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Tag Archives: basketball
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 5 and 6; alternately: Tall Teenagers & Our Collective FOMO (we want to keep our jobs … and be right, but mostly keep our jobs)
June 20, 2018Posted by on
Post written by Robert Hamill, aka Hamilton. Follow him on Twitter.
One sure thing in a draft is that there is rarely a sure thing. Every player has upside and downside; strengths and weaknesses; NBA-ready skills and those that need work. There are so many ways to predict the future, but without a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor you’re still just making an educated guess. Picking at the top of a draft generally provides a narrow range of outcomes, but on the flip side it’s a bigger deal to the organization and the player when he doesn’t pan out. When the player is big the flop is even bigger. Why are basketball people still obsessed with size, even when they’re repeatedly burned? The answer is complicated and probably better suited for a psychologist because it’s really about human behavior. Having a small child gives me an interesting look at human behavior on a daily basis but I’m no expert on such matters. From a basketball standpoint the answer seems to be about convention and fear. It’s about an attitude that says big means tough and physical, and big means protect the paint. It’s about a fear of missing out on the next Big One.
This proposition creates a particular problem for NBA teams as they fawn over size and various physical traits that accompany it. We could re-visit the 1998 draft’s top choice of Michael Olowokandi as a most extreme example of how this can go wrong. And everyone is well aware of the famous Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan choice Portland made. Despite the way the game has evolved more recently, teams still fancy big men. Early 2016 selections included Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquise Chriss (eighth). Jahlil Okafor went third in 2015 despite red flags that were obvious, even to amateur evaluators like me (getting owned by Frank Kaminsky doesn’t project well for guarding NBA players). Yet he still went third to a competent Philly front office in the midst of The Process. The jury is still out on Chriss and Bender, but the early returns are not promising.
Let’s not forget the 2013 draft which included Cody Zeller at four, and Alex Len at five. Thomas Robinson went fifth in 2012 (one slot ahead of Damian Lillard) and Meyers Leonard was selected eleventh. (Sure, eleven is a bit outside the range we’re dealing with here, but a chance to drag Meyers will likely be met with delight by Fendo). Aside from Portland, and Charlotte in 15-16, none of these teams has made a playoff appearance with any of these players on their rosters. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing with bad franchises getting picks wrong and continuing to run bad teams out onto the floor. To borrow from D’Angelo Barksdale “The Kings stay the Kings.” Either way, several teams to whiff on big guys in recent drafts are in the top of the lottery again suffering from organizational instability.
One especially noteworthy example of the infatuation with big men is Portland’s choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Oden had been on the radars of league execs and hoop nerds for years because he looked and played like a grown man at age 16. By the time the draft rolled around it wasn’t a secret he had the knees of a much older man. Portland’s decision to select Oden continues to look worse as KD ascends the NBA’s pantheon while Oden has been out of the league for years. It would be one thing if Oden had been by far the best player in the draft, but that wasn’t the case. KD destroyed college basketball playing similarly in some ways to the way he plays today. A major concern with him was his upper body strength. Think about that. A wing player as skilled as KD is discounted over how many times he can bench press 185 pounds while the guy with the knees of a 30-year-old tops so many draft boards. Oden ending up amongst the stiffs listed above might be a bit unfair because his early demise was injury-induced. At the same time, the decision Portland made, armed with all the information they had illustrates how deep NBA teams’ love affair with big men is and how blinding that love can be.
That’s the context I’m thinking about with top of this draft. It’s full of good, (mostly) modern big men, each also possessing significant cause for concern. That undying love of bigs likely means a couple of them won’t achieve their ceiling or even middle ground. The two players we’re considering here represent different versions of the big man prospect and could easily come up short of their draft slot.
Mohamed Bamba brings the highest of ceilings in a truly unique physical package. He’s the type of player who sparks the “what if” conversations which lead to a player being selected early, despite obvious risk. Marvin Bagley, though not polished in the typical sense of the word, may already be showing us who he is. That’s likely a good thing, and a bad thing.
Bamba is a unicorn of sorts. He has a 7’10” wingspan, which is the longest ever measured at the combine, and an absurd standing reach. He runs well for his height and moves laterally quite well too. For a guy his size he can get down into a defensive stance when he wants to. That’s a lot of rim protection and possible switchability. As the Ringer’s NBA draft coverage points out, he’s a “theoretical shooter.” Indeed, he only attempted 1.7 3s per game at Texas, making 27.5% of them. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express attended Texas practices and says Bamba was frequently the best shooter on the team. That’s nice, but practices aren’t games and Texas wasn’t populated with great shooters. (Only two players shot over 35% from three for the season.) The mechanics of the shot aren’t particularly good either. He stays relatively set and brings it to an acute angle toward his head. The release itself is eventually pretty high, but his elbows tend to be pointed in odd directions. A pro jump shot is generally tighter and smoother. The shot needs considerable work before it will be reliable in the NBA.
On both ends of the floor he keeps a solid base for his frame but I can’t help but wonder if his high center of gravity will be a problem. He’s not that strong and I can see him getting pushed out of position by smaller guys a lot. He also looks pretty chill on defense which could be an issue when combined with his lack of strength. We’ve seen players bodies morph as they mature physically and get with pro trainers and dieticians. It’s not often the skinny ones who bulk up, but rather the heavier ones who trim down. How much bulk can he add? How much stronger can he get? Does he have the mass to guard the likes of KAT, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Hassan Whiteside when they want to take him to the block? Whiteside can be a real dog but if you don’t bring it he, like any other starting level NBA player, will beat your ass.
But how do you pass on a player with the upside he possesses? If he can really guard all five positions he’s in elite territory defensively. If he can develop into a 35-40% shooter from 3 he’s an elite stretch big man. He’s regarded as smart and inquisitive so there’s reason to believe he will be coachable and put in the work. That matters. He may be a truly end up being a uniquely modern player. We won’t know until we know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking him before DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic but anywhere after that is worth the risk.
Marvin Bagley put up gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers during his freshman year at Duke. This wasn’t just any freshman year because Bagley should have still been a senior in high school. That’s right. A guy getting 21 and 10 in the ACC shouldn’t have even been there yet. Bagley does it by running harder and jumping higher than most. He operates mostly inside the three-point-line – in similar spots to a younger Kevin Garnett. His effort and offensive skills profile reminds me of KG too. There’s some Toronto Chris Bosh there as well because he’s ultimately too low key a personality to be like KG.
It would appear the rest of his game hasn’t caught up with his scoring and rebounding. He couldn’t muster one block or one steal per game. Each of the other bigs at the top end of this draft bettered his 1.7 combined blocks and steals per game. During the final six games of the season, two ACC tourney and four NCAA tourney, he got two steals and blocked one shot. In six championship-level-competition games, the guy averaged .33 steals and .17 blocks. Not great. It should be concerning that an explosive 4/5 with a great second jump isn’t reading the game defensively. That’s a plausible answer considering how hard he runs and how well he rebounds. It’s not about effort, but something else. If you move as well as Bagley you ought to be getting your hands on some passes and shots. This is also where the comparisons to young KG and Toronto Chris Bosh fall apart.
Duke played zone pretty much all season. There were no fewer than four NBA players on the roster, including two lottery-projected bigs to protect the paint and rim. Yet their best option was to play zone? That’s an indictment on Bagley to some extent. How much he grows and develops defensively depends somewhat on where he ends up. There seems to be coalescence around Bagley to Sacramento at two. It seems legitimate that the Kings like him, but would they like him as much if Jackson Jr and Doncic hadn’t refused to undergo complete pre-draft evaluations? What does Bagley in Sacramento look like? He’ll score, and get rebounds. He wants those numbers just like he wants to be picked as high as possible regardless of the organization. Dave Joerger can coach defense but Duke playing zone and the lack of steals and rebounds really concerns me. The Kings’ roster isn’t good and it won’t get better in the 2019 draft since they don’t own their own pick. With Vivek and Vlade calling the shots it may never be. If Bagley is going there, he’s going to stuff the box score with points and rebounds. It’s going to be a hollow and unfulfilling 20 and 10.
Like so many draft classmates, the bigs at the top of this draft will be forever linked to each other. They each possess unique gifts and common weaknesses; each offering something a little different from the rest. We’ll spend much of next year looking at rookie rankings and watching for signs improvement. We’ll inevitably rank and list them (we’re already doing it) as we look back at this draft. In the First Take sports culture so many people exist in, if one turns out to be a Hall of Fame player, then the rest have to be trash. It’s unfair that a player’s fate is tied to so many things he cannot control. Being big and picked early can be another one of those things.
2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 7 – 12; alternately: The 3rd, 4th, and maybe 5th tiers/tears of uncertainty
June 11, 2018Posted by on
Taking risks is all well and good, but at my nature, I recognize that questions without factual answers are, and should be, fraught with uncertainty. If forced to answer, if forced to pick between say, Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges, I’ll usually think and talk through a litany of pros and cons for each player (Mikal the shooting defender with ineffectual off-the-dribble game, Miles the bouncy, broad-shouldered athlete with pedigree but questionable attitude [for me at least]), before determining that immeasurable variables (work ethic, team/scheme, coaching) will ultimately determine success and (in this moment) picking Miles even though just a few days ago I picked Mikal.
If I put together 10 more big board rankings between now and the draft on June 21st, there would be almost daily movement, jockeying between players by one or two spots. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t trust my rankings (or those of my friends), rather that this stuff is exceptionally fluid. And humans are and our perspectives are fluid and evolving. A different set of eyes (Steve Kerr) can see the potential in a person (Draymond Green) that helps to unlock a potential others (Mark Jackson) couldn’t conceive. ESPN’s Chad Ford (for the purposes of this view, I’m not concerned about Ford’s rewritten history as it doesn’t significantly change the points) had Green 20th overall on his big board which is well ahead of Green’s 35th overall draft slot, but no one that I’m aware of had him pegged as a generationally versatile defender. On June 25th, 2012, Ford wrote, “I’m hearing increasingly that the Pacers (26th overall pick in 2012) are very high on Green…I don’t think Green will slide past here.” The Pacers opted for Miles Plumlee instead, which Ford chalked up to a “messy soap opera” in the front office. In that same post-draft write-up, Ford chided Miami (#27, Arnett Moultrie – traded), Dallas (#33, Bernard James), and Washington (#32, Tomas Satoransky) for not taking Green. Even immediately after the draft, the consensus was that Draymond should not have fallen.
Draymond Green will forever and always be my go-to when exploring the variability of the draft. Green is an ultimate outlier because the variability of human participation; in this case, his own and those of his coaches, Jackson and Kerr. It can easily be speculated that Green would have trended into a strong NBA player with or without Kerr’s addition to Golden State as he only missed three games in his first two seasons while averaging over a steal and nearly a block-per-game in his second season despite getting just 22 minutes/game. But this? A three-time champion, multi-time all-star, two-time All-NBA player, and a Defensive Player of the Year?
Uncertainty abounds and you can tell me different, but I’ll probably be over here with Draymo (wishing I wasn’t), pointing to him as proof that all that probabilities, prognostications, and proclamations still rest in the infinitely fragile tissues of pathetically weak and impossibly resilient humans.
Michael Porter Jr. (Fenrich): Michael Porter Jr.is one of the harder (hardest?) lottery players to project in this draft. He transferred from a school in Missouri to Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School before his senior season. At Hale, his coach was former NBA All-Star and royal Seattleite, Brandon Roy. The team went 29-0 with Porter leading them to the top of several national rankings and garnering the Gatorade and Naismith Player of the Year awards. ESPN had him ranked as the second-best player in his class and an unnamed “ESPN Analyst” wrote he was “a possible number one pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.”
