Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: basketball

Cam Reddish: Laissez-faire Basketballism

At some point, people are who we are. We have traits or temperaments that have either been hardcoded or fully realized through habitual refrain. Basketball players, as humans, are not exempt from this. Players become and evolve and settle. That doesn’t mean players can’t develop skills (Brook Lopez and three-point shooting) or become better versions of themselves (JJ Redick) or, in rare scenarios, tap into higher planes (Pacers’ Victor Oladipo). At what point the calcification occurs is hard to say: Is it age-based or experience-based? Is Karl-Anthony Towns forever a highly-skilled, but emotionally volatile contributor; fated to eternally be grasping for a potential he can’t attain?

Cam Reddish is the third banana of Duke’s Big Three freshman class (that’s not a slight on Tre Jones, but he’s not at the level of those three, not in terms of ability or perception which isn’t to say he won’t be a better pro than one of them, just that he’s not as good) which also includes Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Reddish, as a prospect, is both dependent on and exists independent of Williamson and Barrett, but I’ll scrape away at that later. He’s not third banana because he’s a lesser player or lacks their level of skill. He’s possibly the most skilled of the three. He’s the third banana musketeer (that sounds like a dessert) because of his approach to the game which has been described as passive or, in this case, as laissez-faire.

Maybe there’s something enigmatic in Reddish in the sense that for our elite athletes and basketball, even for the most gifted, hard work is a pre-requisite. Maybe a player can jump out of the gym and out-run Jon Ross in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn’t mean they can play a lick of ball. And in that hard work, there’s a baseline intensity that we expect. It doesn’t have to be Kobe Bryant, but we expect our best players to go hard and compete. Reddish has all the skill and ability: at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighing nearly 220-pounds, he already has the frame of an NBA player, but it doesn’t stop with his size. For 6-8 and 19-years-old, Reddish moves like he’s lived in this same body size for an eternity. He’s entirely graceful with long strides and great balance. In terms of skill, he plays like a kid who was taking AP Basketball courses at 14. A teenager doesn’t play this way without copious time spent in the gym, honing his game when the world and friends and kid stuff is beckoning from outside. His handle, with those swinging, loping arms calls to mind the peace of flowing water in nature, a running stream in its natural element with the ball bouncing easily, fully under his teenage control. To borrow from Bruce Lee, “be water, my friend.” His passing, probably being underutilized with Duke, isn’t just competent, it’s very good. He can see and execute a nice pocket pass and act as a primary ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. In transition, his ball handling combines with his athleticism, size, and court vision to weaponize him.

And his shot, specifically his 3-ball, which he’s launching over 7-per-game, is infinitely effortless, a casual, aligned, rhythmic toss that freezes time on aesthetic alone. That he’s shooting it at just a 36% clip with Duke on over 7 attempts-per-game and that ESPN’s Draft Express crew has him at 30% on 260 pre-Duke attempts doesn’t bother me although it probably should. I’m not concerned because it all looks so beautifully harmonic. My notes on Reddish are littered with exclamations about the ease of his jumper from distance and his pull-up. What can I say? At the end of the day, I trust his jumper – even if he doesn’t look, feel, or smell like he’ll reach that high-level volume/efficiency combo that separates the good from great NBA shooters. To be fair, most of those “good” shooters can’t handle or pass as well as even 19-year-old Cam.

It’s all very nice, but undertaken with the urgency of the collective world’s grandfather on a Sunday morning stroll in late spring when the birds are singing and he’s figured out how to finally, truly appreciate nature’s presence and has developed gratitude just for being. Cam Reddish plays basketball like that grandfather strolls (but probably without the gratitude because it’s harder for young people to fully articulate gratitude just based on volume of life experiences though there are certainly plenty of our young people who’ve seen and lived far too much in their short times on Earth). In games I saw of his in January and March, announcers had already picked up on the trend, suggesting he was occasionally “too cool” or telling us they’d “like to see a more intense approach.” In a story with the Philadelphia Inquirer from September of his senior season, Reddish responded to questions about areas of improvement with  “motor and…defense.” The Inquirer story took place before those January and March games and so while young Cam knew his areas of opportunity, he struggled to make change.

