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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Tag Archives: basketball
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.
March 26, 2020Posted by on
It’s the afternoon on Friday, March 20th as I write this. I was supposed to be in Legoland in Kansas City with my three-year-old, Will. I always knew I’d be sneaking peaks at my phone and opening round NCAA Tournament games, trading the craziness of March Madness for the craziness of an overstimulated toddler. Instead, I’m looking backwards (as is usually the case in scouting, I suppose), watching games from February and early March before the Rony (coronavirus) descended on us like an unsensational Hollywood plot device, but alas, we have no Bill Pullman, no Will Smith, no Randy Quaid to fly his plane kamikaze style into the eye of the virus and perish so we can all go on with our bougie existences.
For this edition, we have 11 games and 70-some players spanning multiple continents, countries, and conferences. From Deni Avdija to Devon Dotson, Usman to Udoka, Maledon to McCullar, Merrill, Moretti, Mayer, Mitchell, Moss, McCormack and I could just make up some names and they may have the same odds of making the NBA as some of the players I’ve watched in the past few paranoid-filled weeks.
The games are below and a reminder to anyone reading one of my dumps for the first time: The only players ranked are players I watched in this the games listed below so no LaMelo Ball, Luka Garza, Obi Toppin, or Payton Pritchard. There are two exceptions to this rule which will be explicitly called out.
- 2/7: Maccabi Tel Aviv @ Fenerbache
- 2/22: Kansas @ Baylor
- 2/29: Texas @ Texas Tech
- 2/29: Drexel @ Charleston
- 3/2: Texas Tech @ Baylor
- 3/3: Vanderbilt @ Alabama
- 3/5: Wichita State @ Memphis
- 3/5: ASVEL @ Real Madrid
- 3/7: Kansas @ Texas Tech
- 3/7: Utah State vs San Diego State
- 3/8: Memphis @ Houston
- Usman Garuba, Real Madrid, trending up, N/A Tier:
Garuba was still just a young hooper of 17 when I watched this game from early March. He 18 a few days after, but he looks nothing like either a 17 or 18-year-old with solid square shoulders, a broad chest, and lanky arms. Appearances and stats tell of a young man mature beyond his years: in 21 games of his past three FIBA events against competitors his own age, Garuba is averaging 21 and 17 per-36 with a somewhat inconsistent stretch of shooting: TS’s 68, 58, and 48. In 36 games with the big boy club (Real Madrid) this season, those numbers drop precipitously – which isn’t a bad thing: he’s at 10 and 10 with nearly three stocks/game per-36 with a 62 TS, 17% 3Pr and 40% FTr. He’s done this with Real as a true 17-year-old, a kid playing beyond the depth and experience of probably 99% of all 17-year-old basketball players on the planet.
And while Garuba sits atop my ranking here despite not evening being eligible for the draft until 2021, I don’t quite see him as the same elite-level prospect some others may. For a battered Real, he started against ASVEL and brought what have become trademark traits: willing physicality as a screener with great wide-based screens, ample effort around the basket keeping balls alive against grown men that went for easy boards against his own age group, a high-ish and loose handle, inconsistent shooting, and grace to his movements and on-court navigation that are remarkable for his age. He has excellent straight line speed for a big and runs the court hard.
This is all well and good, but against the experienced and pressuring ASVEL, Garuba was often in a rush; pushing the ball at one speed and unsure or unable to come to a complete stop without shuffling his feet. On separate occasions, refs missed travels and with his high handle and upright gait while dribbling in the open court, he’s prone to have his dribble deflected.
His form on the catch-and-shoot remains a work in progress with an elbow that is over-exaggeratedly tucked in. You can almost see him trying to line up or aim his three-ball instead of just fluidly going through his motion. On 83 attempts across FIBA and Real, he’s 29% from deep.
With his physical ability, size, and movement, he can and will impact the game enough that being a below average three-point shooter won’t break his game, but for all the feel and effort he exhibits, there’s a polish lacking that’s lacking. But again, he just turned 18. If anyone on this list has time, it’s him.
- Deni Avdija, Maccabi Tel Aviv, no change, Tier1:
Avdija might not be as good or have as much upside as Garuba, but he’s probably more fun – depending on your definition of fun and tastes, etc. Avdija is 6-8 or 6-9 with a decent, if 19-year-old-ish build and guard skills galore.
For Israel’s FIBA tams (U20, U18, U16), he’s a do-everything self-creating forward with sprinklings of Luka Doncic and Toni Kukoc. With Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team, he plays off-ball, but is aggressive and decisive attacking off the touch. His feel, on greater display with Israel than Maccabi, is elevated. He reads the floor well, anticipates, and can pull passes out of his ass.
Against Fenerbache, he seemed to be playing with an elevated confidence, unbothered by the competition or setting. His quickness is average at best, but he plays at a measured pace, takes efficient angles (offensively and defensively), and has high level of anticipation.
Playing off ball and shooting just 33% on 119 attempts for the season (across FIBA and Maccabi, he’s at 33% on 404 attempts), he had room on a handful of catch-and-shoots. For the game, he was 1-3 on C&S3s and hit one off the dribble. He shoots with confidence and while his release looks like it might be lower than ideal, I imagine he’ll improve over time. Free throw shooting is a bit more of a question mark. He didn’t get to the line in Turkey, but is shooting 52% on the season (on 27% FTr) and is at 54% on nearly 300 attempts across all comps. It’s a poor number for a player who’s otherwise so skilled.
With Israel, he’s proven to be competent and relentless as a cutter and keeps an omnipresent pressure on the defense. He’s also comfortable playing with his back-to-the-basket and mixes in spin moves and up-and-unders to gain advantage. The level of skill pops in technical aspects of his game: post moves, ball handling, passing, and defensive position.
Defensively, he’s severely lacking strength but not will. Against Fenerbache, he wound up on 6-11, 240-pound Jan Vesely a few times. Vesely spent three seasons in the NBA and in addition to just being bigger than Avdija, is more physically mature and powerful. He treated Avdija like a rag doll, using super upper and lower body strength to gain position on post-ups and rebounds. In and of itself, this isn’t anything resembling a death knell for the young Israeli prospect. But it lines up with some challenges I saw from him in the FIBA U20s last summer where his sound defensive technique (verticality and defensive positioning specifically) was frequently muted by stronger or more explosive athletes.