I put a little more emphasis on Porter’s high school bio because he appeared in just 53 minutes as a freshman at Missouri and now, a year and a back injury later and he’s a wild card. He’s 6’11” with a 7’0” wingspan. He has bounce, can handle the ball, snatch the defensive rebound and push it himself. He’s always been lean, but measured in at just 211-pounds at the combine which puts him on physical par with a younger Dragan Bender. I’m less concerned about the beef, as he was out for the entire season and hasn’t yet benefited from pro-level strength and conditioning. His range extends well beyond the college arc, but it doesn’t mean his form or accuracy are there. When I watched him at Hale, I didn’t love the form on his jumper and in his limited time at Mizzou, it didn’t look any better. His shoulders are shrugged and hunched. The form reminds me of Draymond Green’s but with more lift. Defensively, I’m reluctant to hold any of his NCAA time against him and so the slower feet and lateral quickness are merely a note instead of a criticism.
Like many of these one-and-done kids, assuming health (far from a guarantee for Porter who first sustained a back injury as a sophomore in high school), the physical foundation is obvious. He’s a massively fluid athlete for a kid his size, but I get nervous when kids try to overcompensate or prove themselves the way Porter’s done. During a combine interview, he told ESPN he was “without a doubt … the best player in this draft.” And again, while I’m reluctant to draw conclusions based on two appearances he made with Mizzou at the end of the season while returning from injury, he forced shots and looked fully immersed in a hero ball approach to offense or perhaps an acolyte of the new age “Mamba Mentality” – which can be interpreted many ways. Both the interview and the small sample shot selection are negligible, but when factoring in the injury history with a player who’s accustomed to dominating the game, the uncertainty elevates to a place that makes me uncomfortable. Assuming he regains health and commits to learning the game (his passing and playmaking need a lot of reps and improvement; particularly if he’s going to be attacking off the dribble), Porter has tools of a potential multi-time all-star – like a modern Tom Chambers or something.
Wendell Carter (Fenrich): First impressions are hard to get over and my first extended impression of Wendell Carter from a January game against Miami included this note: “First thought on his boards is Moses Malone.” Carter’s a bear or a bison or a big ass kid with long arms. He’s 6’10,” but measured a 7’4.5” wingspan at the combine in Chicago which helps to explain his activity on the glass where he pulled down 13.5 rebounds-per-40, 4.5 of which were offensive. It’s not just that he pulled down a good portion of misses, but that he did so with definitive emphasis: above the rim, strong-handed (which is interesting because he has comparatively small hands [8.5” width, 9” length], but of course size and strength are often not related), absolute rebounds like Moses used to do.
His activity translated to the defensive end where he averaged over two blocks and nearly a steal-per-game despite getting less than 27 minutes each night. This activity goes beyond just picking up stats. Carter bends his knees well, he’s not stiff. He can get down in a stance and slides well laterally against mismatches. This type of athleticism and commitment to defense should serve him well with the NBA’s present-day switch-happy tactics. In that regard, he reminds me of Tristan Thompson who, at his peak, was a key component to an NBA championship.
Carter took just 46 threes in his 37 games at Duke, but shot over 41%. From the line, he was near 74% on 4.5 attempts/game. His form on both is solid and replicable with a high release point (super higher given his length) and speaks to the overall polish of his game. For being just 19, he’s comfortable using the three to setup the dribble drive where he looks to shoot or pass. He’s a better creator than you’d expect, but the execution is still a mixed bag. Carter’s capable of seeing the pass, either in high/low situations (with Bagley) or off the dribble, but his ability to complete the pass is still developing. That said, just the vision and willingness are already quality. He averaged just 13.5-points, but given Duke’s stacked lineup, it’s hard to hold that against him; particularly when both his inside and outside attack is so varied and refined. That said, in the full games I watched and the clips I’ve seen, he has a strong preference to spin baseline off the left block. I only call this out because it’s the kind of thing NBA teams will book and take away.
Two final areas that pop for me when I think about Carter as a pro are his athleticism and his role. He didn’t participate in the athletic measures at the combine, but watching him, his explosiveness doesn’t jump off the screen. His strength is the most obvious attribute and he can throw it down with ferocity, but compared to teammate “Bagels” Bagley, he’s pedestrian – which is fine. Not all NBA bigs are pogo sticking gazelles, but a lot of them are and they’ll present a different set of challenges for Carter. Role is an interesting one for him. He was comfortable as a fourth option at Duke, but his offensive versatility indicates the ability to take on a larger role. A couple of us compared him to Al Horford and it’s easy to see why:
Carter’s younger, longer, and a better shooter. Aside from the obnoxious fawning over “MVP Al,” he’s had a great career as a five-time all-star and key piece on conference championship-contending teams. Part of Horford’s value over his 10 seasons in the NBA has been his malleability. Be it positional or role versatility, Horford adapts without sacrificing output. If Carter can live up to 75% of Horford, he’ll have a solid career as an NBA starter.
Mikal Bridges (Bug): Mikal Bridges is this draft’s poster child for the 3-and-D prototype. Bridges has a great combination of height (6’7”) and length (7’2” wingspan) for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. He’s coming off a breakout Junior season where we he developed from a 10ppg role player into an All-American caliber player. Bridges has a beautiful looking jump shot that he has refined over his four years at Villanova (he redshirted during the 2014-15 season), making him one of the deadliest outside shooters in the nation (43% from three). Bridges’ ability to get his feet set, square up, and get a three off on the catch reminds me of Ray Allen late in his career. He has a high release point on his shot which makes it easy to shoot over most wing defenders. He has some shortcomings as a ball-handler and a shot creator (for himself and others), but he is much more than just a spot-up shooter. He’s capable of finishing above the rim on drives or on the break in transition, just ask Gonzaga’s entire frontcourt.
Defensively, Bridges uses his length to give opposing wings and point guards headaches. He doesn’t have eye-popping steals stats, but he has active hands and is difficult to shoot over as evidenced by averaging over a block-per-game this past season. Bridges will need to continue to get stronger to be able to handle NBA wings. It is a bit concerning that he is still rail thin after being in college four years, but strength is something relatively easy to fix once he is on an NBA strength and conditioning program. He’s expected to come off the board somewhere in the 7-10 range of the draft and I believe he’d be a good fit on almost any team, but particularly on the Sixers at #10. They are already a defensive-minded club that will need shooting help if JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli walk in free agency. Overall, Bridges is one of the safest picks in this draft as he’s ready to step in and play right away. It’s unlikely he will ever develop into a star, but at worst he will be a high-level 3-and-D guy that will have a long career in the NBA.
Collin Sexton (Bug): Collin Sexton is one of the toughest players in this draft, both mentally and physically. Sexton’s signature moment from his short time at Alabama came in a crazy game in late November when he found himself playing 3-on-5 against Minnesota after a tussle left his entire bench ejected from the game. Facing a 13-point deficit, Sexton took over, scoring 17 points in the last 10 minutes of the game on his way to a 40-point night. ‘Bama didn’t win the game (they lost by five), but Sexton’s grit and will to win were on full display when most would have folded. Sexton is a blur in the open court, putting a ton of pressure on the defense as he pushes the ball. He uses elite quickness to get pretty much wherever he wants. He does a great job of attacking and getting to the line as evidenced by his 252 free throw attempts (7.6 attempts/game) on the season. At the next level, I would like to see him use that same attacking style to create more for his teammates instead of getting himself buckets, but I think that comes with a better supporting cast in the NBA. Another area for improvement is his outside shot. Sexton shot just under 34% from three on 131 attempts, and if he can be just a little more consistent from outside he will be a nightmare for defenders to stop. The fire and intensity he plays with should also serve him well on the defensive end of the floor, so there aren’t many concerns there. The low steal numbers (0.8 steals/game) are kind of surprising for someone with that much athleticism, but he’s not a bad defender by any means. I think the Eric Bledsoe comparisons are pretty spot on for what we should expect from Sexton in the league which makes him a worthy mid-to-late lottery pick. As far as fit goes with lottery teams, I think Sexton would make the most sense with the Knicks. They need a point guard that isn’t going to be afraid of the bright lights, and Sexton has the grit and toughness that the New York fans will love and appreciate.
Miles Bridges (Hamilton): Miles Bridges is one of the most explosive athletes in this class. He has great hang time when he goes up on drives, pull ups, or for blocks and contested shots. A physical player on both ends who is not afraid to challenge people, Bridges gives effort and competes. He dunks with ease in traffic and when putting back offensive rebounds. He is a capable three-point shooter, but has a tendency to settle for contested looks. His quick, lefty release with only a small elevation allows him to get these off but they’re not always good. He has good fundamental footwork upon catching the ball but appears a bit robotic in this regard. Bridges has some tunnel vision, looking primarily to score. While his ball handling improved in his sophomore year, his moves are still pretty basic and choreographed. One of the biggest negatives of his offense is he frequently stops the ball and holds it before attacking or swinging a pass. He seems to have a habit of using a lot of jab steps (Carmelo style) and looking to go one-one, when the better play is to quickly attack or pass. Despite the improvement he is still not a great ball handler as evident by his one- and two-dribble pull ups, and general lack of playmaking for others. Negatives aside, Bridges looks like a modern NBA forward who will eventually be able to play both spots well enough. Although he lacks the 7’0 wingspan of some of the best small ball forwards, like Draymond Green, PJ Tucker, or Harrison Barnes, he is a better leaper thus possibly minimizing his lack of length. As a small ball four on offense, Bridges’ shoulders should help set good, hard screens and shed bigger players to create space. His aforementioned footwork on offense should help him develop into a nice pick-and-pop screener. Physically he is ready to play right away, but his offensive skills will need to develop before he can be counted on to be a major contributor.
Kevin Knox (Hamilton): Kevin Knox has good size at 6’9 with 7’0 wingspan. He’s a natural scorer, with an array of shots from all over the floor. He’s crafty inside the three-point line, using floaters, short pull ups, and both hands to finish. He moves without the ball and finds open space to get his shots off. He has pro range on his jump shot with a high release and good rotation. Knox looks like the type of player you can go to late in a shot clock or broken set. Like Miles Bridges, thinks score first, second, and third. This may be an indication of his feel beyond scoring, which would be kind of weird because that comes so naturally to him. That mentality can create problems for him and his team. He frequently drives into multiple defenders in transition even when at a numbers disadvantage. When he finishes in those situations, there’s no harm done. At the NBA level he’s less likely to finish those plays, and we know missed layups in transition often lead to quick layups at the other end. Knox will have to be more measured in this regard or he will put his team in bad positions a lot. Scoring is his thing. The rest of his game is far behind his scoring. He’s a below average rebounder for his measurements; 6.7 boards per-40 minutes isn’t great. That and his defensive effort and awareness make me question how well he will ultimately fare in today’s NBA. It’s not uncommon for a player to come into the league with either offensive of defensive abilities far ahead of the other. But it is a bit concerning for a player to give great effort on offense while being almost nonexistent on defense. Knox could be coached up on that end and, if he buys in to the level of effort it takes, be a real impact player in the NBA. Otherwise, he could end up being the kind of player who gets buckets early in first and third quarters but isn’t playable during crunch time.
June 2, 2018Posted by on
This is the third installment of our 2018 NBA draft coverage where we focus on players ranked 13th to 18th on our Big Board. With the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to keep college eligibility passing on Wednesday, May 30th, we saw just a few guys from our big board head back to school. Most notably was the less popular Porter brother, Jontay. Our big board put him at 18th overall with a high of 16 (me) and a low of 24 (Maahs). It’s fair to say that after the combine where Porter had the highest body fat percentage, the lowest max vertical (tied), and the slowest three-quarter court sprint, that NBA scouts and front offices had him lower than our lowest rank.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have tentative plans to update the big board; likely in the upcoming week and I think there’d be quite a bit of movement. My guy Kevin Huerter from Maryland (I ranked him 37th) has been a high riser as has Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. Bug and Maahs are high on Mitchell Robinson and I’m still vacillating on my feelings on DeAndre Ayton which mostly boils down to effort and consistency. I even have trepidation about my number one overall player, Luka Doncic (mostly around his handle).