This disconnect between effort and ability is strangely insulating at Duke where Cam has comfortably settled into a third option behind Barrett and Williamson. Zion is a black hole for attention, sucking in eyeballs and mindshares and tweets and highlights with his all-consuming gravity. Barrett is the team’s (Coach K’s?) un/disputed go-to-go-guy averaging 24-7-4 and for a while had missed more shots than Williamson had attempted. Barrett’s go-it-alone ethos in a loss to Gonzaga sopped up even more bandwidth from an audience trained to be ever-eager for scandal and someone to blame. And so Cam has settled into his role as a floor-spacing shooter who sometimes feels compelled to attack off the bounce. The reason this is semi-beneficial is that anyone who’s ever seen Reddish knows his game, particularly his offense, contains more than his Duke role implies. He can grab and go, he can pass, he can create for others. And as is sometimes the case with elite college players playing in well-established systems, the question becomes one of: Is this player in this role what we can expect at the next level? Or: Is this player being pigeonholed by a coach and system? In the latter scenario, Jaren Jackson Jr and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately come to mind as players who were limited by successful college coaches. Like an agent holding a player out of the combine or out of workouts, not knowing can work in a prospect’s favor. (Back in April during the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, I asked myself in my notes, “In love w/the 3?”)

While Reddish owns his own career, the presence of Williamson and Barrett is inescapable. They are black holes, vacuums, forces of nature that both obscure and force comparisons to Reddish. Alongside Barrett, Reddish is absolutely passive, a standstill shooting specialist who gums at defenses while RJ chomps. Against the perpetually-sweating, in-motion bulk of Williamson, Cam moves in slow motion uncertainty. As a prospect, he must be compared to them by proximity alone even though he remains his own, uniquely talented prospect.

Within all this compare and contrast and context forming, we’d be remiss to not touch on Reddish’s defense. In the pre-Duke clips I watched, he was a circumstantial defender with questionable effort and technique even more so than on the offensive side where his evolved skill and size could carry him through Sunday-stroll exertions. At Duke, he’s exhibited greater effort, but within his attempts has been revealed a poor execution. Through ten games, he’s averaging over 2-steals and has three games of 4 steals, but he has trouble keeping up with shooters when screened, is quick to bite on fakes even though he has just 2 blocks through 240 minutes of play, and gets turned around due to bad positioning. There’s work to be done here, but the most important thing is that he’s trying. It’s weird, but when you try, you’re vulnerable and an object for criticism. When you coast and take plays off, there’s no risk except looking stupid like James Harden on backdoors a couple years ago.

I’ve seen or heard Reddish compared to everyone from Kevin Durant to Tracy McGrady to Grant Hill because he’s tallish, smooth with a handle, and can shoot. Even if he had a more aggressive mentality, I think those comps are overly optimistic. Physically, he most resembles Hill or McGrady, but doesn’t have the explosiveness of either. He’s not the Swiss Army Knife Hill was and nowhere near the off-the-dribble attacker McGrady was. But he’s some thing, some laissez-faire basketballing thing who one hopes or imagines is just waiting to be unlocked like the mysteries of space or the Bermuda Triangle. I tend to think Cam’s role at Duke is the outcome of several factors: 1) The superior ability and aggressive approaches of Barrett and Zion, 2) Coach K’s schemes, 3) Cam’s own comfort slotting in as a supporting piece. Seen through this lens, he has the look of a player talented enough to contribute as a high level starter, but 3rd or 4th option on a winning team. The challenge with the NBA and a finite player pool is for Reddish to land in a spot where he’s expected to push a team over any humps. Team and scheme matter and as much as I like Reddish the kid (the Jay Bilas interviews on the beach in Maui were corny but I walked away from Cam’s thinking, “I like this kid”), he doesn’t strike me as a player good enough to transcend team or scheme.