Avdija will get stronger and I believe his shot mechanics are sound enough that he can become an average shooter. The lack of strength does concern me even in the long-term as I believe it limits his long-term defensive upside. If Avdija can be just average as a shooter and defender, his ability and upside as a creator are good enough to slot him in as an above average starter. But getting to average shooting and defending is still years in development.
- Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, no change, Tier1: Nothing has fundamentally changed from when I wrote about him 10 days ago or however long it was, but enjoy some recorded video action:
- Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier2:
Nesmith is a bit of a fluky inclusion to this edition as his season ended back in January with a foot injury. I hadn’t written about him yet and saw more of his games last season than this one, but wanted to dig in a bit more and to be honest, this scouting dump needed a talent upgrade.
At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Nesmith has ideal two-guard size. He was overshadowed as a freshman behind McDonald’s All-American teammates and current professionals, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. Even last year, in a lot of ways he projected as a better fit at the pro level. His size, defense, and shooting were promising in his first season at Vanderbilt, but it was his injury-shortened second year that propelled his case forward.
He uses his size, strength, and length well on both ends, but it stands out more on the defensive side where he averaged 2.3 stocks/gm with steal and block percentages both over two. He’s shown strong defensive principles as a team defender who exhibits awareness of who he’s helping off of and where he’s helping to. His length is most valuable as a shot blocker in a variety of scenarios: as a help defender (clip below), on-ball defender, or in recovery. He showed improved strength in his sophomore year and should be able to switch up and guard smaller fours in the NBA although he has room to improve as a defensive rebounder; specifically his positioning and box out consistency. If he’s defending up, he’s likely to give up a decent amount of second chance opportunities.
Despite accumulating 500 minutes in just 14 games, Nesmith was a flamethrower, shooting an unsustainable 52% from three on 115 attempts. Per Synergy, he was on some Steph Curry-type shit, finishing in the 95th percentile or higher across spot ups (31% of the time), off screens (21%), hand-offs (8%), and in isolations (5%) while merely 90th percentile in transition (18%).
He’s most comfortable and effective shooting jumpers either off the catch or bounce and is already developing an ability to burst hard off off-ball screens, take the pass or handoff, stop on a dime, set his feet and elevate into his motion. It’s not the Korver, Klay, Redick-level of body control, but the foundations are there. I’m also not quite ready to put him into that realm of pure shooter off the strength of an incendiary half sophomore season.
The offensive effectiveness trickles off quite a bit after the shooting. Per barttorvik.com, he’s middle of the road at the rim while Synergy has him in the 60th percentile (good) on around-the-rim non-post ups. In my viewing, his athleticism and length on drives has been evident. He’s a long-strider who can get to the basket although I think he can be both more selective and effective attacking closeouts, but is somewhat limited by an average-to-below average handle, very little passing threat or awareness, and occasionally wild or off-balance shot attempts. There are possessions where he commits to the drive before he catches the ball and is dead set on getting off a shot. This is more maturity and game reps than anything else, but it’s an area of opportunity. With his frame, athleticism, and shot, attacking off the bounce has the potential to be a scary weapon. And while I see this as opportunity, it’s worth noting that he nearly doubled his free throw attempts from 2.5/gm to 4.5/gm while improving his FTr from 27.5% to 30.7%.
Because of the defensive impact and potential versatility combined with the shooting, I keep thinking of him as a bit smaller Dorell Wright although I believe Nesmith’s 14 games as a sophomore are probably better than any shooting stretch of Wright’s 549-game NBA career and while both athletic players, they’re completely different types of athletes. There are some low key hints of Klay Thompson as well, but this is more in the defense/lack of creation with slight nods to the shooting. Somewhere between Wright and Thompson is a yawning canyon of potential outcomes, but such is life: choose door #1 and find love, peace, and happiness. Door #2 is a highway to hell without the fun of an AC/DC accompaniment.
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.
December 20, 2018Posted by on
I first saw Romeo Langford a short nine-ish months ago playing in the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage – which was when I first saw several players in this freshman class. It’s odd what sometimes does or doesn’t stand out to you about a player, but with the 6-5, 6-6 or so Langford, it was his ability to rebound in traffic. There he was, this skinny, straight-faced kid with long arms (6-11 wingspan), taking the rapid-rising elevator up, up, up above the towering trees and snatching that ball out of the clouds with strong hands. There’s something about seeing one triumphant leaper emerge from a mass of high-flying bodies, but at the McDonald’s events, that’s what Langford did and, in the process, snatched affections.
At the time, he hadn’t committed to Indiana and was waiting to see where everyone else would go or something. That seemed weird, but seeing him at McDonald’s and then at the Jordan Brand Classic, it was clear he was in the right place competing easily with positional peers, Keldon Johnson and Quentin Grimes. He out-leapt UNC’s Nassir Little on the boards and exploited Bol Bol’s defensive limitations with a lefty hesitation which was followed by soft touch on a layup high off the glass. I didn’t walk away from the all-star cycle smitten with Langford the way I was with Naz Reid, but I saw him with a higher probability of pro success and with that intrigue, eagerly approached Indiana’s November games with optimistic curiosity.
We’re presently 12 games into what will likely be Langford’s only season in Bloomington, Indiana and what’s become painfully apparent, and what, when I look back over my notes from those all-star games was apparent then, is that he’s not much of a shooter. Through the first third of his freshman season, Langford’s made 9 of 44 3s (20.5%). He’s one of just 12 players in all of NCAA D1 who’s taken that many threes and hit so few. On 400 pre-college 3-point attempts in ESPN’s database, he’s shooting 30% so it’s hard to say if this 44-shot sample is a blip, a downward trend, or the result of greater opponents and pressures. In each of the three pre-college games I scouted, I commented on his form: “not fluid or smooth,” “Hit b2b contested 3s, but form isn’t great,” “C&S 3 form isn’t perfect, but it’s going in.” And in my first note from watching him against Arkansas, I was commenting that his pull-up was “forceful” – not as in a forced shot against set defense, but as in violent.