We’ll explore all of the above and maybe even get into the meaning of life as viewed through the NBA’s annual scouting and drafting in our next several posts. For now, we’ll focus on players 13 through 18 with an empty spot for the still-Missouri Tiger, young Jontay Porter.
Zhaire Smith’s unexpected rise could mean he’s either a late bloomer cut from the Russell Westbrook cloth, or, more simply an athletic standout whose skills won’t ever catch up. In his freshman year at Texas Tech he came out of nowhere both literally and figuratively. He was projected to play only 10-12 minutes per game but instead logged 28 on his way to 11 points and five rebounds with 58% eFG. This wasn’t your run of the mill Texas Tech team either. The clear number-two in the Big-12 ended up a three-seed and made it all the way to the Elite 8. Smith came out of nowhere literally by flying in for tip dunks and rebounds over bigger players. A 6’4” guard getting almost three offensive rebounds-per-game is impressive. He pops up around the ball a lot on both ends and plays hard. That effort combined with elite physical tools can carry a player a long way. Smith told the ESPN combine crew he played center in high school and didn’t shoot threes until his senior year. My fellow Iowan Ricky Davis had a similar career at Davenport North. He’s another NCAA/NBA wing with elite athletic gifts that didn’t get to adequately develop his perimeter skills in high school. Ricky transitioned quickly to the wing at Iowa, but I always had the feeling his development was a stunted a bit by playing out of position during formative years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for battling big players and learning to play in the paint. That may be even more useful in the modern NBA with all the switching and defenders guarding pretty much everyone at one time or another. Jimmy Bulter and Jae Crowder both played a lot of center at Marquette and have turned into two of the toughest and physical perimeter defenders in the NBA. Smith’s rebounding ability and instincts around the hoop show he picked up some things that may help him at the next level. A few of his weaker performances came against tough college defenses like Villanova (seven points, 3-8 shooting) and West Virginia (four points 1-4; nine pts 3-7). He’ll need to improve his ball handling, passing, and most of all shooting from outside to come close to the ceiling his athleticism has set for him. At this point he is just figuring out what do to with his powers and looks like a player teams picking between 10 and 15 will be afraid to take and afraid to pass up too.
Robert Williams (Hamilton):
Robert Williams has the physical profile of a contemporary NBA center. He’s a quick leaping big(ish) player who runs well and has great balance. He plays kind of like a smaller DeAndre Jordan but moves like Rudy Gay. He lacks the handle or shooting to be a wing player in the NBA, however. But there’s a nice career path for true small ball center offering legit rim protection. He tries to dunk everything around the hoop and many of his shots come in the paint and go up quickly via dishes, lobs, and rim runs in transition. He attempted an underwhelming 70 free throws in 30 games, only attempting more than five in four games. This could be due to how and where he operates but could also be a concerted effort on his part to not get himself to the line. I’d probably try to stay off the line if I shot 47% too. Defensively, he works himself into nice positions for blocks, often coming over from the weak side. For how well he moves around in tight space he probably should have rebounded better in his second season at Texas A&M. 9.2 is good but it just looks like he should be getting more. That sort of thing is the knock on him – he’s not consistent and leaves you wanting more. There were two significant stretches, one at each end of the season, during which he failed to get double digit points. It doesn’t seem that he lacks an NBA motor; instead he just doesn’t keep it in a high enough gear consistently. For reasons like this he’s just a little too feast or famine to be worth taking early. The fit matters even more for players like him whose engagement and effort are fleeting. Landing on a team with good culture that genuinely cares about player development is going to be key for Williams to get off to a positive start and could determine how long and how successful his pro career turns out to be.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a rare blend of height and length for a point guard at 6’6” with a huge seven-foot wingspan. Gilgeous-Alexander uses his wiry 180-pound frame to slither to the rim, finishing well with either hand. Despite his slender build, he’s a solid finisher in traffic and doesn’t get bumped off his spots very often. He shot a very respectable 40% from 3, but only took 57 attempts, so the sample size is small. Shooting 40% from deep at least shows he can be a threat from that distance. On the defensive end, he uses those long arms to bait opponents to throw passes that are well within his reach. That length also causes a lot of disruption for smaller point guards getting into the offense. The most noticeable flaw in his game is his lack of burst and explosiveness. He plays with a slow pace, and for someone with his length, he doesn’t seem to finish above the rim very often. Gilgeous-Alexander will need to add strength at the next level as well, but that is typically the case for most freshmen jumping to the pros, so it isn’t a huge concern. He seems destined for the late lottery where the point guard-needy Clippers have two picks at 12 and 13. He would be a good fit with undersized shooting guard Lou Williams to build a new core in Clipperland.
I’m uncertain why I’m somewhat enamored with Lonnie Walker IV, but since I saw him donning the orange and green of the Miami Hurricanes, I’ve been fond of him. He’s just under 6’5”, but sports a “pineapple” hairstyle which he describes as “its own person this point…people have been calling it a pineapple” that pushes his peak height up around seven feet. Imagine this kid, 6’4” or 6’5”, pineapple do’ bouncing atop his head, arms stretching out like a bald eagle (over 6’10” wingspan), sprinting, reading the arc of the ball, crouching and coiling in mid-step, and ba ba ba BOOM exploding into tip dunk motion with those long arms reaching and powerful legs propelling (40” max vertical) him into the rim. This is just part of Lonnie Walker allure. I’m not too big on coachspeak, but his Miami coach, Jim Larranaga, described him on a broadcast that he, “might be the nicest person I’ve ever coached.” Watching his NBA combine interview, I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying he’s the “nicest,” but that’s not really the purpose of the interview. He’s not quite Mo Bamba polished, but he was engaging and thoughtful, referring to himself as a “knowledge freak” and oddly suggesting “earth is an illusion.” A questionable statement, but not one that takes away from a jumper that looked good at Miami (31% from three on 3.5 attempts/game in his first 15 games at Miami coming off of a meniscus tear suffered in July versus 36% on 6.5 attempts in his final 17 games), but looked great at his agency’s pro day in late May. In the limited, non-competitive setting of the pro day, Walker’s form was refined and his range easily extended to NBA distance. But I’m not convinced what type of player he’ll be at the pro level. His handle was sufficient for the college, but he seems to struggle to shift speeds on dribble drives. His passing (1.2 assists to 1.2 turnovers in first 15 games versus 2.5 assists to 1.1 turnovers in his second) is similar to his ball handling in that it was fine for Miami where they had two other competent ball handlers, but will need work to be a secondary NBA ball handler. Physically, the foundation is there for a strong pro, but it’s the outside shot that already looks to be NBA-ready that lifts his ceiling so much higher. I put his ceiling comparison as Bradley Beal, but I’m not convinced Walker has the same instincts as a scorer. In high school, he averaged just 18-points as a senior and during his best stretch at Miami (an eight-game swing in the winter), he averaged 18 which was better than his 11.5 during the season, but still not indicative of high level scoring. I was probably over-ambitious in seeing Beal or even Eric Gordon (his mid-level comp) in his game, but given the league’s shift towards the three-ball, it’s not inconceivable that Walker is a better scorer in the pros than he was in either high school or college. That he’s engaging and appears willing to work at his craft only increase the likelihood that he can near his potential and are probably part of the attraction to the kid with the pineapple hair.
Troy Brown (Bug):
Troy Brown Jr. didn’t dominate the competition his freshman year like some of his colleagues near the top of the draft, but he still put in a solid campaign at Oregon with averages of 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Prior to his time with the Ducks, Brown had a decorated amateur career that earned him a spot on the 2017 McDonald’s All-American squad. He’s one of the few players in this draft with the size of a small forward that can also run point for his team if needed. Standing just under 6’7” with a 6’11” wingspan, Brown was blessed with a late growth spurt in high school after playing point guard his entire life. That’s a huge advantage from a fundamental/basketball IQ standpoint, and you can tell that he has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor. Some of the passes he finds his teammates with while he is attacking off the dribble are reminiscent of LeBron’s precise skip passes to wide open shooters. I’m not comparing Troy Brown Jr. to LeBron James, but he has an awareness of where all his teammates are on the floor that is similar to King James. The only glaring weakness Brown has is his outside shot, where he struggled at just 29% from three on 110 attempts. That lack of a consistent outside shot reminds me a lot of Evan Turner when he was coming out of Ohio State. Brown is expected to go somewhere in the 12-20 range in the draft, and still has a ton of untapped potential as one of the youngest players in this class (turns 19 in July). His NBA development is going to hinge on that outside shot progressing. He still has a high floor as a solid rotational player, with the chance to become a solid starter if the three-point attempts fall at a higher rate.
This spot will remain empty for 2018 and hopefully be filled by its rightful owner in 2019, Jontay Porter, an American teenager who strangely plays like a seasoned European and absolutely nothing like his older, and more highly-touted brother, Michael Porter.
May 26, 2018Posted by on
Welcome back to the second installment of the 2018 Dancing with Noah NBA draft big board where we’ll dive into players 19 through 24: Aaron Holiday, Khyri Thomas, Mitchell Robinson, De’Anthony Melton, Anfernee Simons, and Melvin Frazier. There’s a weird glut of tough defensive guys (Thomas, Holiday in a way, Frazier though I’m suspicious of his shooting, Melton who’s more like a non-scoring young Dwyane Wade) and mysterious kids in Simons and Robinson who didn’t play college ball this past season. As a group of scouts (I use that extremely loosely), we had the greatest variation on Melton who had a standard deviation of 6.3 and the least on Simons at 2.3. In some ways, the lack of footage and up-to-date scouting makes it more difficult to develop strong perspectives on Robinson and Simons who both look like world beaters in their YouTube clips. The college guys, by contrast, have reams of tape which leave them vulnerable to having their weaknesses picked at until a narrative feedback loop develops. Try as we might to avoid these feedback loops, the truth is that they likely infiltrate in ways we’re not even aware.
Enough of our foibles, let’s get on with the future:
Hamilton: Aaron Holiday put up consistently solid numbers in his three years at UCLA proving himself a reliable shooter and scorer. He made over 40% of his threes in each season and wasn’t afraid to put them up there. He had an interesting tenure in Westwood, starting all 32 games as a freshman, then zero as a sophomore (behind Lonzo), and then all 33 his junior year. That’s a unique career arc and one that a lot of college players don’t follow. Holiday could have left the program when Lonzo and Big Baller Brand came in, but he stayed and proved he could still produce off the bench. Getting back into the starting lineup in his junior season helped propel him to the first 20ppg season at UCLA since Ed O’Bannon in 1995. He has a pro pedigree and a quick shot with plenty of range. He doesn’t elevate much on his threes but releases shots quickly – like a slightly smoother-looking Eric Gordon. He plays sort of like his older brother, Jrue, but he’s much smaller. And that’s probably going to be most limiting factor for Aaron Holiday. He’s only 6’1” and 185 pounds. On offense, he makes up for this with a good hesitation move and the ability to split defenders and knife through tight spaces with his dribble. He navigates pick and rolls situations pretty well and is comfortable pulling up from well beyond 22-feet. Defensively is where he could be in real trouble as teams go after players with physical limitations and hunt for switches. He’s likely a backup PG for the foreseeable future, and more likely, for his entire career. His sophomore year at UCLA provides evidence he’s comfortable in that role.