But then again, maybe he’s just a malleable, ultra-talented, humble wing waiting for his James Harden-to-the-Rockets moment to grow a great big beard and unleash his full arsenal on an unready opposition. Maybe.

Ja Morant: Boom Boom in Tuscaloosa

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.

Andrew Nembhard: A Passing Savant in Florida

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.

Photo: FIBA

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.

Naz Reid: Sometimes Magic Happens

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.

All the way home, the rain didn’t stop

**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
Odd indeed
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
He’s serious
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?”
“TWENTY!”
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

The Future is Long; alternately: When Everyone Becomes a Unicorn

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:

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:

 

 

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Top Player: Luka Doncic; alternately: Don’t Believe Everything Your Ears & Eyes Behold

Like every top prospect in this draft (and in most drafts?), Luka Doncic the prospect is not without flaws: he has a questionable handle for a lead ball handler and an annoying habit of picking his dribble up too early. He’s an average athlete and maybe over-reliant on stepbacks, and for all his advanced vision and screaming passes, he’s not above forcing the ball into spaces it can never reach. In other ways, he’s a complete outlier amongst his peer set: his pick-and-roll game is game is master class, his passing the best in the draft, his combination of size and skill an almost teenage facsimile of Magic and Bird which isn’t to say he’s Magic or Bird, just that for a kid his size to play with this type of skill is rare. Where the other kids in his draft class have played 30 to 40 games with other teenagers at the American collegiate level, Doncic has been battling with grown men, NBA-caliber men, in Spain’s ACB league. He is different, he is same.

Doncic is listed at 6’8”, 230-pounds which, purely in terms of height and weight, puts him in a class with Harrison Barnes, Joe Johnson, and Danny Granger: a trio of sturdy, shooting wings who, like Doncic, combine power with skill to offer NBA value. He is not the athlete of Barnes or Granger; flexible, wiry, strong. He’s closer to Johnson; powerful and dependent on skill. While his game doesn’t reference Johnson’s, his build and how he utilizes his strength does. Iso Joe has made a career out of being able to get to his spots and create looks for himself or his teammates. To be totally fair, Johnson’s handle and explosiveness off the dribble are much better than Luka’s. Both players use the dribble to set up defenders for space-creating stepbacks though Johnson’s is much more fluid than 19-year-old Doncic’s.

Artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

The bigger difference between Doncic and Johnson is the younger man’s ability to diagnose plays, see the court, and execute passes. It’s fun to reference Magic and Bird and lofty basketball IQ ideals, but even the European game has adopted the modern NBA’s spread schemes with players surrounding the perimeter and opening space for drivers like Doncic. In these schemes, he operates with the precision of LeBron or James Harden in that he can probe the defense with patience, draw in help defenders and, when all seems lost in the world and the dark clouds of help defenders descend on his little spaces, he can jump, see, twist, and whip violent passes to shooters around the arc. In that regard, he has the right set of skills for this modern NBA. And it’s not to suggest he’s a gimmick or an automaton, rather creativity, improvisation, and trust exist at the core of this type of play. Read, react. Read, react. Read, react.

For all the reasonable questions around Doncic’s athleticism, it’s his speed and pace that intrigue. Doncic goes hard. He sprints off screens, dribbles hard, pushes the ball up court with single minded, pedal to metal, headbanging intent: the goal is my destination; there is no alternative. (Blessings are curses, and nurses are nurses; ho hum.) Intensity is fun and magnetic, but knowing when to accelerate, when to brake, or when to just ease your foot back are more important. This is less a question of decision making and more a question of skill development. In my notes, I wrote, “could benefit from watching lots of CP3 – not the quickest guy; uses body, speed shifting.” (It’s always fun to reference yourself.) There are already hints of Paul in Doncic’s game. Against Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvian team at the 2017 Euro Basket tournament, Doncic was able to use his strength and mass both to get into the Zinger’s chest and neutralize his length and also hold him off to get clean looks at layups. Using strength to create space is a tactic both Johnson and Paul have excelled at and one that Doncic ideally continues to refine. Back to Paul; he’s a virtuoso and some think he’s the best point guard to ever play the game. It goes without saying that aspiring NBA point guards should study his game, but for Doncic in particular, with his strength, vision, and need to create space, CP should be a model to emulate.