Despite my recurring notes implying there was a significant and concerning wart to an otherwise solid all-around game, it took me taking an aggregate view to accept how this skill has the potential to significantly lower Langford’s ceiling. If an NBA wing can’t shoot, they sure as shit better be able to do something or several things extremely well. There’s the Andre Roberson/Tony Allen route of defensive specialists with utterly broken shots. There’s the DeMar DeRozan path of being an elite scorer with an optimal mid-range game. Shawn Livingston, Rajon Rondo, and Elfrid Payton are playmakers who, at one point or another (or even the present), couldn’t or can’t shoot. Each of the aforementioned players counterweights his shooting struggles with some kind of uniquely packaged skill/size combination and even in a league where shooting has become one of the most valuable single skills a player can have, these specialists still survive, thrive, add value, and possibly most notably, they evolve – sometimes.
As a 19-year-old, Langford’s best attributes are his length and athleticism. He has a frame designed for basketballing with his long arms and catapulting legs and in a lot of ways, he knows exactly how to utilize these tools. Even though he’s not a threat to beat opponents from the perimeter, Langford makes a living at the line and the rim. Per-40 minutes, he gets to the line 8 times/game where he makes 69% of his attempts. On that list of 12 players shooting as poorly from 3 as Langford, he has the highest overall field goal percentage by far (49%) and is shooting 61% on 2s. Despite that abominable 3-point rate, his true shooting is a respectable 56% and it’s in part because he does so well attacking the basket. He has a quick, long first step he uses to get past initial defenders and he’s a good enough ball handler to drive effectively in either direction. If there’s much more than a sliver of daylight, there’s potential for this:
That dunk may have bounced off the back rim, but it’s not because he wasn’t high enough. Langford has a tendency to drive baseline and when he’s isolated, more often than not, he’s beating the defender. When help arrives and shuts down his driving lanes, the results are less effective. He’s not a bad passer, but he hasn’t yet exhibited great vision or decision making with any regularity. If he loses that driving lane, he’ll resort to picking up his dribble or looking for kickouts, but his decision making isn’t always fast enough to take advantage of the help. In the play below, he executes a beautiful leading pocket pass and this is the type of play he needs make more of, particularly if he doesn’t develop the jumper. From what I’ve seen of Indiana, they don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll with Langford and he doesn’t spend a lot of time at the top of the key. That’s not an excuse for his average decision making out of dribble drives though, but it does reveal an area where he potentially has more ability than opportunity:
Defensively, he has ability, but like his playmaking, he’s just average right now. He’s averaging over a steal and block per-game, but much of that is based purely on his length and athletic ability and not effort or technique. When he wants to, he can get low in a defensive crouch and moves well laterally. In terms of focus and intensity, like many 19-year-olds, he can be much better and more consistent. I’ve seen him lulled into ball watching and susceptible to backdoor cuts and he has a weird habit of keeping his hands and arms low when playing on-ball defense instead of being at the ready. I’m not convinced he’s lacking defensive intensity or if he just always has the same facial expressions. Whether dunking or locked into tough defensive assignment or standing in the corner waiting for the ball, Langford has proven inexpressive.
In his Game Theory podcast, Sam Vecenie described Langford’s jump shot as one of the draft’s biggest “swing skills” as in a skill that, depending on development, could swing a player’s future prospects in one direction or another. I thought this was an apt and accurate description. Langford’s average-to-good at a lot of things, but he hasn’t yet developed an elite skill or developed enough consistency in his playmaking or defense to offset shooting concerns. The DeRozan player type I mentioned above is similar to Langford in terms of neither player, as a college freshman, having an elite skill. DeRozan was bigger and more explosive which can mask some effort and skill deficiencies. I don’t write this suggesting Langford is on a trajectory like DeMar’s, but rather to point out that there are ways to overcome weaknesses or develop. On appearances alone, Langford seems to be getting more comfortable at the collegiate level; partially reflected by averaging over 6 rebounds and 4 assists in his past 3 games. He’s far from a finished product and a rugged conference season in a stacked Big 10 is likely to produce up and down results, but 12 games into his freshman season, Langford is far from a finished product. No one’s drafting him for today, they’re drafting him for a high ceiling and a floor that rests easily on awesome athleticism and measurables. I don’t think it’s as simple as hard work and dedication for Langford, but rather a confluence of opportunity, nurture, will, work, and stars aligning. After all, how many of us truly reach our potential? Some of us are content just snatching rebounds from on high.
December 12, 2018Posted by on
At some point, people are who we are. We have traits or temperaments that have either been hardcoded or fully realized through habitual refrain. Basketball players, as humans, are not exempt from this. Players become and evolve and settle. That doesn’t mean players can’t develop skills (Brook Lopez and three-point shooting) or become better versions of themselves (JJ Redick) or, in rare scenarios, tap into higher planes (Pacers’ Victor Oladipo). At what point the calcification occurs is hard to say: Is it age-based or experience-based? Is Karl-Anthony Towns forever a highly-skilled, but emotionally volatile contributor; fated to eternally be grasping for a potential he can’t attain?
Cam Reddish is the third banana of Duke’s Big Three freshman class (that’s not a slight on Tre Jones, but he’s not at the level of those three, not in terms of ability or perception which isn’t to say he won’t be a better pro than one of them, just that he’s not as good) which also includes Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Reddish, as a prospect, is both dependent on and exists independent of Williamson and Barrett, but I’ll scrape away at that later. He’s not third banana because he’s a lesser player or lacks their level of skill. He’s possibly the most skilled of the three. He’s the third banana musketeer (that sounds like a dessert) because of his approach to the game which has been described as passive or, in this case, as laissez-faire.