Bug: From the moment Khyri Thomas stepped on campus at Creighton, he was already a problem for opposing teams on the defensive end. Tazz, as he is affectionately known by friends and family, is the reigning two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year and one of the premier perimeter defenders in this draft class. He’s a bit undersized for an NBA two-guard at 6’3”, but he more than makes up for his height with a 6’10” wingspan that will allow him to contest shots against bigger guards in the league. Although he doesn’t have the high steal numbers that you would expect from a DPOY, he plays a lockdown style of defense without gambling for steals and putting his teammates in a bad spot. Tazz is capable of guarding both backcourt positions and may be able to matchup with some small forwards in small ball lineups. His defensive accolades are well known, but it’s his steady improvement on the offensive side that has NBA circles buzzing. Khyri jumped his scoring up to 15ppg his junior season on only ten attempts-per-contest, while also shooting a 41% clip from three on 4.6 attempts-per-game (40% career from deep). Much like on the defensive end, Thomas is poised and smooth on offense, taking what the defense gives him. From a style of play and size standpoint, he compares favorably to Avery Bradley. He’s going to give everything he has on defense, while also being capable of knocking down the open shot or getting to the rim and finishing if he’s run off the three-point line. The thing impacting Khyri’s draft slot the most is his age. Already 22, Thomas spent a year in prep school before his three seasons at Creighton, making him the age of a college senior. That will raise questions about his ceiling, but he’s somewhat of a late bloomer who still has some room to grow. Creighton coach Greg McDermott refers to him as a “zero maintenance player” and overall, he’s one of the safest players in this draft. He’s ready to play immediately as a 3-and-D wing and has the potential to work his way into a starting role down the road if he finds the right fit on the right team. I’m projecting Thomas will go in the 20s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team falls in love with him in the late teens.
Bug: Almost every college basketball recruiting site in the country had Mitchell Robinson pegged as a five-star, top-10 recruit in the spring of 2017. Everything was going great for Robinson, who not only destroyed overmatched high school competition (25.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, and six blocked shots per contest), but he also shredded the Nike EYBL circuit as well. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that Mitchell Robinson had the highest Nike EYBL player efficiency ranking (40.5) in the history of their database. Robinson was being mentioned in the same breath as Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, and Deandre Ayton as future NBA lottery picks, as well as being selected as a 2017 McDonald’s All-American. Everything took a turn when Robinson reported to campus at Western Kentucky the summer before his freshman year of college. Former UNC star Shammond Williams, who is also Robinson’s godfather, resigned from the Western Kentucky staff. Coach Williams was probably the sole reason Robinson went to WKU, so there was immediate tension that eventually led to Robinson asking for and being granted his release to transfer. Robinson decided to return to Western Kentucky, only to abandon his team a second time shortly after. Although Robinson has immense talent and potential, the way he handled the situation at WKU has really put a rain cloud over his draft stock and raised maturity concerns. Just when NBA execs thought they were going to get a look at how hard Robinson had been working while sitting out the entire season, he threw everyone another curveball by withdrawing from all NBA Combine activities the day the combine started. One thing NBA scouts do not like when investing millions of dollars into a player is flying blind on their evaluation. I’m assuming Robinson will hold his own private pro day, but the red flags have already been planted.
That said, I’ve had to resort to pouring over every YouTube highlight reel I could find to get a good read on Robinson’s game. After a few clips, it’s easy to see why college coaches and NBA scouts were salivating over him only a year ago. There are two things that really stand out as elite talents that Robinson possesses: 1) he can finish with authority on everything around the rim, and 2) he is an elite shot blocker. Robinson’s dunk and block radius around the rim are insane. Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson are ranked at the top of the draft based on their defensive prowess, but this kid might be better than both of them on the defensive end. We see him step out and hit the occasional three, but that isn’t going to be his thing in the NBA. Robinson appears to be extremely raw when it comes to post moves and footwork, but there’s a role for him in today’s NBA as a defensive-minded rim-runner in the mold of Clint Capela or DeAndre Jordan. The dilemma for NBA execs is whether or not the talent outweighs the red flags. Robinson has the talent to be a lottery pick, but you can’t help but question whether he is playing the game because he is good at basketball or because he loves the game. I think there will be a team in the late lottery or just outside the lottery that is willing to take that gamble.
Hamilton: Good players normally develop a lot between freshman and sophomore years. So De’Anthony Melton’s draft stock might very well be higher if he had played for USC this season. Unfortunately, Melton missed his potential breakout year after his name came up in the FBI’s investigation into NCAA basketball. The offensive numbers in his freshman year were average. Indeed, 28% from three and 70% FT is nothing to write home about. Eight-ppg is pedestrian too. It’s reasonable those numbers would have been better this year. How much better, we’ll never know. What you know for sure watching Melton is that he is all over the court and puts an imprint on games. On defense, he reads and reacts quickly as the ball moves getting his hands all over passes, loose balls, and rebounds. A 6’3”ish player getting seven rebounds and 2.8 steals per-40-minutes isn’t messing around. College players tend to gamble on defense and Melton isn’t an exception. But he is instinctual in his gambles and quick enough to recover when he guesses wrong. He loves to push the ball on steals or rebounds, and keeps his head and eyes up looking to attack the basket or pass ahead. He has good feet and balance which helps him attack on both ends. His shot itself doesn’t look bad and if he can become an average three-point shooter and better than 75% from FT, there’s a path to becoming a top guard in this class. Markelle Fultz had a disappointing rookie year, but during his lone NCAA season when he proved himself to be the top pick, Melton got 16 points, six rebounds, six assists, and six steals in a head-to-head matchup. If he can’t realize his full potential, some team picking in the mid-late first round is going to get good value and be really happy about it.
Fenrich: Anfernee Simons of the great state of Florida, home of the mighty Seminole and infamous stand your ground laws, will turn 19 in a couple weeks and he’ll be drafted into the NBA in about a month. He’s a 6’3” two-guard and pretty much every clip I’ve seen of him is scoring-related: he’s shooting deep threes with his feet wide apart, pulling up for jumpers off the dribble with a comfort and calm that makes you forget he can legally buy cigarettes, but not wine coolers. He dunks with ease off two feet or one foot, capable of gathering and going straight up through the rim which was supported by his 32” standing vertical and 41.5” max vertical at the Chicago combine. His handle is summer breeze cool even if he’s been a little right-hand heavy. At almost-19, he looks like a professional scorer, but he still looks 19 with a soft babyish face, high cheekbones, and a lean frame. The knock on Simons, and you don’t see this in his high school clips, is that he’s lacking strength and you can see it on that still-developing body. I’m a little less-concerned about his strength and probably more about his tweener size and the lack of playmaking I’ve seen from him. Simons spent the 2017-18 season at IMG Academy where he trained as a prep year without actually playing for the IMG team. This blind spot of an entire, development-heavy age-18 season is a big one. If and how he’s been able to develop any playmaking skills as an undersized off guard is going to impact his ability to see the court as a young player. Measurement-wise, he’s like a leaner Victor Oladipo or a shorter, more explosive D’Angelo Russell, but I don’t get the sense he has the playmaking skill of either of those guys which isn’t to say it can’t be developed. Oladipo’s made strides in his creation, so it can definitely be done. Malik Monk comes to mind as an undersized scoring guard who compares well, at least physically, to Simons though Simons has a bit more Brandon Roy whereas Monk had a bit more Monta Ellis or Kevin Johnson punch to his game. With his still-developing physique and youthful face, it seems like it’s easy to forget that Simons is in the same peer set age-wise as DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Wendell Carter. What he’s lacking in stature though, he accounts for in skill and it’s not like he’s a Kyle Anderson-level athlete – his vertical is 41.5”! There’s a player here with a mega upside; one that only intensifies if he realizes the finer arts of defense and playmaking. Patience, as is often the case with our precocious savants (there I go again painting him as younger than he is), is the key and his landing spot is critical to his evolution and success.
It feels a little dehumanizing to refer to athletes as “freaks,” but in basketball parlance, Melvin Frazier is a freak. He’s a Jordanesque 6’6,” but has the wings of a predatory creature of flight at nearly 7’2”. At the combine, he registered a max vertical over 40”. Defense is Frazier’s meal ticket as his offense has been a work-in-progress since Tulane hired former NBA player and coach and the father of Mike Dunleavy Jr, Mike Dunleavy Sr, before Frazier’s sophomore season. Guarding the ball, he covers a ton of ground with his defensive slides and strong lateral movement. Even if his opponent is able to get a step, he’s long and quick enough with enough explosiveness to recover and at least harass the opposition. He reminds me a bit of Andre Iguodala in that he often keeps his hands down while playing defense. With the arms down, Frazier is frequently out of position on box outs. In Frazier’s case, this feels like a bad habit he’s been able to get away with in the American Athletic Conference. Despite his defensive impact (2.2 steals and nearly a block-per-game as a junior), he seems prone to defensive lapses. In limited tape I reviewed, he was beat off the dribble by a lesser attacker, gave up on a play after making an initial stop, and was beat backdoor because he wasn’t paying full attention. Multiple times he broke on a pass like he was playing defensive back, only to mistime the ball and leave his team at a disadvantage. Maybe more disconcerting, for me at least, was his critiquing a teammate on a miscommunication a switch. It’s minor, but his body language sometimes leaves a little to be desired (slumped shoulders and the teammate critique).
So how is a player with all these little defensive warts and an offensive game that, while showing flashes of feel (particularly on his court vision), has a long way to go being considered as a first round talent? His measurements, reflexes, and defensive instincts are pro level. With just a little discretion and accountability on the defensive side, Frazier could give quality minutes to an NBA team today. His shooting has significantly improved each year at Tulane with his true shooting going from 47% to 53% to 63% as a junior. This is all well and good, but the mechanics, both on his catch and shoot, and even more so on his pull up jumper, have a ways to go. Given that he has just 91 three-point attempts at the 38% clip versus 169 attempts (soph and frosh) as a 27% shooter, I’m not convinced that he’s fully turned the corner as a shooter, particularly as the range extends in the NBA. My issues with Frazier are primarily things you can teach: defensive habits, jump shot mechanics, interpersonal communication. The things you can’t teach like length and athleticism are already prevalent. If Frazier is willing to work and learn, he has the tools to be a long-time NBA player. But for every Kelly Oubre or Josh Howard (players who have comparable measurements to Frazier), there’s a lot more of the Lenny Cooke, Adonis Thomas, or Renaldo Balkmans; players who had the tools, but not the wherewithal to use them to the best of their ability.
May 20, 2018Posted by on
The 2018 Big Board (as of 5/14/18) can be found here. We posted it pre-combine, so there’s no doubt outcomes (like Keita Bates-Diop‘s length or Donte DiVincenzo‘s athleticism) that will impact our big board. That said, we’re committed to writing player profiles on the top-30 guys from the initial board. This is the first of those posts, focusing on players ranked 24th to 30th.
Hamilton: Keita Bates-Diop was the 2018 Big 10 Player of the Year but was nowhere near the conference’s best player. He was essentially the best player on an Ohio State that exceeded most expectations. He can shoot with range and in college was able to post up and get by people on the drive. The post game and dribble drive may not translate to NBA as they’re pretty basic involving few actual moves. Instead he oftentimes ends up going through a defender’s chest or over the top of his head. The NBA is obviously populated with big, strong guys who can also move their feet. It will likely be a few years, if ever, before KBD’s skills in these areas make him much of a threat. That said, if he can get the right switches, the physicality is there to score on smaller players. He looks like a pick-and-pop shooter with the range on his shot which could help him get onto the floor early in his career. And while he’s not exactly tall he did measure 1.5” taller at the combine (6’8.5”) than he was listed at Ohio State and has wingspan of 7’3”. The length coupled with solid effort and intelligence could be his meal ticket. At this point he projects as 2nd unit/small-ball forward/center that can stretch the floor. Not super exciting, but a lot of teams need this player type. The skills he does have come at a premium in positionless NBA and that’s why I ranked him higher on my Big Board than my fellow draft heads at Dancing with Noah. After his favorable combine measurements, a few good workouts could have him move out of the 20s and into the post-lottery teens.