I’m not convinced Doncic needs to be a point guard to reach his NBA ceiling. As I mention above, he has a terrible habit of picking his dribble up too early and he can be harassed by smaller or longer defenders with strong, active hands. It’s not to say he should disregard his handle as his game needs a strong handle to be fully realized. Rather, as with Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green, we’ve seen that elite passers can be utilized outside of traditional ball-dominant roles. I can envision him playing any position from one to four – and likely struggling defensively with any of them. He has plus defensive instincts with strong active hands, an ability to read the floor and anticipate the pass, but bends more at the waist than the knees and so is prone to being beat off the dribble. That’s hardly unique though and his offense is good enough that he can be a minus defender and still be a net positive. He’s a solid defensive rebounder when he commits to it, but is prone to ball watching and ignoring box outs.

I get the concerns: athleticism, ability to create space, handle, defense. But it’s hard to process those areas of opportunity without fully acknowledging just how advanced his game is. The questions, phrased in the lingo of the present, is about Doncic’s ceiling and floor: most agree he has a high floor based on that enormous skill set and basketball IQ. For the anxious and the detractors, his ceiling is in question due to the lack of athleticism and pudgier build. It’s a reasonable concern as he has a Paul Pierce-type build with a face that looks fuller than what we expect from our best athletes – which says more about appearances than outputs. Similarly to Trae Young, I’m opting for the eye test and the output for Doncic over the convention and appearance. First impressions are a motherfucker and appearances can skew entire perceptions. Doncic is 19, a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until February of 2019. He plays basketball. He just led his Real Madrid team to their league title and the Euroleague title while winning MVPs in both. As an 18-becoming-19-year-old, he played in over 70 games this season. He’s nothing like his peers.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 2 & 3; alternately: Floors & Ceilings, Todays & Tomorrows

Post written by Brian Foster, aka Bug. Follow him on Twitter.

All artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

DeAndre Ayton: From a physical standpoint, DeAndre Ayton is the most NBA-ready of all the bigs projected in the top half of the lottery. Standing at a rock solid 7’1”, 250 pounds, Ayton has the physique and mobility of a young David Robinson. Although Ayton doesn’t possess the shot-blocking acumen of the Admiral, he is the perfect blend of throwback size/strength with some modern NBA big floor skills sprinkled in. What stands out the most when I watch Ayton is his footwork and agility for a man that big. That rare ability to have that size/athleticism combination along with his elite footwork is what sets him apart from the other elite bigs in this draft. Ayton has a good balance to his offensive game that allows him to score in a variety of ways. His physical gifts make him a great finisher around the rim on both post-ups and pick-and-roll dives to the rim. At Arizona, he played with another center on the floor, while also facing a lot of zone defenses, so I expect him to be even more of a beast on the block with more room to operate. Ayton exhibits an excellent touch on his jump shot from the mid-range, so he has the potential to be a pick-and-pop threat if he develops range to the three-point line. His 73% free throw shooting is a good sign for his jump shot translating to the pros. Another area Ayton excels at offensively is efficiency. He had a PER of 32.6 during his freshman season, averaging 20.1ppg on only 13 shot attempts. Paired with his elite rebounding stats (11.6rpg), Ayton was an absolute monster for teams to handle from the moment he stepped on the court.

Like most young prospects, Ayton has areas of concern that he will have to improve upon to reach his full potential. The concerns with Ayton come on the defensive end of the floor. His defensive struggles seem to be more focus and recognition problems. At times, he will kind of space off and lose his man or allow his guy to get to the rim without much contest. He also had a low steal average at 0.6/game with just under two blocks. You would think he has the ability to double both of those averages with the minutes he had on the floor. He averaged a low 2.3 fouls-per-game while also playing a whopping 33.5 minutes each night, so it is fair to wonder if some of the low work rate on defense was from fatigue. I’m not as concerned as some may be about his defensive struggles, mostly because someone with that much athletic ability can become, at worst, a capable defender with experience and coaching.  Ayton has the potential to be an all-time great if he can clean up some of those defensive lapses, while also showing some more nasty when protecting the paint. Assuming no health issues arise down the road, my money is on Ayton reaching his potential, becoming a dominant force for years to come with Hall of Fame-type numbers when it is all said and done.