Maybe there’s something enigmatic in Reddish in the sense that for our elite athletes and basketball, even for the most gifted, hard work is a pre-requisite. Maybe a player can jump out of the gym and out-run Jon Ross in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn’t mean they can play a lick of ball. And in that hard work, there’s a baseline intensity that we expect. It doesn’t have to be Kobe Bryant, but we expect our best players to go hard and compete. Reddish has all the skill and ability: at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighing nearly 220-pounds, he already has the frame of an NBA player, but it doesn’t stop with his size. For 6-8 and 19-years-old, Reddish moves like he’s lived in this same body size for an eternity. He’s entirely graceful with long strides and great balance. In terms of skill, he plays like a kid who was taking AP Basketball courses at 14. A teenager doesn’t play this way without copious time spent in the gym, honing his game when the world and friends and kid stuff is beckoning from outside. His handle, with those swinging, loping arms calls to mind the peace of flowing water in nature, a running stream in its natural element with the ball bouncing easily, fully under his teenage control. To borrow from Bruce Lee, “be water, my friend.” His passing, probably being underutilized with Duke, isn’t just competent, it’s very good. He can see and execute a nice pocket pass and act as a primary ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. In transition, his ball handling combines with his athleticism, size, and court vision to weaponize him.
And his shot, specifically his 3-ball, which he’s launching over 7-per-game, is infinitely effortless, a casual, aligned, rhythmic toss that freezes time on aesthetic alone. That he’s shooting it at just a 36% clip with Duke on over 7 attempts-per-game and that ESPN’s Draft Express crew has him at 30% on 260 pre-Duke attempts doesn’t bother me although it probably should. I’m not concerned because it all looks so beautifully harmonic. My notes on Reddish are littered with exclamations about the ease of his jumper from distance and his pull-up. What can I say? At the end of the day, I trust his jumper – even if he doesn’t look, feel, or smell like he’ll reach that high-level volume/efficiency combo that separates the good from great NBA shooters. To be fair, most of those “good” shooters can’t handle or pass as well as even 19-year-old Cam.
It’s all very nice, but undertaken with the urgency of the collective world’s grandfather on a Sunday morning stroll in late spring when the birds are singing and he’s figured out how to finally, truly appreciate nature’s presence and has developed gratitude just for being. Cam Reddish plays basketball like that grandfather strolls (but probably without the gratitude because it’s harder for young people to fully articulate gratitude just based on volume of life experiences though there are certainly plenty of our young people who’ve seen and lived far too much in their short times on Earth). In games I saw of his in January and March, announcers had already picked up on the trend, suggesting he was occasionally “too cool” or telling us they’d “like to see a more intense approach.” In a story with the Philadelphia Inquirer from September of his senior season, Reddish responded to questions about areas of improvement with “motor and…defense.” The Inquirer story took place before those January and March games and so while young Cam knew his areas of opportunity, he struggled to make change.
This disconnect between effort and ability is strangely insulating at Duke where Cam has comfortably settled into a third option behind Barrett and Williamson. Zion is a black hole for attention, sucking in eyeballs and mindshares and tweets and highlights with his all-consuming gravity. Barrett is the team’s (Coach K’s?) un/disputed go-to-go-guy averaging 24-7-4 and for a while had missed more shots than Williamson had attempted. Barrett’s go-it-alone ethos in a loss to Gonzaga sopped up even more bandwidth from an audience trained to be ever-eager for scandal and someone to blame. And so Cam has settled into his role as a floor-spacing shooter who sometimes feels compelled to attack off the bounce. The reason this is semi-beneficial is that anyone who’s ever seen Reddish knows his game, particularly his offense, contains more than his Duke role implies. He can grab and go, he can pass, he can create for others. And as is sometimes the case with elite college players playing in well-established systems, the question becomes one of: Is this player in this role what we can expect at the next level? Or: Is this player being pigeonholed by a coach and system? In the latter scenario, Jaren Jackson Jr and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately come to mind as players who were limited by successful college coaches. Like an agent holding a player out of the combine or out of workouts, not knowing can work in a prospect’s favor. (Back in April during the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, I asked myself in my notes, “In love w/the 3?”)
While Reddish owns his own career, the presence of Williamson and Barrett is inescapable. They are black holes, vacuums, forces of nature that both obscure and force comparisons to Reddish. Alongside Barrett, Reddish is absolutely passive, a standstill shooting specialist who gums at defenses while RJ chomps. Against the perpetually-sweating, in-motion bulk of Williamson, Cam moves in slow motion uncertainty. As a prospect, he must be compared to them by proximity alone even though he remains his own, uniquely talented prospect.
Within all this compare and contrast and context forming, we’d be remiss to not touch on Reddish’s defense. In the pre-Duke clips I watched, he was a circumstantial defender with questionable effort and technique even more so than on the offensive side where his evolved skill and size could carry him through Sunday-stroll exertions. At Duke, he’s exhibited greater effort, but within his attempts has been revealed a poor execution. Through ten games, he’s averaging over 2-steals and has three games of 4 steals, but he has trouble keeping up with shooters when screened, is quick to bite on fakes even though he has just 2 blocks through 240 minutes of play, and gets turned around due to bad positioning. There’s work to be done here, but the most important thing is that he’s trying. It’s weird, but when you try, you’re vulnerable and an object for criticism. When you coast and take plays off, there’s no risk except looking stupid like James Harden on backdoors a couple years ago.
I’ve seen or heard Reddish compared to everyone from Kevin Durant to Tracy McGrady to Grant Hill because he’s tallish, smooth with a handle, and can shoot. Even if he had a more aggressive mentality, I think those comps are overly optimistic. Physically, he most resembles Hill or McGrady, but doesn’t have the explosiveness of either. He’s not the Swiss Army Knife Hill was and nowhere near the off-the-dribble attacker McGrady was. But he’s some thing, some laissez-faire basketballing thing who one hopes or imagines is just waiting to be unlocked like the mysteries of space or the Bermuda Triangle. I tend to think Cam’s role at Duke is the outcome of several factors: 1) The superior ability and aggressive approaches of Barrett and Zion, 2) Coach K’s schemes, 3) Cam’s own comfort slotting in as a supporting piece. Seen through this lens, he has the look of a player talented enough to contribute as a high level starter, but 3rd or 4th option on a winning team. The challenge with the NBA and a finite player pool is for Reddish to land in a spot where he’s expected to push a team over any humps. Team and scheme matter and as much as I like Reddish the kid (the Jay Bilas interviews on the beach in Maui were corny but I walked away from Cam’s thinking, “I like this kid”), he doesn’t strike me as a player good enough to transcend team or scheme.