Bug: It’s always hard to get a good read on young European players in comparison to the guys we get to see in the NCAA numerous times before entering the draft. Whether it be competition level or the Euro style of play, the stats and video clips can be deceiving. One thing when you watch Dzanan Musa play is that this guy has brass balls on the court. Musa is equipped with a lightning-quick release and range well beyond the three-point line. He also has a nice handle for a 6’9” wing, and changes speeds well to free himself up for shots. The Bosnian product seems to carry himself with a Westbrook-like confidence as if he believes he is the best player on the court at all times. Musa only shot 32% from three this past season, which is a red flag for a player with such an exciting highlight reel of deep balls. That means there were a lot of bricks that came along with the exciting highlights. Musa will need to continue to expand his dribble drive game and get stronger as NBA defenders will look to run him off the line and make him put the ball on the floor. He won’t have the free reign to have the ball at all times and shoot whenever he wants in the NBA, so he’ll have to become more efficient to see the floor. A lack of strength on his 195-pound frame will also make him a defensive liability in his early years. The team that drafts him will need to be patient with his adjustment in that aspect. Musa is one of the youngest players in the draft, just turning 19 years old in May, so he has a lot of room to grow, both in terms of physical size and skill. Dzanan is shaping up to be a mid-to-late first round pick which will help him learn from some veterans on an established team. I believe he’s probably two-to-three years away from contributing, but looks like a strong prospect to take a chance on in the 20-30 range.
Bug: Most draft pundits have the reigning College Player of the Year ranked as a late first, early second round pick in this year’s draft. On our initial big board, I had Jalen Brunson ranked 15 spots higher than anyone else in our crew at 14th overall. The combination of a weak point guard class and the positional importance of having a quality starting and backup point guard in today’s NBA boost Brunson’s value. The draft is loaded with average wings this year, so I ranked Bruson higher based on the supply and demand of quality point guards. There are some obvious physical limitations to his game. He’s a below-the-rim player that doesn’t overwhelm opponents with athletic dominance or size. Brunson may find it to be tough sledding at times on both ends against top-level point guards, but you can say the same about every point guard in this year’s class. Despite those limitations, he’s always found a way to overcome and win games. Dating back to his senior year in high school, Brunson has won three titles in his last four years of competitive basketball, compiling a 133-16 record in that span. Winning is definitely a skill when assessing point guards. In addition to winning big at each level he has played, he grew up around the NBA as the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson. Having a father that played in the NBA teach you the game is a huge advantage coming up in your developmental years. Brunson has a nice handle, and always plays within himself on the court. He knows exactly what his strengths are and doesn’t try to do more than he is capable of doing. He has a sturdy 6’2”, 200-lb frame, a high basketball IQ, and uses his body well to play the angles to get to his spots. The Villanova product also sports a smooth lefty stroke from deep at a 40% clip on more than 200 attempts. Brunson is somewhat of a throwback that gets compared to Mark Jackson quite a bit due to his highly advanced post game (for a PG), but he doesn’t have the elite vision of Jackson as a playmaker. There were many Villanova games this past season where Brunson was the best post player on the floor for either team, but there won’t be many nights in the NBA where he’s going to have the size or strength to utilize that skill very often. On the defensive end, Brunson has a Chris Paul-like competitiveness to him. He plays physical defense and is somewhat of a pest. I believe Brunson ends up being a steal if he goes where he is slotted late in the first round. He’ll most likely settle in as a high-end backup/fringe starting point guard that ends up having a lengthy pro career. The flashy highlights and freakish combine measurables are great, but wins are what keeps coaches and GMs from getting fired.
Fenrich: Jacob Evans’s Cincinnati team ranked 323rd in the NCAA in pace this past season and he was the team’s leading scorer and top in assists at 13-points and just over three assists. He shot 47% on twos and 37% on 4.5 threes-per-game. His tape shows a player with good burst and a solid build (6’5.5”, 199lbs) who looks stronger than his 199 pounds. Offensively, he’s more comfortable stepping into a catch and shoot than he is pulling up off the dribble. Like most of his offense, his handle is competent; his vision is decent. He was likely asked to do a bit too much playmaking for the Bearcats as he averaged nearly two turnovers to every three assists and didn’t always look comfortable in the role of creator. Defensively is where he pops out. In the clips and games I watched, he seemed to drift into a free safety type role at times; reading the floor and making calculated risks. Against Wichita State, he preyed on weak ball handlers. If the handle wasn’t strong, Evans dialed up the intensity which is the kind of cut throat approach the NBA excels at (Houston relentlessly targeting Steph Curry’s defense is a good example). With his strength, he was able to hold his ground against a bigger, beefier post player and perfectly time his jump hook for an easy block. These were isolated scenarios, but serve as good examples of his defensive range and mindset. On the ball, he gets his butt low and slides his feet well laterally. Whether he picked up these habits in Cincinnati or before, it’s clear he’s committed on the defensive end. The liberties he took on defense seem like they could be a blessing and a curse. At times, he would wander defensively and if his read was off, he’d be out of position. He’s good enough athletically to recover more often than not, but it will be interesting to see how his defense develops playing in a much faster NBA game. Equally interesting will be his offensive adjustment as he’ll go from a team that averaged less than 70 possessions-per-game to a league that averages 97 possessions-per-game.
Fenrich: I see all kinds of NBAers in Milton’s unhurried, pendulous movements. He has shades of Dejounte Murray’s length and floater. His handle and lithe collegiate frame call to mind a less pizzazzy Jamal Crawford. With his height (6’5.5”) and ability to see and make the pass (4.4 assists), I think of Jalen Rose. And the son of the “Milk Man” is probably a better shooter than all of them – he definitely was in college. His 43% from three on 445 attempts is an excellent number and his range extends to the NBA distance. He shoots it from deep with a form that remains consistent. In the clips I’ve watched, SMU ran multiple pick-and-rolls and he regularly saw the roll man and executed the pass. Skill-wise, he appears to be NBA ready. Athletically, he falls short. Watching his tape, it’s clear there’s a lack of explosiveness off the dribble. It doesn’t prevent him from getting into the paint as the combination of his handle and ability to use the jumper to set up the drive are enough to beat defenders, but at the next level, this will be more difficult. His max vertical at the combine (33”) landed him in the bottom 25th percentile of participants. Defensively, I didn’t see as much of Milton. The little I did see showed a player more prone to bending at the waist instead of the knees. For a player lacking athleticism, his defensive technique needs to improve. Rose and Crawford are perfect examples of good, but not great athletes who leveraged their high skill levels and unique physical compositions into lengthy and successful NBA careers. Kyle Anderson comes to mind as someone who, while possessing an exceptional feel for the game, has struggled due to lackluster athleticism. It’s a broad range from Rose to Anderson, but somewhere in there is likely where Milton’s NBA destiny lies.
Hamilton: Chandler Hutchison looks all the part of today’s NBA wing. He’s 6’7 with a 7’1 wingspan that helps him appear bigger at times, as evident when he’s tipping or pulling down one of his 7.7 defensive rebounds per game. Some of those rebounds come from a high effort level that also led to 1.6 steals per 40 minutes over his four years at Boise State. The steal stats themselves could be a bit misleading as a real measure of his defense as he does appear to get lost pretty easily while off the ball. At times he makes indecisive or incorrect reads and rotations. But he has a real skill for staying with plays that can be matched with good NBA coaching to turn him into a plus defender. On offense he’s decisive and moves the ball quickly either with the pass, or more likely, on the dribble. It’s probably not fair to label it “iso ball” because he’s so deliberate on the attack that his teammates don’t end up standing and watching too much. His handle has a nice little hesitation to it that could suit him well running pick and roll. Hutchison pulled out of the combine on May 16 prompting many to assume he was offered a draft guarantee from a team. While it’s unlikely a lottery team would reach for Hutchison, several teams selecting in the 20s could be good fits for him. Playoff teams like Indiana at 23, Portland at 24 or Philly at 26 could all use an effort/energy wing who is physically mature and used to making plays.
May 14, 2018Posted by on
236 basketball players are testing the NBA waters this spring. This doesn’t include seniors like Keita Bates-Diop, Grayson Allen, Jevon Carter, Devonte Graham, Kenrich Williams, or Kevin Hervey. There are just 60 picks in the draft, but during the 2016-17 season, 88 players made rookie appearances. In 2017-18, that number jumped up to 120, thanks, in part, to two-way contracts between the G-League and NBA. Through the G-League and global scouting, the league has created a talent pool that is deeper and wider than ever. As more players present themselves as NBA-caliber, the basketball world gets both bigger and smaller. Bigger in the sense that not being drafted is no longer a death knell to a player’s NBA aspirations. Smaller in the sense that the league continues to evolve in how it keeps tabs on players – from teenagers entering the USA Basketball system to a G-League that’s on its way to every NBA team having its own minor league affiliate. There are very few Neon Boudeaux’s these days.
Despite this growing population of NBA newcomers, the most impactful players are still being found in the draft. Of those 120 rookies that appeared in NBA games this season, just 26 of them appeared in at least 1,000 minutes. Of those, just three (12%) players were second-round picks (Sindarius Thornwell, Semi Ojeleye, and Wesley Iwundu), and three (12%) were undrafted (Max Kleber, Royce O’Neal, and Milos Teodosic). Among starters of the four conference finalists, three (15%) were second-round picks (Draymond Green, Trevor Ariza, and PJ Tucker) while one part-time starter wasn’t drafted (Aron Baynes).
Of course, 1,000 minutes and starters on conference finalists are completely arbitrary in terms of their selection and statistical significance, but directionally they help to remind us that the top 80-some-odd-percent of the league’s primary contributors still come from the first round.* I expect that this percentage gets smaller over time, but at present, Draymond Green (35th overall, not big enough), Isaiah Thomas (60th overall, too small), Paul Millsap (47th overall, small school, too small), Manu Ginobili (57th overall, too European/Argentine), Kyle Korver (51st overall, can he get his shot at this level?) are still outliers, players who serve as reminders to guard against physical, racial, or geographic bias or conventional stubbornness. *(This was sticking in my craw or something so I looked at the total minutes played by drafted players beginning with the 2003 draft and ending with the 2017 draft. Among all drafted players in that sample, lottery picks make up 44.8% of total minutes (2,270,126 out of 5,069,530), rest of first round makes up 32.7%, and second rounders make up 22.6%. First rounders (lottery included) make up 77.4% of total minutes. This doesn’t include any undrafted players.)
It is under this guise of an ever-expanding universe of potential draftees that my friends joined me to pull together a 55-player big board for the 2018 draft cycle. I’ll caveat and hopefully not lose you by admitting we haven’t seen or scouted all 236 of the players who put their name in the draft. Most concerning for me is probably Elie Okobo; a favorite among some draftniks whose perspectives I respect. I didn’t see Tyus Battle either, but that’s maybe because I have a semi-conscious bias towards Syracuse. It’s hard to say. I would’ve liked to see and understand Jarred Vanderbilt better, but sometimes the universe, injuries, and the loss of Draft Express’s Youtube clips conspires against us.
Leading up to the draft, we’ll post deeper scouting profiles and projections on the top 30 players appearing on our big board. And if time and inspiration allow for it, we may go deeper on guys who felt outside of the top-30, but who one of us may be high on.
In the big board below, you’ll see a few basic values such as the rankings from me and my Dancing with Noah (DWN) friends and colleagues: Bug, Hamilton, and Maahs. You’ll see our DWN average ranking and the DWN standard deviation. The standard deviation is maybe more intriguing to me than the rankings on their own as the greater the deviation, the greater the difference in what our eyes see. There’s the Season-long aggregate rank (YR AVG) which includes big boards from Draft Express, NBADraft.net, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, and The Stepien which offer up a longer, consensus view. And finally, there’s a comparison of the DWN average versus the consensus (DIFF). Again, I’m a lot less interested in players like Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton who have a difference in aggregate of less than one. The differences are where learning lies.