Jaren Jackson: Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the most intriguing players in the draft, possessing traits NBA execs are looking for from a high lottery pick. Jackson is young (doesn’t turn 19 until September), oozing with upside, and passed the NBA combine measurement tests with flying colors. During his freshman season at Michigan State, he showed the ability to provide elite rim protection, while also being able to switch and contain guards if needed. Jackson used his long 7’5” wingspan to block three shots-per-game while only playing 22 minutes en route to Big Ten DPOY honors. In this modern era of switching defenses, that defensive versatility and rim protection alone should get Jackson minutes right away. As an added bonus, Jackson also proved to be a capable outside shooter while in East Lansing, shooting a very respectable 39% from deep on 2.7 attempts per game. It remains to be seen if that percentage will translate to the NBA three-point line, but even having a pick and pop game in the 15-18 foot range is going to be a plus at his size.

The two biggest red flags for me with Jackson are his playing time and production in college. Some of the playing time issues were his own doing with foul trouble (8.6 fouls per 100 possessions), but Michigan State’s roster wasn’t talented enough for him to only be playing half of the game. Jackson also leaves a lot to be desired as a rebounder. He started out the season strong with five double-doubles in his first 10 games, but only had one double-digit rebounding game in his last 25 games of the season. With his size and length, you would hope to see a much better rebound rate, especially considering Coach Tom Izzo’s reputation for his teams always crashing the glass hard. All things considered, Jackson is still an 18-year-old kid learning to play the game. The difference between Jackson and the other bigs at the top of the draft, is that I believe Jackson is still a couple of years away from being a starting caliber player. If the team selecting him in the draft is expecting to get a player they need to produce right away, I think they’ll be disappointed. Patience will be the key for whoever selects Jackson.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Player #4: Trae Young; alternately: Wispy Hairs, Bold Dazzle, & Basketball

The first time I saw Trae Young (December 30th, 2017) play a full game, I lost my mind for a bit. This is hardly something to be ashamed of or to apologize for. Without pangs of momentary inspiration and even occasional overreaction, what are we? Pre-programmed overly rational beings subsisting on sterile logic and rationale? Part of what makes us human is our ability to feel, free of judgment, to exist in a moment, to imagine. This is why Trae Young has become an object of emotional overreaction – both good and bad. So what?

artwork by Andrew Maahs; http://www.basemintdesign.com

First the bad, the sober, the audit. For an NBA lottery pick, Young is slight of build. He’s 6’2” with a 6’3” wingspan and somewhere around 180-185 pounds. These measurements compare nicely with Jay Williams, Jordan Farmar, and Luke Ridnour. Unlike Williams and Farmar, Young isn’t an electric athlete. He has quickness and good instincts, but he’s not an exceptional leaper or explosive off the dribble. In his one year at Oklahoma, while he drew a lot of fouls (8.6 FTA/gm; sixth in the NCAA in FTAs) and didn’t physically breakdown, he was corralable by smart defenses and struggled at times to finish over size. His finishing was exacerbated by his decision making. Young is challenging to scout because his role at OU was so unflinchingly imbalanced: he was everything and everyone and so his decision making which could, at times, be described as abominable, becomes slightly less abominable against the context of his setting in Norman. And this decision making extends into every part of his offensive game: pulling up from 30-plus feet with plenty of time on the shot clock, penetrating into the jaws of the defense and leaving his feet in the lane and then flinging up contested and impossible shots, and making those same forays but instead of forcing the shot, forcing a pass into a tangle of long arms (5.2 turnovers/game).