But then again, maybe he’s just a malleable, ultra-talented, humble wing waiting for his James Harden-to-the-Rockets moment to grow a great big beard and unleash his full arsenal on an unready opposition. Maybe.
December 4, 2018Posted by on
Sometimes when I use Chromecast to watch ESPN+ games on my TV by way of phone, the stream chops up or reverts to standard definition and I fade into the pixels of my own distracted thoughts, unable to focus, uninterested in taking notes, just a breathing, beating being on the couch in a mind of its own making surrounded by striped pillows. Other times, the toggling between standard and high-def is nothing more than a minor inconvenience and the content, the game in all its magnificence, captivates and sucks me in like a magnet for my brain’s thoughts. The latter is what (mostly) happened on the evening of Monday, November 26th, 2018, the night I bought into the myth, the legend, the mystery of Ja Morant.
Morant is a point guard for the Murray State Racers, a college basketball team based in Murray, Kentucky near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, a couple hour drive from Nashville. The school has produced current NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan (recently cut by the Suns) and Cam Payne and based on the 40-plus scouts that attended the Murray-State/Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, Morant is a lock to join them as pro basketball representatives of the Racers.
This wasn’t my first experience with Morant. The Racers made the Tournament last season when Morant was a sophomore and draft heads have been gushing about him for a while. But impressions (first or otherwise) still matter and the lithe guard, who’s built like a shorter version of Jamal Crawford with equally supple limbs and joints, didn’t bother waiting to impress himself upon the ‘Bama faithful and NBA scouts on Monday night:
The defensive read and react is helping to push him towards 2 steals-per-game and is an example of risk-taking instincts that can be both a weapon and a hinderance. What’s not a hinderance is Morant’s ability to get it and go, to survey the floor, the speed, the opportunities and make optimal decisions. After the game, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said, “Oh he’s really good, he’s a problem solver.” If open court situations are problems or opportunities doesn’t really matter though “opportunity solver” is an awkwardly apt descriptor of the 6-3 Dalzell, South Carolina native. In this case, Morant doesn’t push pedal to metal, instead he takes an almost leisurely but intentional pace, looking, reading, and then accepting the screen which buys him the slightest edge against defender Kira Lewis Jr. The beauty happens at the next level when Bama’s Donta Hall steps up to help. Instead of attacking the big man immediately, Morant waits for Lewis Jr. to scramble back before hitting him with two moves: first the shoulder turn which forces the defender into a second scramble and then a left-to-right crossover which the defender overruns and creates space for the funky clutching jumper.
In the first 10 to 15 seconds of game action, Morant firmly impressed and imprinted himself upon the game and predictably, didn’t stop there. The subsequent 39 minutes and 45 seconds (of which he played every possession), were flush with highlights and not just the style-over-substance variety, but purely functional, occasionally improvisational. Morant is an athlete at work, the court some kind of stage on which the unchoreographed dance unfolds.
Basketball has blessed with a medium for the long, graceful, and athletic among us to soar, pirouette, and breath life into our imaginations. Morant does these things with what appears to be casual ease which isn’t to question his effort or the work he’s put into his game. As a freshman last season, he shot 52% on 2s, 30% on 3s. Just a season later and he’s cranked his 2s up to 67%, his 3s up to 33% while nearly doubling his attempts in both measures. He makes playing hard and effectively look easy.
Again, with Lewis Jr. defending him, Morant uses the screen as a decoy before explosively changing direction with a right-to-left crossover that easily beats the younger defender. Once the second level has been attained, Morant has a few choices: release valves in the corner and wing, a dump-off to the big, or take the shot himself. In this play, Morant’s speed both works for and against him: It forces the help defender to commit, but it also forces Ja to make his decision sooner and by the time he leaves his feet, it’s either dump-off or shoot. The pass itself is perfect, a laser like zipper into the waiting hands of his teammate. That ‘Bama’s rotations anticipated the dump and shot don’t take away from the read and execution.
These plays are borderline commonplace for Morant who makes a living beating first defenders. The combination of handle, quickness, speed, and pressure make for a difficult cover for any opponent. ‘Bama’s defensive stopper is a 6-7 sophomore wing named Herb Jones who has prototypical NBA length. As a freshman, Jones helped harass present-day Atlanta Hawk, Trae Young, into a 6-17, 5 turnover game last season and ended up matched against Morant a few times. On the switch below, Jones’s positioning is great: he’s low, moves well laterally, and seems ready for the challenge. Morant is too quick though and gets too low. For a moment, it seems he might go right, which is the side Jones has opened, but instead he smoothly goes right-to-left between his legs at which point he makes his first step, shoulders so low Jones can’t recover. The scoop shot finish is largely unmolested:
In the limited documentation we have of Morant, adaption appears to be a recurring theme – both in game and in role. Against Alabama, after proving indefensible in man-to-man coverage, Johnson began throwing double teams at the lean point guard and watching him change tactics in-the-moment made for a great study in his ability to adjust. The first pair of doubles he saw, he didn’t panic, but didn’t attack either, rather he just passed out. On the third double, he attempted to dribble out of trouble, but quickly passed out. By the fourth double, he put the ball on the floor and attacked before the second man could ever get there, leaving ‘Bama scrambling. His quick reaction didn’t create a basket, but it showed his ability to read and adjust on the fly.
In the below clip, we see Morant gathering the defensive board and pushing the pace but slowing it up for just long enough for a defensive miscommunication. When John Petty (#23) and Lewis Jr. (#2) mistakenly turn away from Morant, he immediately crosses the ball over and accelerates into the lane. This wouldn’t have been there if he had pushed the ball full speed. By the time he reaches the paint, Jones (#10) is sliding into position to take a charge. On the previous play, Ja had picked up a charge on a dribble, but this time he simultaneously dumps it off to Jones’s man while easily avoiding the stationary Jones:
Morant’s adaption doesn’t appear to be limited to in-game adjustments, but is inclusive of his role within the team. As a senior at South Carolina’s Crestwood High School, he was a 27-point-per-game scorer, but with last year’s Murray State squad, he played the role of facilitator with seniors Jonathan Stark (over 2k points in his college career) and Terrell Miller Jr. carrying the team’s scoring responsibilities. Now, as a sophomore, Morant is the undisputed go-to-guy, probably shouldering too great of a load with a usage rate over 37%.