The other piece of context that’s worth including is that, between me and the other guys ranking players, we haven’t discussed our criteria for ranking. There isn’t any component of the following posts that has to do with mock drafting, but that doesn’t discount the role of team and scheme in how we discuss these players, scout them, or how I’ve ranked them. I encountered a bit of the Allen Iverson conundrum while ranking some of these players in that I believe Collin Sexton and Michael Porter to be players with higher ceilings than Mikal Bridges, but consider Bridges to be a more adaptable player who may offer a greater contribution to winning. But none of these concepts (ceiling, adaptability, or winning contribution) are absolutes. It’s not that Bridges has reached his ceiling or that Sexton or Porter must be lead dogs in order produce. If we dealt in these absolutes, then perhaps player rankings would be easier. We don’t deal in absolutes though and perhaps, in the right role, with the right coaching, Sexton could become a perfect fourth man on a contending team. Another example is the role evolution of Andre Iguodala who’s found his greatest success as a role player. With a highly adaptable game and the mindset of accepting a diminished role, Iguodala has achieved wild success, but few will suggest he was better than Iverson who required massive usage to achieve optimal effectiveness and who struggled in less usage-heavy roles. Did my colleagues think about this the same way? I doubt it, but do all 30 teams use the same criteria when ranking their players? I have my doubts. (Looking at you David Kahn.)
Random Stats before the Home Stretch (75% of the way there); Alternately: Straddling the Nine with James Harden
March 1, 2018Posted by on
Having a child and moving across the country has pushed basketball writing down on my list of priorities, but in these pockets of corporate and domestic living, I’m trying to scratch and claw my way into the word documents and share with you the weird, the strange, the awesome, the historical. We’re some odd three fourths of the way into the season, and as is always the case, the world’s greatest basketball players are venturing into unchartered places where no men (or very few men) have walked, run, jumped or dunked before. And in honor of the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who led the league in scoring and assists 50 years ago, and wore number 14, I have 14* random ass stats for you to consume at your own leisure. As always, shouts to Basketball Reference, a site and group of humans truly doing the lord’s work.
Note: all stats are as of 2/28/18. By the time you click a link, a player’s average or percentages may have moved by a tenth of a point and thus negated the achievement. Such is the fickle nature of records.
*Some of the list items have more than one stat included.
- Steven Adams, 5.1 offensive rebounds, 17% offensive rebound percentage: Steven Adams isn’t the GOAT offensive rebounder (that’s probably Moses Malone), and he’s not even the best right now (probably Andre Drummond), but he is one of just six players in league history (Malone, Drummond, Dennis Rodman, Larry Smith, Jayson Williams) to average as many o-rebs and as high of an o-reb percentage as he is this season. Beyond his devil-may-care attitude to crashing the glass, no player on this list has a greater percentage of his total rebounds come on the offensive end. 56% of Adams’s total rebounds are occurring on the offensive end. That’s 5.1 offensive boards/game to 3.9 defensive. A portion of the reading audience will point to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as the sole reason for Adams’s lack of defensive rebounds, but regardless of snarling causes and effects, Adams’s inverted rebounding ratio is rare and probably historical.
- James Harden 31-8.9: When I first pulled these stats together a few days ago, Harden was sitting at 31 points and nine assists-per-game. Since then, he’s dropped down to 8.9 and will likely straddle the nine (not a term I ever expected to write) for the rest of the season. As it stands, his 31-8.9 places him in cahoots with former Thunder teammate and Steven Adams rebound stealer, Westbrook, Tiny Archibald, and the Big O. I’ve never considered parallels between Robertson’s and Harden’s games, but the physical characteristics and positions are somewhat applicable. Robertson was a physically overpowering guard, much like Harden is; a pair of players who physically defy the flying Jordan paradigm in exchange for blunt force delivered with equal grace.
- Joel Embiid’s turnovers: 12 times in NBA history has a player 6’10” or taller averaged 3.8 turnovers or higher. Embiid is threatening to make it 13 times and join the ranks of Boogie Cousins (a three-timer), Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Mickey Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Jeff Ruland and Ralph Sampson. But let’s not stop at just single seasons. In his short, injury-ravaged career, Embiid has played just 78 games and averaged over six turnovers-per-100 possessions which puts him in much more dubious company. Of the five other players included on this list, I’ve only ever heard of one of them: Mark Radford, Dean Tolson, Ernie DiGregorio (he’s the one I heard of), Steve Kuberski, and Dale Schlueter. Who are these people, these friends of Joel’s?
- Ben Simmons 16-7-7: Counting this season, Ben Simmons makes the 36th occurrence of the well-rounded 16-7-7 line. He’s also joining fellow big guards, Magic Johnson and the Big O, as the only rookies to post the line. As we’ll see with the next few stats, the league as a whole is becoming more skilled and that includes our taller players who benefit from copious amounts of shooters, spread floors, and an advanced understanding of how to pick out open teammates. They also just happen to be have more broadly developed games than many of their back-to-the-basket predecessors. If Simmons came along in 1977, I have my doubts that he would’ve wound up as a point guard.
- 6’7” and taller, +7 assists/game, +5 assists/game: Assists are a somewhat arbitrary stat. If you’ve ever done any assist tracking, what score keepers constitute an assist can vary massively. Additionally, being surrounded by better shooters can rack up high assist counts for an otherwise average passer. Nitpicking aside, tall players are tallying assists in ways we’ve never seen. Three players at least 6’7” (LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Simmons) are averaging over seven assists/game which was last done 31 years ago by Magic, Larry, and Reggie Theus. If we expand our assist thresholds to five-per-game, the current season has eight guys qualifying; the aforementioned Bron/Draymo/Simmons trio in addition to Nic Batum, Boogie, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are both sitting at 4.9. The previous record for players of this height picking up this many assists was six in 1986-87. No popping champagne this year, guys.
- 6’10” and taller, over one 3pa/gm: If we continue exploring the intersection of height and skill, we presently have 21 players at least 6’10” averaging over one three made/game. The list I linked to doesn’t even include the giant, Kevin Durant, who could be as tall as 7’2” after a good stretch but is insultingly listed as 6’9”. We know the game is spacing out further and further. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson bombing from the hash marks or the massive Embiid (a 7’2”, nearly 300lb mountain of a human flesh, bones, polysynthetic fibers, and rubber bands developed in labs) with his almost-set shot, we’re seeing the boundaries pushed out further by our biggest and tallest players which is fundamentally altering the style of play and rewriting the record books.
- Stephen Curry, efficient shooter: Curry’s the best shooter to play in NBA history. It’s hard to dispute this and somehow, at age 29, he’s having his best season yet in terms of true shooting percentage. At a ridiculous 67.2%, better than his 2016 second MVP season (66.9%), he’s entered into a domain occupied by only big men – and Cedric Maxwell. Not to discount what Maxwell, Artis Gilmore, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, James Donaldson, and Wilt Chamberlain achieved, but none of these ultra-efficient big men attempted more than 11 shots per-game. Curry’s crossed the 67% TS threshold on over 17 attempts/game; the bulk of which come outside the paint. If we push outside of the single season, Curry becomes one of just five players (all bigs and again, Maxwell), to have appeared in over 600 games with a TS 62% or higher. This is a somewhat inverse of the previous stats where we’ve seen big men encroaching on the turf of wings and guards. Curry, with his Predator-like accuracy (47-43-90 for his career), deep shooting, and scorer’s volume, has barged his way into efficiency conversations previously limited to dunking big men.
- Anthony Davis, 28-10-2: If we’re rounding up, this is Davis’s second 28-10-2 season as he was a 27.9ppg scorer last season. If we’re not rounding up, Davis is the first player since Shaq in 2000-01 to have this impact on the game in terms of points, blocks, and rebounds, and just the sixth to achieve it (David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Kareem, Bob McAdoo thrice, and Shaq). He’s also doing it in less minutes-per-game than anyone on the list except 97-98 Shaq. With the rise of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis, and Embiid, combined with Davis’s constant missed games and injuries, it has seemed, at times, like his star has dimmed. Since Boogie went down, the Brow has elevated his everything and reminded us of his place in the present and historic lens of the Association. Pray to the new gods and the old that his health continues.
- Andre Drummond, rebounder: Are rebounds valuable? Are they an indicator of team success? Should anyone crash offensive boards? Is this a new market inefficiency? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you that Drummy gets more rebounds than anyone in today’s NBA. Looking all the way back through Basketball Reference’s database, only three times has a player appeared in at least 30 minutes per-game and grabbed at least 26% of the available rebounds: Dennis “the Worm” Rodman did it in 91-92 and 95-96. And now, after having surgery to repair a deviated septum in the off-season, Drummond is doing it. Detroit’s not winning as much as they should, but who cares when their big man is rebounding at Rodmanesque levels? Someone cares, it’s just not me.
- 42% assists in 700+ games, Russell Westbrook: As stated above, assists are not necessarily indicative of great passing, playmaking, or even of unselfishness. In some cases, maybe they’re just indicative of control. Three players in NBA history have assisted on over 42% of their team’s scored field goals: John Stockton (did it on 19% usage), Chris Paul (24% usage), and now Westbrook on a whopping 33% usage. For context, for players who have appeared in over 700 games, Westbrook is second all-time on usage rate (Michael Jordan is first). I made an assumption that as players get older, their usage would decrease, but looking across Kobe, Jordan, and Wade (all close to Russ on career usage), they each had big usage numbers late in their careers so I have no idea where Westbrook’s goes from here. None of this is to say that Westbrook isn’t an excellent passer, but rather to articulate that his gaudy assist rates are a by-product of a ball-dominant style combined with high level passing.
- >36 minutes, <1.8 assists, >23% usage, Andrew Wiggins: What an oddball stat I dug up here. Counting Wiggins this season, it’s been achieved 34 times; most recently by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. I don’t know what to make of this list. It includes guys like Moses Malone (an eight-time inductee), Dwight, Antawn Jamison, Elvin Hayes, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Keith Van Horn (all twice), Rudy Gay, Dominique Wilkins, and Rashard Lewis (all once). And then there are a bunch of oddballs. The combination of high volume minutes and usage with virtually nil playmaking is something I want to attribute to low basketball IQ or perhaps a myopic perspective on the attacking side of the ball; but it’s not that simple as Jamison, Malone, Zo, Nique, Rashard were all dynamic players who were maybe just less-than-average passers. The player has opportunity, but it’s either outside of their skillset or not something the player is willing to do.
If so much of these outlier stats serve as examples of an expanding skill set in the modern player, Wiggins, and Westbrook to a different degree, serve as sore thumbs of stagnation, of stasis. What is interesting in both players is their overwhelming athleticism and the potential opportunity to speculate how dependence on a certain skill can impede development of other skills. The need to evolve or die isn’t applicable because, in these scenarios, the player is already so developed physically, that other weaknesses can be hidden or overlooked. This isn’t to imply that Westbrook or Wiggins are not very good or even great at what they do. Rather, to differentiate their styles through statistical outliers.
July 24, 2017Posted by on
Maybe it all started back in 2006, 11 years ago when Barack Obama hadn’t even taken office and the future was about as clear as Phil Jackson in room with sage, incense, and other clouds of organic nature. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James signed extensions with their teams: Bron three years with a player option for the Cavs. Melo, four years with a player option for Denver, and thus began a gradual resetting of courses that at one time appeared maybe, kinda parallel. The ensuing years have revealed not just a gap in on-court skill sets, but a gap in decision making and how these megawatt star players leverage their power to achieve both on and off-court goals.
Fast forward to 2010 when James (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) declined his player option and infamously took his talents to South Beach. In that fell swoop, the Miami super friends seized power from teams, owners, and front offices. (It’s fair to question how much power was seized as each player took less money to join forces.)