Defensively, he doesn’t have the greatest physical makeup for a defender, but we’ve seen enough players to know effort and technique can mask physical limitations. In Young’s case, I frequently watched him standing straight up and down, considering taking an opportunistic approach to defending, but in the end opting to take no approach. His go-to move when getting screened was to wilt and make no attempt at fighting through. Similar to Young’s overly-relied-upon role on offense, I wonder (wishful thinking?) if some of this was enablement, maybe Young preserving his energy to continue carrying the team on offense. Effort is table stakes and not bringing effort is a sin even for the atheistic.

All of the above make Young’s NBA candidacy, while obvious, something that stirs up the bubble guts. If Big 12 teams could hassle him into the brink of the abyss, then what of Boston or Golden State or Utah or Patrick Beverley or Fred Van Vleet? If Alabama’s Herb Jones (6’7” with a wingspan around 7-feet) can frustrate him, then what of longer, stronger, better NBA wings?

Despite the physical limitations, coaching gaps, and decision making, Young averaged over 27-points and nearly nine assists. He made 118 threes on 36% shooting despite 74% of his total three-point-attempts coming from beyond the NBA line and 102 of those 241 coming from 30-feet or deeper (per CleaningTheGlass.com). His coaches struggled to develop any type of cohesion between Young’s supernova flaming balls of 35-foot-three-point bombs and his talented, if overshadowed, teammates. As the season progressed, entire defenses were stacked up to slow or stop him and they usually succeeded.

And yet, Young still inspires because, like Doncic, he has a set of skills that appear ready-made for the NBA in 2018. His range extends to 35-feet from the hoop which means his gravity has the potential to tilt entire defenses. Stretching the opposition to breaking points opens worlds of possibility for those with foresight, vision, and imagination. Young, despite being notorious for his deep, deep, deep threes, is at his best when playing his strengths (shooting depth, ball handling, and passing) off of each other. His handle is excellent: creative, quick, dexterous. The handle and shot allow him to create space or beat defenders without having powerful burst. His release, even from 30-plus feet, is quick enough that defenders have to close out tight which creates attack options. Once the initial defender is beat is when Young’s powers form like Voltron as he can beat opponents with floaters, lay-ins, drawing fouls, or, most impressively, passing. At the collegiate level, he kept his eyes up and patiently surveyed his options, reading, reacting, interpreting, and deciding. I’ve already mentioned that his decision-making needs vast improvement. He doesn’t have the size or strength to complete passes with the same oomph of Doncic, but his vision, spatial awareness, and improvisation are special and I imagine will only be better accessed when playing with NBA players. My refrain in all Young’s college games was something like, “imagine what he’d do with legit teammates.”

My first reaction when I saw Young’s combine measurements was to drop him down my big board. It wasn’t far (4th to 5th), but I thought it validated the concerns I’d seen; namely that he could be neutralized by length on the perimeter or interior; that his physical limitations would only be exacerbated in the NBA. As I’ve had time to process these prospects and Young’s game, I’ve realized that his skill and ability exceed the shortcomings. Decision making can be learned. Effort can be drilled. To be 19 with infinite range and preternatural vision is to inspire awe that makes people compare you to Steph Curry and Steve Nash. In draft terms, it’s not important that Young becomes Curry or Nash or Pete Maravich. It’s that he could, that it’s actually a possibility. That potential alone is enough to light up butterflies. That it’s purely potential and not realized against NBA men is probably causing reflux. Somewhere between butterflies and reflux lies the future of Trae Young.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 5 and 6; alternately: Tall Teenagers & Our Collective FOMO (we want to keep our jobs … and be right, but mostly keep our jobs)

Post written by Robert Hamill, aka Hamilton. Follow him on Twitter.