His role is strikingly similar to Young’s with Oklahoma last season even if the players are strikingly different in aesthetic terms. Circumstance dictates that both players carry an outsized load and the outputs almost mirror each other:
Morant through 6 games: 34.4 minutes, 27.2ppg, 8.4apg, 6 turnovers, 37.3% usage, 52.4% ast, 22.6% turnover
Young 2017-18: 35.4 minutes, 27.4ppg, 8.7apg, 5.2 turnovers, 37.1% usage, 48.6% ast, 18.2% turnover
With Young last season, there were questions about whether Oklahoma Coach Lon Krueger was helping or hurting Young by giving him so much freedom. Was Young developing bad habits? For me, it was always about his decision making: How adept was Trae at deciding when to shoot, when to pass, when to leave his feet? 24 games into his NBA career and Young’s showing an ability to assimilate into a team structure while still filling the role of lead guard. Krueger didn’t stain him or lead him astray.
I doubt Morant will be faced with the same questions as it appears his physical abilities will transition to the NBA much more smoothly than Young’s did. And given that we’ve already seen him flex his style from his freshman to sophomore seasons, there appears to be a willingness to adapt.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream for Morant in Tuscaloosa. He had 10 turnovers and was 0-4 from three and his team lost by six. The turnovers were a mixed bag of losing footing or handle on dribble drives, bad passes, and being out of control and maybe this is me showing my bias, but I chalk a lot of this up to growing pains; particularly given the overall talent disparity between the teams. Morant’s body control and elusive slithering are Crawford-like. His handling and explosiveness are serpentine and unexpected. This is a kid who drove into the chest of West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, a shot blocking extraordinaire who has a solid 75 pounds on Morant, and neutralized his length in last year’s NCAA Tournament. At Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp over the summer, he caught a lob and his head was easily above the rim. He casually dismissed the efforts of ‘Bama’s version of the Plastic Man in Herb Jones. He’s not a perfect prospect (jumper, strength), but his kinetic, electric, poised fury has me maybe more excited about him than any guard prospect in this draft class (Kevin Porter?). I’m giddy, I’m geeked. Murray State’s home court is less than 600 miles away and I’m ready for a road trip.
November 17, 2018Posted by on
When I first saw Andrew Nembhard participate at basketball, I was oblivious to him – his game, his story, existence. I tuned in to some Montverde Academy game to see all-world Canadian basketball phenom RJ Barrett, the current Robin to Zion Williamson’s Batman. Montverde is essentially a D1 college program. In addition to Barrett and Nembhard, the team featured Mike Devoe (now at Georgia Tech), Filip Petrusev (Gonzaga), Morris Udeze (Wichita State), Jermaine Cousinard (South Carolina), Josh Roberts (St. John’s), Kevin Zhang (Tulane), and Karrington Davis (Nebraksa) – and that’s just counting players that graduated in 2018, not to mention the D1-level underclassmen. This is an elite basketball factory that has helped to produce current NBA players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
And there was Nembhard, a high school senior playing ball at Montverde near Orlando, Florida by way of Aurora, Ontario. In a college freshman class that features a generational athlete like Zion, a prototypical wing athlete in Barrett, and a James Hardenesque manchild in USC’s Kevin Porter Jr, Nembhard actually looks like the 18-year-old he is. He’s 6-4 or 6-5 (depending on where you look), somewhere around 190-pounds. Among you or me, he’d be a tall kid; not big or physically imposing. On Montverde’s collegiately-sized team and on the Florida Gators’ actual college team, his appearance merely blends into the kids and young men wearing same-colored jerseys, most taller, some shorter.
It was against this embarrassment of riches that Nembhard somehow stood out. Playing point guard for a stacked team, he wasn’t faster or quicker, didn’t jump higher and reach longer than opponents or teammates. In the multiple games I’ve seen of his now, I don’t recall him ever dunking and my notes don’t indicate anything about a dunk. Yet, there he was in medium-sized glory, tall by point guard standards, splitting playmaking duties with the wunderkind Barrett. Point guards, for all the unselfishness that we associate with passing and facilitating, can be brutally ball dominant and taskmasterish, insistent on being the engine through which an offense runs. Nembhard, by contrast, has proven a modern awareness of positionless basketball. Alongside Barrett, he willingly shared playmaking duties and in his brief, three-game career at Gainesville, he’s shown comfort playing on and off the ball.
Nembhard’s overall feel for the game is what pops. I don’t believe passing and court vision are genetically passed on though some of the root abilities are likely transferred genetically. Despite my beliefs, Nembhard has the so-called passing gene. Next to his Montverde All-Stars, he combined sound fundamentals (head up, always kept his dribble, always knew where teammates were) with the occasional flair required of playing with an ensemble cast: no-look passes, lobs, and pinpoint outlet passes to streaking gazelles wearing basketball uniforms.
Where the passing gene has been forced to take on a different lens at the NCAA level has been a skewing towards functionality and Nembhard is nothing if not functional. Against bigger, faster college defenses, I haven’t seen the no-looks or even many lobs. That doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. He’s averaging nearly 6 assists and just two turnovers. Before he even played his first game at Florida, head coach Mike White said, “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program.” His offensive awareness, with head up and darting eyes, continues to be a weapon that takes in and computes the entirety of his surroundings: cross-court passes to unguarded teammates made easier since he can see over most college guards, wrap-around passes to players he can’t possibly see, transition passing to leaking runners, and of course the penetrate and kick or dump after drawing in help defenders. And that head up habit? His dad, who coached him since he was three, “taught Andrew to keep his head up when receiving a pass,” and said, “when Andrew catches the ball, his first tendency is to look up … to see if someone is open.”