By contrast, Melo was stuck in his remaining year in Denver where the core of the roster was set to enter free agency and watching his friends and fellow 2003 draftees must’ve felt like missing out on the biggest basketball party in the world. That Nuggets core included Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups who had a team option remaining. Combine roster uncertainty with what was an almost guaranteed lockout in the following season and Melo had motivating factors for leaving that went beyond New York and his wife’s (La La Anthony) professional ambitions.
Where Bron and friends went for the off-season, long-term approach, Melo took a new tact and forced a trade in-season. Because he was set to become a free agent, he held the power as prospective buyers were rightly reluctant to give up assets in exchange for a player who wouldn’t commit to re-signing. This has become a blueprint of sorts which we’ve seen most recently with the Paul George-to-Lakers posturing and if George ends up staying in Oklahoma City, there will no doubt be second guessing in Lakerland over their decision to not pay up for the multi-time all-star when they had the chance.
The Lakers differ from the Knicks trading for Melo in that they weren’t willing to give up certain assets (Brandon Ingram, the second pick) for a player they have a chance at signing in 2018. The Celtics took a similar tact in their George conversations. The Knicks gave up a handful of low spades (h/t Bomani Jones) to acquire Melo including three picks; one of which turned into Dario Saric in 2014 and a pick-swap in 2016 that turned into Jamal Murray.
Let’s pause here and look at where James’ and Anthony’s decisions had landed them heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season:
- The 2006 decision to re-sign for an extra fourth season pushed Melo closer to financial uncertainty heading into the 2011 lockout whereas James had signed for a highly-flexible six-year deal with Miami in 2010 with years five and six as player options.
- The 2010 decision by James to join Miami landed him with a proven-winner in Pat Riley, an NBA champ in Wade, and a third all-star in Bosh. It was the ultimate in player agency and self-determination.
- Melo’s 2011 forced trade didn’t leave the cupboard bare in New York, but placed him alongside a 25-point-scoring Amare Stoudemire, an aging Billups, and a Marcus Camby-type figure in Tyson Chandler. In addition, he agreed to a three-year extension.
- At this point, neither player had won a title.
While it’s fair to look at how the Knicks have devolved since 2011, at the time, it wasn’t the worst assortment of talent. In December of 2011, using the playbook Melo put together, Chris Paul was reportedly trying to force his way to New York to join Melo and Stoudemire. As NBA players and agents quickly learned from each other how to gain and use leverage, the attempts of Melo, Stoudemire, and Paul to converge in New York was a combination of the Melo leverage play and the Bron/Heat super friends approach. I don’t know if it was quite unprecedented, but it did signal what the future of player movement and team building would look like.
The Paul deal never panned out, Stoudemire was crushed by injuries, Billups fell off and the Knicks didn’t take up his option. Competent executive Donnie Walsh left prior to the 2011-12 season as well, stripping the team of probably its sanest and smartest decision maker.
Melo isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Knicks front office any more than he’s responsible for Stoudemire’s injuries. But positioning yourself as a power player creates a natural, fair or not, over-analysis of your decisions. And the Knicks with James Dolan as owner had a long history of bumbling. That they teased fans with a successful 2012-13 season before spiraling into sub-optimal mediocrity under Phil Jackson is hardly a surprise.
Heading into the summer of 2014, the chasm between James and Melo, which had once been moderate back in 2010, had grown massively and not just because James was the better player, but because he played the decision-making game better. By aligning himself with healthy, in-prime all-stars, and a stable front office, he was fully empowered to excel on-the-court.
In June of 2014, Melo declined his player option with the Knicks and went on a free agency tour that included visits with the Bulls, Lakers, Mavs, and Rockets. Except for the Lakers, the other teams Melo met with offered a combination of proven stars and teams flirting with 50-win seasons – so of course two of the final three teams on Melo’s list were non-playoff teams: the Lakers and Knicks.
In hindsight, bypassing the soon-to-be-ravaged-by-injury Bulls was a stroke of luck and besides, Melo would get his chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York a couple seasons later. But at the time, opting back in to New York was interesting if unsurprising. In what should have foreshadowed future acrimony, there was strain between Jackson and Melo even during the free agency process as Jackson publicly needled Melo to take less money. For Jackson, the notion of courting a star has always run counter to convention or common sense, but when you have two hands worth of rings as your resumé, leeway is granted.
Meanwhile, after getting smoked in the 2014 finals by the Spurs, James returned to the Cavs, but not without assurances; namely Kevin Love. At the same time, Melo either bought into Jackson’s vision of the future or he went with the creature comforts of home. It’s funny to read immediate reactions from Melo’s signing and see where the focus was so heavily directed at title contention – not in 2014-15, but sometime during the Phil/Melo regime. Sweet hindsight provides a clarity inaccessible to the intoxication of a $122M reunion and a future envisioned by a man referred as the Zen Master. Not everyone was on board with Melo’s choice though as GQ’s Bethlehem Shoals was scraping away at the same Melo issues that have reared their head three years later.
By gaining assurances on landing Love and pairing him with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs didn’t offer James a glimpse of the future. They offered him a concrete present where the path to the finals was visible for the most nearsighted of eyes. Owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to competing, regardless of cost, made it possible to build a complementary team of shooters and cheap veteran talent to land a championship roster. (This looks a little different three years into the James return as Gilbert has fired championship GM, David Griffin and as of this writing, the front office remains somewhat in limbo and the Kyrie Irving trade demands cast a shadow on the whole of the Cavs [including Bron’s] management.)
By contrast, Jackson continued to insist on the triangle in New York; continued to insist on the team playing his way, not tapping into the skills of its $122M superstar. It’s not that Griffin’s or Jackson’s approaches to team building are right or wrong. They’re different philosophies with different degrees of flexibility and rigidity depending on personnel. That James chose the more complementary team or managed to gain influence over that team is a testament to either his foresight or power or a combination of both. Melo re-upping with New York without an obvious road to future success speaks either what was most important to him (financial security, New York family) or an inability to assess the NBA’s competitive landscape and how that Knicks team fit into it. Ten to 14 years into the Melo/Bron journey, we’ve seen James continually make decisions that align with his off-court interests and his on-court aspirations while Melo awkwardly fights with his GM and soaks in life as one of the most popular athletes in New York.
The big wrinkle in Melo’s 2014 contract was the inclusion of the no-trade clause which gave him the power to veto a deal to any team in the association. For all of Anthony’s questionable decision making over the years, this was one of his shrewder and smarter demands and is the kind that only a few players can make. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest tool in his belt to fend off Jackson’s repeated attempts to banish him from the Knicks forever.
Alas, even Melo’s better decisions create potential stumbling blocks. Reportedly, Melo refused Phil’s attempts to move him out of New York. For much of the 2016-17 season, an updated Melodrama (Melodrama III if we’re counting, but there’s a minimum amount of relevance required to have your foibles named and Melo’s relevance is nowhere near its peak of 2011) played out across the headlines of New York publications with Jackson doing everything in his power to sink his star’s value while simultaneously trying to trade him. Throughout it all, Melo steadfastly refused to be dealt until Jackson was finally fired in late June. Less than a week after Jackson was dumped, it was reported that Anthony was now willing to waive the no-trade if he was dealt to Houston or Cleveland. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Given that Anthony largely controls the process, it will be difficult for New York to demand significant assets in any trade.” Which makes one wonder what Melo’s true motivations are or were. Did he just want to outlast Phil or did he truly want to remain a Knick? Does winning matter or does it just matter once Melo has everything else Melo wants?
There’s no small amount of irony comparing James to Melo in terms of decision making. After all, Bron is the player who set up an entire televised special to announce he was leaving his hometown Cavs to play for the Miami Heat. His decision and the manner he delivered it exhibited tone deafness and a lack foresight. He’s exhibited passive aggressive behavior towards teammates and front offices, sub-tweeted teammates on social media, taken a shit on fans after losing to the Mavs in 2011. In short, the follies of maturation and shortcomings in interpersonal communication styles have been on loop for all of us to watch for the past 15 years. While his platforms and message have sometimes lacked a broad view, his choices in terms of teams and teammates have been masterful. If you believe him to be a shadow GM, well, his player personnel decisions are much more impeachable.
So we land here in July of 2017 and Melo, after long stating he wants to stick it out in New York hasn’t just lifted the no-trade clause for a couple of teams. Rather, according to Woj, “he’s made it clear to them (the Knicks) that I want to go to Houston. I’m not interested in talking to you about being reincorporated back into this New York roster.” He may have outlasted Phil and resumed his role as controller of his own destiny, dictating his next destination to Steve Mills and Scott Perry. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that he’s managed to land in three separate times in his career. It’s no small thing for a worker to seize the reins of power from management and ownership, but Melo’s done it. And for once, his desire to join a pre-made roster instead of sitting at the center of a future-facing plan looks to be real. Was it all as simple as a power struggle with the ancient Phil Jackson? Or is Melo’s basketball biological clock ticking as sneaks glimpses of pro basketball mortality? We’ll never know. Assuming Melo lands in Houston, without the weight of a franchise on his New York-born shoulders, one only can hope he finds a peace and satisfaction that was always out of grasp at home.
June 27, 2017Posted by on
Russell has a bad beard, barely a beard
So Harden Schmarden
Russell is broad-shouldered, jumps high, runs fast, shoots imaginary pistols, snarls, is the latest embodiment of a made-up mentality called mamba
Man-made of bones and flesh though sometimes it doesn’t seem so like when he’ll
Snatch a board and explode like the Flash or Usain Bolt with basketball
Passing Steven and Enes, and Victor and Billy, and Steve McQueen and Dutch McQueen
It’s impossible though to keep up the high forever
Acid wears off, paint runs dry, the sun grows cold and dim, and Russell, unlike Wilt,
Can’t play 48.5 minutes a game
Sit, rest, sweat, replenish with electric koolaid Gatorade
And witness and watch a wannabe empire crumble on a
Kevin Durant departure, like a
Prairie twister flinging Clay-B into snarling jaws of PNW throngs
Plus, minus, net, zero
Russell has knuckles that bulge, big hands I see during press conferences gripping thin-necked mics
Those same big hands the tools of a furious craftsman shaping a world of leather and wood and glass and steel and nylon
Big heart pumping, big heart probably three times the size of a normal human heart like he’s the human Secretariat
Chasing down Big O, Big Oscar, Big grouchy pants, while the pitched screams of the chorus clash in some unholy demonic din
Love, hate, sober, drunk, we can’t agree on anything
Even numbers lie these days
Down to the subdermal layers to the atoms of Russell’s being, scrutinizing
Stack up all the stats like petty biscuits of achievement and gobble it up without milk
Choke on the numbers
Critical and confused in a day where we know everything and yet still believe in what we can’t see
Everything ends and every ending starts with some sprouting in spring or something
A car crash in Houston on a
Late night in April
Careening into Patrick
Russell MVP rising so far so fast
Commercialized, commodified to sell product
In funny clothes, clownsuits
Prisoner of a musecage of his own design
(Oh, give it a rest, Kobe)
Head to head, I mean rim to rim nuclear-propelled missile bullet rocket projectile thundering sonic boom
Bukkake acid rain all over the NBA
But fizzle fizzle fizzle
No cupcake, no sadness, no victory
Those big hands crinkling, those knuckles crunching
Pupils big like frisbees
A multi-hued splatter on hardwood canvas
Bill Walton Jackson Pollock basketball
Drunk on a tappable fury reserve,
Futuristic basketball player in Joanie Mitchell hats
Validated in losing, but still
Validated, but still
Losing, but still
June 12, 2017Posted by on
This is the third post in our 2017 NBA draft coverage. The previous two posts can be found here: Big Board, Players 1-5 deep dive. While there continues to be some consensus here (we’re all skeptical, but also kind of optimistic on Dennis Smith as we see his middle ground as Eric Bledsoe; which is pretty damn good), our comparisons for Jonathan Isaac against NBA players runs an intriguingly wide range. As always, special thanks to my fellow writers/scouts (Bug, Hamilton) and our super talented artist (Maahs).