One sure thing in a draft is that there is rarely a sure thing. Every player has upside and downside; strengths and weaknesses; NBA-ready skills and those that need work. There are so many ways to predict the future, but without a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor you’re still just making an educated guess. Picking at the top of a draft generally provides a narrow range of outcomes, but on the flip side it’s a bigger deal to the organization and the player when he doesn’t pan out. When the player is big the flop is even bigger. Why are basketball people still obsessed with size, even when they’re repeatedly burned? The answer is complicated and probably better suited for a psychologist because it’s really about human behavior. Having a small child gives me an interesting look at human behavior on a daily basis but I’m no expert on such matters. From a basketball standpoint the answer seems to be about convention and fear. It’s about an attitude that says big means tough and physical, and big means protect the paint. It’s about a fear of missing out on the next Big One.

This proposition creates a particular problem for NBA teams as they fawn over size and various physical traits that accompany it. We could re-visit the 1998 draft’s top choice of Michael Olowokandi as a most extreme example of how this can go wrong. And everyone is well aware of the famous Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan choice Portland made. Despite the way the game has evolved more recently, teams still fancy big men. Early 2016 selections included Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquise Chriss (eighth). Jahlil Okafor went third in 2015 despite red flags that were obvious, even to amateur evaluators like me (getting owned by Frank Kaminsky doesn’t project well for guarding NBA players). Yet he still went third to a competent Philly front office in the midst of The Process. The jury is still out on Chriss and Bender, but the early returns are not promising.

Let’s not forget the 2013 draft which included Cody Zeller at four, and Alex Len at five. Thomas Robinson went fifth in 2012 (one slot ahead of Damian Lillard) and Meyers Leonard was selected eleventh. (Sure, eleven is a bit outside the range we’re dealing with here, but a chance to drag Meyers will likely be met with delight by Fendo). Aside from Portland, and Charlotte in 15-16, none of these teams has made a playoff appearance with any of these players on their rosters. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing with bad franchises getting picks wrong and continuing to run bad teams out onto the floor. To borrow from D’Angelo Barksdale “The Kings stay the Kings.” Either way, several teams to whiff on big guys in recent drafts are in the top of the lottery again suffering from organizational instability.

One especially noteworthy example of the infatuation with big men is Portland’s choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Oden had been on the radars of league execs and hoop nerds for years because he looked and played like a grown man at age 16. By the time the draft rolled around it wasn’t a secret he had the knees of a much older man. Portland’s decision to select Oden continues to look worse as KD ascends the NBA’s pantheon while Oden has been out of the league for years. It would be one thing if Oden had been by far the best player in the draft, but that wasn’t the case. KD destroyed college basketball playing similarly in some ways to the way he plays today. A major concern with him was his upper body strength. Think about that. A wing player as skilled as KD is discounted over how many times he can bench press 185 pounds while the guy with the knees of a 30-year-old tops so many draft boards. Oden ending up amongst the stiffs listed above might be a bit unfair because his early demise was injury-induced. At the same time, the decision Portland made, armed with all the information they had illustrates how deep NBA teams’ love affair with big men is and how blinding that love can be.

That’s the context I’m thinking about with top of this draft. It’s full of good, (mostly) modern big men, each also possessing significant cause for concern. That undying love of bigs likely means a couple of them won’t achieve their ceiling or even middle ground. The two players we’re considering here represent different versions of the big man prospect and could easily come up short of their draft slot.

Artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

Mohamed Bamba brings the highest of ceilings in a truly unique physical package. He’s the type of player who sparks the “what if” conversations which lead to a player being selected early, despite obvious risk. Marvin Bagley, though not polished in the typical sense of the word, may already be showing us who he is. That’s likely a good thing, and a bad thing.

Bamba is a unicorn of sorts. He has a 7’10” wingspan, which is the longest ever measured at the combine, and an absurd standing reach. He runs well for his height and moves laterally quite well too. For a guy his size he can get down into a defensive stance when he wants to. That’s a lot of rim protection and possible switchability. As the Ringer’s NBA draft coverage points out, he’s a “theoretical shooter.” Indeed, he only attempted 1.7 3s per game at Texas, making 27.5% of them. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express attended Texas practices and says Bamba was frequently the best shooter on the team. That’s nice, but practices aren’t games and Texas wasn’t populated with great shooters. (Only two players shot over 35% from three for the season.) The mechanics of the shot aren’t particularly good either. He stays relatively set and brings it to an acute angle toward his head. The release itself is eventually pretty high, but his elbows tend to be pointed in odd directions. A pro jump shot is generally tighter and smoother. The shot needs considerable work before it will be reliable in the NBA.

