot choice, was so poor at the 2018 EYBL that I wondered if I should throw out the entire league when assessing his play. The amount of contested threes, step backs, and fade-aways are mind boggling. According to D1Circuit.com, Wiseman shot 4-27 (~15%) from three. He was a much more respectable 54% from twos and shot 55% from the line. For his 2018-19 high school season, one broadcast in December had him shooting 17% from three, but his high school coach claimed he shot 42% – which is a hard number to accept given his previous rates and the shot in general.
It’s not just that Wiseman is an inaccurate marksman, it’s that he insists on taking contested attempts and, at least in EYBL, he had the team running sets where Wiseman would sprint to the corner for quick catch attempts – which just enables the kid. I get the need to develop and the need for in-game reps, but between game film and stats, there’s no reason Wiseman should be taking these shots with any level of frequency. It would mildly more acceptable if he was seeking out catch-and-shoot threes, but in the true spirit of mucking it up, he prefers contested, off-the-dribble attempts and has the awful habit of straddling the three-point-line. It’s all strange and reinforces the damn Tolstoy quote above: “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”
I don’t know the ideal blend of in-game reps versus practice reps for a move or skill. A high school coach I had suggested we need to be able to hit 8 of 10 shots unguarded to be able to attempt it in a game. Does Wiseman shoot 80% on step backs, fade-aways, and threes in practice? It’s certainly possible. At times, he exhibits soft touch on his jumper and in my notes I, just like Penny and Jevonte Holmes and Wiseman himself, wrote of a particular fade-away: “that’s the most Chris Bosh-like thing I’ve seen from him.” But at what point does a glimpse become a possibility or a building block? I’ve seen enough Wiseman to know why people make the comparisons they do, but the slivers and snippets of good-to-great basketball moves are outweighed by the accompanying bumbling of it all.
There are two clips below: one of Wiseman utterly destroying top-3 2021 prospect Evan Mobley. The other of Wiseman settling for a crappy contested jumper and having it blocked by a shorter, weaker, less-gifted-but-still-very-gifted player. Neither of these clips defines James Wiseman – either as presently constructed or as imagined. His basketball reality and future live somewhere in a vast infinity of possibility which will, bizarrely, make perfect sense whenever we arrive there. Wiseman has a supreme confidence in self, but is that confidence enough to bridge the gap between what he feels and what he can do? Or is his destiny an endless pursuit of congruity? Could he be the best of his class? It’s possible. After all, just because I didn’t sniff the heights of Kerouac doesn’t mean I was wrong for trying.
Zion & Brandon: Hulkish Hermanos; alternately: The Intersection of Elite Athleticism, Intellect & Effort
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.