He doesn’t quite have old man game, but you can see intention in the tactics he employs that call to mind more veteran players. Already at Florida, I’ve seen him beat defenders off the dribble and instead of straight line, single speed drives, he slows down, gets the defender on his hip and forces the defense to make a decision: switch over to help or stay home. This quick-read and upshift/downshift ability leverages his size, strength, and decision making. And when the help defender stays at home, Nembhard has a nice floater and can attack with either hand.
While he’s competent with both hands, his finishing around the rim is still developing. Against Charleston Southern, he attempted three lefty layups from the right side of the rim and missed all three. In each case, it didn’t look like he gained any advantage by going with the left hand. When he finally switched to a more natural right side/right hand attempt, he drew a foul. Given his feel for the game, these types of forays seem exploratory more than symptomatic of larger issues and 14 shot attempts on two-pointers is hardly statistically significant, but it will be telling to see how he adjusts as competition gets better.
On the defensive side, the Canadian’s court and spatial awareness translate. He keeps a wide base and slides his feet well though he appears to bend more at the waist at times instead of at the knees which likely limits his quickness. He’s not the longest guy (close to 6-6 wingspan) and he doesn’t present as a disruptive force on defense, but not everyone needs to be Robert Covington or Kris Dunn to play defense. Nembhard seems to always be in the right place – rotating at the right time, moving his feet to the right spot. There was a play against Charleston Southern where an opponent beat one of Nembhard’s teammates on a basket cut. Anticipating the defensive breakdown, he checked the cutter which slowed him down enough for his teammate to recover and for the window of opportunity to close. It was a small, micro-moment, but it showed how he’s able to both diagnose and react to plays as a defender.
ESPN had him ranked 28th overall in the recruiting class of 2018, but he doesn’t appear in their mock draft or on their top-100 big board for players draft eligible in 2019. At present, the point guards ahead of him just do more things better than he does: Darius Garland is quicker and a better shooter, Ja Morant is longer and more athletic, Ayo Dosunmu more explosive. This doesn’t imply Nembhard isn’t a pro prospect as his overall game is on par with any of the aforementioned prospects, he’s just not as athletic or efficient enough with enough volume from the perimeter to push into that upper tier of current prospects. But this is a kid who’s already competed with the Canadian men’s national team where he’s made two appearances and averaged 5 assists in just 15 minutes/game. Against the University School at the Geico High School National Championships, he scored 8 points and racked up 13 assists to zero turnovers. He’s a confident, selfless player who can pass his ass off. I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it. Whether that happens in 2019 or beyond, his ability to develop and persevere (look up volvulus) are both good indicators that his arrival in the NBA is question of when rather than if.
November 6, 2018Posted by on
I first saw Naz Reid sometime back in March or April of 2018 during the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage which takes place a day or two before the actual event and might be more a competitive exhibition. Reid, a 6-10, 250-some pound teen from New Jersey was chucking threes and asking for lobs. He was graceful on his feet the way offensive lineman are and took up the same kind of space. He stole my attention by snatching the ball off defensive rebounds and gallivanting down the right side of the court, his shortish braids blowing in the Philips Arena breeze and then, when a defender had the nerve to impede this graceful giant’s progress, instead of a cartoonish collision or some uncoordinated big man bumblefuckery, he channeled an internal 6-4 Dwyane Wade and swiftly, balletically sidestepped the challenger for a soft lay in. I don’t think I took my eyes off him the rest of the game.
There are hints of Andray Blatche in Reid: near 7-feet, a bit soft, with an unexpected lightness of foot. One of his coaches at Louisiana State compared him to Chris Webber, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant saying, “He’s not at that level yet but he’s got that size, he’s got that athleticism, he’s got that mind to him.” It feels a bit hyperbolic to make those connections, but Reid inspires hyperbole.
At the McDonald’s game, the official one, Reid led all players with 11 rebounds while pitching in 15 points and despite the shift in formality from scrimmage to game, his open court ball skills were still at the fore. There were pull up threes (missed), spin moves, finesse layups with both hands. He’s proven to have a penchant for showing up on the biggest stages like he did in the New Jersey state Non-Public B state title game against Ranney which featured two five-star 2019 recruits in Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova). He rejected a shot from Antoine which triggered a fast break that led to a hard-running Naz catching a game-winning lob. Reid’s Roselle Catholic won their state class and went on to win the state’s Tournament of Champions. It helps to have multiple high-level D1 players like Kentucky’s Khalil Whitney, South Carolina’s Alanzo Frink, and UNLV’s Josh Pierre-Louis, but Reid was the straw stirring Roselle’s beverage.
Sometimes it’s a player’s stats that overwhelm you. When I was a youth in Iowa, I remember seeing a then-high school junior named Raef LaFrentz on the All-State team and he averaged roughly 36 points, 16 rebounds, and six blocks-per-game. He played in one of Iowa’s smallest classes, but with numbers like that and a commitment to Kansas, he had cache and credibility. Reid couldn’t be further from LaFrentz’s statistical supernova. As a senior he averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds. His assists, threes, and defensive stats are far from overwhelming and even reviewing Roselle’s clips on Youtube, there are developmental warts. Reid’s concepts of rim protection vacillate between statuesque, entertaining (wild swipes for shot blocks he could never get), and motivated (usually in the form of weak side blocks against smaller players). His knees aren’t always bent which leaves him unable to react, his arms are prone to dangling at his sides, and his ball awareness is inconsistent. Maybe this is just youthful inattention and lack of discipline, or maybe it’s Reid carrying an extra 10 to 15 pounds. It’s hard to say, but trying to map out some kind of developmental trajectory, defensive effort is the primary point of concern.
So his stats are pedestrian and his defensive intensity is lacking. And yet, he still finished 12th on ESPN’s Top 100 recruits for 2018. LSU’s head coach Will Wade was quoted as saying, “Naz Reid, 6-10. Best way I can put it would be, is wait till you see him. He’s something else. He’s like having Tremont (Tremont Waters, LSU’s point guard) at the center position. He can pass, he can shoot, he can do everything. Enjoy him, you won’t see him long.” Way back in 2015 when Reid was just a sophomore, Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press wrote, “Reid is clearly positioned to be the Garden State’s next Karl-Anthony Towns.”