On both ends of the floor he keeps a solid base for his frame but I can’t help but wonder if his high center of gravity will be a problem. He’s not that strong and I can see him getting pushed out of position by smaller guys a lot. He also looks pretty chill on defense which could be an issue when combined with his lack of strength. We’ve seen players bodies morph as they mature physically and get with pro trainers and dieticians. It’s not often the skinny ones who bulk up, but rather the heavier ones who trim down. How much bulk can he add? How much stronger can he get? Does he have the mass to guard the likes of KAT, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Hassan Whiteside when they want to take him to the block? Whiteside can be a real dog but if you don’t bring it he, like any other starting level NBA player, will beat your ass.

But how do you pass on a player with the upside he possesses? If he can really guard all five positions he’s in elite territory defensively. If he can develop into a 35-40% shooter from 3 he’s an elite stretch big man. He’s regarded as smart and inquisitive so there’s reason to believe he will be coachable and put in the work. That matters. He may be a truly end up being a uniquely modern player. We won’t know until we know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking him before DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic but anywhere after that is worth the risk.

Marvin Bagley put up gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers during his freshman year at Duke. This wasn’t just any freshman year because Bagley should have still been a senior in high school. That’s right. A guy getting 21 and 10 in the ACC shouldn’t have even been there yet. Bagley does it by running harder and jumping higher than most. He operates mostly inside the three-point-line – in similar spots to a younger Kevin Garnett. His effort and offensive skills profile reminds me of KG too. There’s some Toronto Chris Bosh there as well because he’s ultimately too low key a personality to be like KG.

It would appear the rest of his game hasn’t caught up with his scoring and rebounding. He couldn’t muster one block or one steal per game. Each of the other bigs at the top end of this draft bettered his 1.7 combined blocks and steals per game. During the final six games of the season, two ACC tourney and four NCAA tourney, he got two steals and blocked one shot. In six championship-level-competition games, the guy averaged .33 steals and .17 blocks. Not great. It should be concerning that an explosive 4/5 with a great second jump isn’t reading the game defensively. That’s a plausible answer considering how hard he runs and how well he rebounds. It’s not about effort, but something else. If you move as well as Bagley you ought to be getting your hands on some passes and shots. This is also where the comparisons to young KG and Toronto Chris Bosh fall apart.

Duke played zone pretty much all season. There were no fewer than four NBA players on the roster, including two lottery-projected bigs to protect the paint and rim. Yet their best option was to play zone? That’s an indictment on Bagley to some extent. How much he grows and develops defensively depends somewhat on where he ends up. There seems to be coalescence around Bagley to Sacramento at two. It seems legitimate that the Kings like him, but would they like him as much if Jackson Jr and Doncic hadn’t refused to undergo complete pre-draft evaluations? What does Bagley in Sacramento look like? He’ll score, and get rebounds. He wants those numbers just like he wants to be picked as high as possible regardless of the organization. Dave Joerger can coach defense but Duke playing zone and the lack of steals and rebounds really concerns me. The Kings’ roster isn’t good and it won’t get better in the 2019 draft since they don’t own their own pick. With Vivek and Vlade calling the shots it may never be. If Bagley is going there, he’s going to stuff the box score with points and rebounds. It’s going to be a hollow and unfulfilling 20 and 10.

Like so many draft classmates, the bigs at the top of this draft will be forever linked to each other. They each possess unique gifts and common weaknesses; each offering something a little different from the rest. We’ll spend much of next year looking at rookie rankings and watching for signs improvement. We’ll inevitably rank and list them (we’re already doing it) as we look back at this draft. In the First Take sports culture so many people exist in, if one turns out to be a Hall of Fame player, then the rest have to be trash. It’s unfair that a player’s fate is tied to so many things he cannot control. Being big and picked early can be another one of those things.

 

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