Hamilton: De’Aaron Fox emerged as high lottery pick during a solid freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 16.7 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists. His head-to-head dominance of consensus top-two prospect Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 propelled him to 2nd tier of the 2017 draft.
Fox has been compared to John Wall for his speed, and it’s possible he’s faster. He changes direction effortlessly without slowing down. While this is a tremendous asset, it can also be a problem. He has a tendency to get sped up in transition and half-court drives, ending up in no-man’s-land without a good shot, or a pass that sets up a shot for a teammate.
Many of Fox’s dimes come from relatively simple drop-off passes and dishes once he has gotten by his own man. His vision isn’t doesn’t appear to be on the level of other top PGs in this class. Playmaking PGs keep a probing dribble alive and change pace while doing so. I would like to see him change pace more than he does both in transition and in the half-court; against NBA level athletes, this is a must. Another problem for Fox as a PG in the NBA will be his well-documented poor shooting. It’s one thing to have a visually unappealing jumper if it goes in. That’s not the case here. Fox’s jump shot is broke and not always for the same reason. As Draft Express notes, sometimes he shoots on the way down, sometimes on the way up. He relies too much on upper body in his shot. Sometimes he floats to his left, sometimes his balance is pretty good. The angle of his elbow is always too narrow, which makes his release more of sling, or flick, than a jump shot. The good news is he’s well-aware of this fact and answered virtually every question in his DX interview in Los Angeles talking about improving his shooting. As it stands, his unreliable shot means defenders can go under on screens and his speed is somewhat nullified at the NBA level.
He also didn’t show much of a right hand at Kentucky and that’s another point of emphasis in his development. For me these factors call his position into question. I can see him developing into a slashing score-first combo guard. Defensively, he should have the ability to guard 1s and smaller 2s. If he can put on weight without compromising his speed, it could translate nicely on the defensive end of the floor for him. He’s not as polished as Markelle Fultz or Ball at this moment but his ceiling is high, and he gets great marks for his work ethic, intelligence, and character. Those things matter. When weaknesses are clear and fixable, a hard-working smart player can overcome. De’Aaron Fox may end up being a top-three player from this draft class, but what the finished product looks like is definitely to be determined.
Fenrich: Jonathan Isaac of Naples, Florida, late of Tallahassee, has a bit of that Anthony Davis thing going on where he played ball in high school as a combo forward before hitting a growth spurt and jumping up to his present height, 6’11”. Like Davis, there’s a natural fluidity in his athleticism. He doesn’t move like a lot of guys near seven feet tall though it seems like young people like Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, are becoming bigger and more athletic. Evolution indeed. When I look at Isaac’s tape though, I don’t see the same transcendent skill so prevalent in those other players I listed (to be fair, I didn’t see it in Towns either). That’s not really a knock on a player though.
Isaac moves great, he has unteachable length, appears comfortable without being the center of attention, has lateral mobility and quickness, can guard multiple positions. In short, he has a combination of physical ability and basketball skills that are ideal for today’s NBA where the ability to guard multiple positions and hit from deep are coveted. That latter piece is my curiosity with Isaac. In his one season at Florida State, Isaac took nearly three threes-per-game and hit close to 35% of them. For a guy who took just eight shots each night, to have nearly 40% of them come from deep is a curious stat.
That said, his three-ball and perimeter game come naturally. He has a nice jab step, but if he’s not an outside threat at the NBA level, I’m not confident how effective it will be. Speaking of using range to set up the driving attack, a favorite method of attack for the more developed bigs in the league, Isaac’s handle isn’t anywhere it needs to be to put the ball on the floor at the pro level. At its current level, I envision his pocket being picked or him being stripped by stronger, quicker defenders than what he’s accustomed to.
Concerns around his handle and how his jump shot translate aside, Isaac has the look of a natural pro defender. This is somewhat contingent on him getting stronger, but the length and agility coupled with the willingness to defend are a great foundation to build on. And I can’t imagine teams are looking at him expecting to be a number one or even number two option. That said, the NBA has a bad habit of miscasting players out of necessity. Just because Isaac can make the three and can occasionally put the ball on the floor doesn’t mean that’s what he should be doing. With any luck, he’ll land with a team patient enough to build on his copious defensive strengths and allow him to develop as a competent, but supporting offensive player.
Fenrich: Mark Medina of the OC Register wrote recently that Dennis Smith “had a 48-inch vertical.” The highest vertical in Draft Express’s deep database on NBA-prospect measurements is 46” from viral dunkster, D.J. Stephens. I’m not saying Medina got bad info or that someone is embellishing here, but the iota of possibility that Smith could possibly have a 48” vertical speaks to mind-numbing athleticism and explosiveness.
When I watched Smith’s tape from NC State, my first thoughts were “Baron Davis” and that he plays basketball like a football player. At 6’3”, 195lbs, Smith is built like a brick shithouse and attacks the rim like he’s relishing the contact. (As an aside, where I keep seeing Davis, it seems everyone else sees Steve Francis. I think it’s the thicker-looking build that makes me think Davis, but hey, Davis, Francis, whatever, he’s dunking on someone.) It’s one thing to see an explosive athlete dominate skinny college-level big men. It’s another thing to envision him careening into Draymond Green or Kristaps Porzingis or even Robin Lopez for the violent dunk smash.
Smith showed a serviceable jumper in the NCAA where he shot close to 36% on nearly two makes-per-game. That’s a good volume, but I’m lacking a bit of confidence in the shot. He can get the pull up jumper when he wants, but his balance often looks off. On the three, he doesn’t always hold his follow-through.
Similar to being a decent three-point shooter, but failing to instill confidence, Smith averaged over six assists as a freshman; a quality number, but watching his tape, there’s a glut of bad decisions made. It’s not just turnovers (he averaged nearly 3.5), but the shot selection and the seeming obliviousness of when to shoot or make a play. Smith was far too comfortable pulling up early in possessions when better options were available. Draft Express has what almost amounts to a blooper reel of Smith making the kind of decisions that drive coaches crazy (or get them fired).
Probably most disconcertingly, there are numerous questions around his character and leadership. There’s a consistent lack of effort on defense, boneheaded decisions on offense, straight up looking off teammates trying to set screens, and body language that often communicates disinterest. Some of these intangibles can maybe be attributed to his environment. Like Ben Simmons last season, NC State’s program was far from stable. They fired their coach in-season and struggled throughout the year. While Fultz was in a similar losing situation at the University of Washington (their coach was fired after the season), it was stable in that the coach had been in place for several years and, despite a series of one-and-done players, a culture had been established. This is a bit of a cop out for Smith, but still worth pointing out.
Despite all the concerns, I’m bullish on Smith. I acknowledge there’s a level of risk that goes with drafting him and believe he needs to land somewhere where veteran teammates or coaches can hold him accountable. In the top-ten picks of the draft, that’s not always an option. There’s a reason teams end up in the lottery. I don’t know if it’s better to have all the athleticism in the world and struggle with the mental aspects of the game, or, like his fellow draft class peer, Fox, have excellent athleticism with a great head on your shoulders. And even though I ranked Smith higher because the upside is so massive, as I write this, I can’t help but think that a good player with great character may be the better route.
Fenrich: I get the urge to see in Markkanen, a seven-foot, sweet jump shooting giant from the Nordics, a younger, modern version of German great, Dirk Nowitzki, but I don’t see it. I never scouted Dirk, never saw any tape of him back in the summer of 1998. So I went ahead and found this clip of Dirk going against America’s finest teens at the Nike Hoop Summit of ’98. And there are a few things that pop:
- The announcers were comparing Dirk to Detlef Schrempf
- Watching Dirk back then, you can see the badass, but aside from say, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, I can’t think of many guys you’d scout as an amateur and say, “He’s going to be a top-10 all-time scorer, MVP, and NBA champion.” As good as Dirk was in this clip, I don’t think anyone expected him to be the guy he’s become.
- Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk
But Markkanen is a lot of other things. He’s a big kid with a basketball pedigree. His dad player for Kansas and the Finnish national team. His mom was also a national team player. He’s a legit seven-footer with a big, broad-shouldered frame that occasionally looks even bigger because he wore big t-shirts under his jersey at Arizona. In his single season in Tucson, he shot 42% from three on over four attempts-per-game. His range extends out to the NBA level and he appears to have a strong base. He does have a little hitch when he catches on spot up threes where he’ll catch and bring the ball down before elevating into his rhythm. It’s a small thing and he’s such a great shooter that I doubt it matters but when thinking about a vastly more difficult level of competition, these split seconds matter.
What the three ball opens up is the dribble drive as NBA bigs are often challenged to close out on shooters with a hand up and still defend the dribble drive. Not convinced he’ll be able to put it on the floor at first, but it should be something he develops.Sticking with the dribble drive, it was difficult to discern his ability to pass off the drive. Can he develop to the point where he can put it on the floor against a closeout defender, make a move, see the help and then find the open man? This is the type of skill level that takes a player from Channing Frye rotation-guy to Ryan Anderson-starter or better.
The big differentiator with Anderson though, is that Markkanen is a legit seven-footer while Anderson is around 6’10”. Neither player has great length, but based on those broad shoulders and average athleticism, Markkanen has the potential to be a load around the basket though that appears to be unlikely given his current stylistic approach.
Defensively, I’m not expecting much. To borrow from Jeff Van Gundy, so much of a defense is about effort. Is he willing to put in the hard work and effort to try on the defensive end or is he content to shoot seven threes each night? From the materials I’ve seen, there’s no indication he won’t put the work in, but it’s difficult to project at this point.
What’s most intriguing about Markkanen is that he’s likely the best shooter in this entire draft class. Being seven-feet and having that type of stroke automatically lifts the floor to Channing Frye-type levels. Even with the league evolving in terms of its size/skill versatility, Markkenen has the potential to be among the best shooting big men in the league. And that designation, “best shooting big man,” can mean anything from Channing Frye to Dirk Nowitzki – even though he won’t be Dirk.
Bug: If you’ve never watched Zach Collins play, you might look at the stats and wonder why he’s a projected lottery pick. Ten points, six rebounds, and only 17 minutes-per-game…what’s the fuss about?
Luckily for those of us that can’t keep our eyes open for those late night west coast games, we got a good look at Zach Collins in the NCAA Tournament. He had stretches during in March where he was the best player on the floor, with potential oozing from every orifice.
The correlation between what you see on the court and his stats don’t quite match up though. Why does such a skilled player only play 17 minutes-per-game, and only average ten points and six rebounds? We could blame it on the high foul rate that kept him off the floor, or we could claim that his youthful status on a veteran team held his minutes back. Either way you slice it, there is a mystique about Collins. Everything you see from him just screams “can’t miss prospect,” but the elephant in the room will always be “why did he play so little?”
Based on what I’ve seen from the tournament, and various clips, he has immense potential. He hits the three at a 47% clip, blocks four shots-per-game/per-40 minutes. The inside/outside game brings Pau Gasol to mind. He can bang down in the post, but also take it outside and knock down open jumpers. He compliments the offensive game with more-than-sufficient rim protection. When put in situations where he is required to guard smaller players, Collins shows the lateral movement to not be a liability in pick-and-rolls with good lateral movement for a seven-footer.
Using the term “leap of faith” could be applied to most prospects, but that phrase is the slogan for Collins. I see him play and get excited, but the 17 minutes of playing time is always the footnote. Can he extrapolate his impressive stats over a full game, or did he see limited minutes for a reason? We’ll find out soon enough, but based on what I see on film, it is worth the gamble to make Collins a lottery pick.