I don’t see KAT or KD or Webber or Draymond in Reid, but it’s striking that others do. My first thoughts when I saw him at McDonald’s was touches of Lamar Odom’s game in Blatche’s body, but the more I think about it, the more he has shades of present-day perimeter player Boogie Cousins including the willingness to bully opponents. The touch and offensive IQ are bursting are like rainbows trailing behind the cross-court passes he whips with NBA velocity. In the clip below, he sticks a heavy-footed, outmatched defender with a lefty inside out that a lot of NBA big men would bounce off their feet. Effortlessly exhibiting pro level abilities as a soft-bodied teen sparks imagination and allows seasoned eyes to draw connections to all-time greats. And for as much as his defense is a royal mess, the Baton Rouge-bound Reid easily runs the floor with long strides and is a bludgeoning weapon filling the lanes with or without the ball. The motor is there, it just appears to be selectively utilized.
Reid’s not the only high-profile recruit heading to LSU this fall. Their 2018-19 class is ranked 4th in the country by 247sports.com and includes Emmitt Williams (26th), Ja’Vonte Smart (35th), and Darius Days (62nd). Being surrounded by this much high-level talent should create some familiarity for Reid who’s been playing with elite teammates dating back to his freshman year at Roselle when Isaiah Briscoe was his teammate. Whether Naz’s optimal set of teammates, the hardcore backing from his coaches, or his own copious talents lead him to a one-and-done college career and springboard him toward pro success is hard to say. He could be a beefier Odom, a taller James Johnson, or an American Kevin Seraphin. That his future paths are so undefined doesn’t unnerve me, but of course I have nothing at stake. Rather, not knowing what will happen, but knowing something magic could happen on any defensive rebound is at the crux of sports as entertainment and at the core of why Naz Reid is the player I’m most intrigued by in college basketball this season.
October 10, 2018Posted by on
**This is the third in series of 10 poems and art pieces we’ll be posting leading into the 2018-19 NBA season. All art in this series is done by friend of blog, Andrew Maahs whose portfolio can be found at http://www.Basemintdesign.com.**
It’s October in Iowa
Raining like Seattle forever and ever
The NBA is in town
Kids, families, future would-be hoopers
Packing in Hilton Coliseum
Jerseys of all colors parade past in the wet slog
Somewhere in the bowels of Hilton sits Andrew Wiggins
No one expects much from pre-season games
Twenty some odd minutes
Thibs is dressed like he just woke up from a Butler Bender or perhaps he’s still asleep
Bud’s hair is growing out and curls around behind his ears, it shines golden in the light
John Henson’s jovial and talkative, to opponents, teammates, fans
John Henson bangs and works but is powerless against KAT
Wiggins is a flat line
From the fourth row, Giannis is huge
Huge feet, huge shoulders, huge biceps with a huge vein pulsing
Brook Lopez is a mountain
Pat Connaughton’s hair is a high school dye job gone bad
The fans are mild, polite, the dads wear UnderArmour pullovers like they do everywhere else
I see Darvin Ham, Vin Baker, faces and names I’ve known for over 20 years
Thibs likes sticking Wiggins in the post
He’s game I suppose but it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter
I barely notice the score, it really doesn’t matter when you’re in the fourth row and can carry on a conversation with KAT
“What size shoes do you wear?”
It’s a large foot in Jordan 8s, a large man, an unkempt beard; he’s adept playing through contact
KAT laughs, carries on, scores 33 in a variety of ways
KAT Is the best tonight in Ames
Wiggins maybe cracked the top-ten and I don’t think that’s hyperbolizing
Giannis is as tall as the mountain Brook Lopez
He’s deadly serious, gives a damn
Even on a Sunday night in a preseason game at Hilton Coliseum in Ames Iowa
Bud signals for Giannis to sit sometime in the third
The Greek doesn’t bother hiding his frustration
In a 20 point game in the preseason at Hilton Coliseum, the Greek plays most of the fourth quarter
Upon finally agreeing to exit, he seeks out Bud, they squash it, Bucks win I think
Wiggins looks and plays like it’s a Sunday night in early October
With low energy and little in the way of expression
Wiggins worked the offensive glass for five rebounds
That tied his career high and it appeared accidental
Though sometimes offensive rebounding can be unintentional
But Wiggins isn’t really the right place, right time guy
Instead, from the fourth row, and from the TV
He’s detached, devoid of whatever’s coursing through
Giannis and KAT and probably Jimmy and probably Thibs and Bud too
Wiggins is not a flat line and I shouldn’t have written that but won’t delete it either
Wiggins snatched those five offensive rebounds because among athletes, he’s athletic
Quick leaping, high rising with
Good hands, but
I drank my beer and scanned myself for confirmation bias
Zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, zero defensive rebounds, four turnovers
Maybe, on one of his two missed free throws, he grimaced in frustration, blamed himself
Blasé blasé blasé
Walking to the car, soggy in the rain, my jeans heavy,
Me and Hamilton raved about KAT and Giannis
White Donte and Christian Wood too
Luol Deng looked a shell and was mercilessly stuck on Giannis
The crowd chanted “We want Rose! We want Rose!”
Jeff Teague pumped his fist to the chant, grinning at Derrick
Henson fouled out in 15 minutes and got a kick out of harassing the refs
Josh Okogie’s instincts were on display, Bates-Diop’s were not
Up close, in the flesh,
If you didn’t know better,
If you didn’t know Andrew and his background and potential,
You wouldn’t have noticed him
But a preseason game isn’t a place for drawing conclusions
And I often think about Andrew Wiggins and hope it all comes together
He’s only 23, averaged 23 points when he was 21, led the league in minutes
All the way home, the rain didn’t stop
July 16, 2018Posted by on
There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.
Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.
This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:
- #1 overall pick: DeAndre Ayton
- #2 overall pick: Marvin Bagley III (aka Bagels, aka I’m not convinced he should be on this list)
- #4 overall pick: Jaren Jackson Jr (aka JJJ)
- #6 overall pick: Mo Bamba
- #7 overall pick: Wendell Carter Jr
- #36 overall pick: Mitchell Robinson
We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.
It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.
The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.
After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.
I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.
(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)
The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.
Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”
Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.
Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])
Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.
Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.
2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.
Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame: