Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: College Basketball

Zion & Brandon: Hulkish Hermanos; alternately: The Intersection of Elite Athleticism, Intellect & Effort

My words on RJ Barrett and Jarrett Culver were all about finding dissimilarities and assessing future prospects based on said dissimilarities. With Zion Williamson and Brandon Clarke, there’s no doubt who sits where in the pro prospect hierarchy: Zion is on top and will forever be the shining diamond in this rough draft class of 2019. But that doesn’t mean these two gladiatorial young men don’t descend from a similar line of 0.1 percenters; the elite athletes in a sport dominated by elite athletes. I will never forget what Lamar Odom once said of JaVale McGee; after praising his athleticism, Odom implied McGee needed to improve as a player, “because the game is called basketball, not run and jump.”

I have no idea what Zion’s or Clarke’s verticals are. I don’t know how fast they run a 40 or a three-quarter court sprint. I’m clueless as to how many reps they can pound out at 185. These are two wildly athletic players, probably more so than Mr. Run & Jump, JaVale McGee, but, to Odom’s critique, Williamson and Clarke are basketball players from their fingertips down to their toes. They are players with high basketball IQs, selfless ethos, and developing jump shots. But the easiest and most obvious of their virtues remain of the visually physical variety. For this exercise, we will examine their physicals, efforts, and skills.

LAHAINA, HI – NOVEMBER 21: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils takes a shot over Brandon Clarke #15 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the finals of the Maui Invitational college basketball game at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2018 in Lahaina Hawaii. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Williamson is a 6-7, 280-some-pound behemoth, a jackhammer with a predator’s reflexes. All (most?) sports have a way of visually conveying the unique strengths of their participants and basketball probably more so than most. There’s Zion with shorts and a tank top, a pair of shoes and socks. His massive arms are uncovered, on display for all; his broad chest stretching the letters across his jersey to unexpected breadths. There’s no hiding his physical imposition. His speed, power, and elevation are obvious to untrained eyes. He plays as if he’s shot out of a cannon, hits a target, sprints back to the cannon, reloads himself, and booms all over again, covered in sweat and the fear of opponents.

Brandon Clarke isn’t the slobber-inducing eye candy of Zion. He’s 6-8, around 215-pounds. If you saw him at the airport, he’d just be a run of the mill tall college basketball player in a jumpsuit with a backpack, but when the record drops and the ref says go, Clarke employs the dexterity of a crab, able to move side-to-side as fluidly as forward and backwards. He skinnies up that lean frame and slides through screens like a basketballing Mister Fantastic, he can deftly switch onto any opponent – big, small, medium, black, white, green, it’s all the same (which isn’t to say he’s flawless defensively, but we’ll get into that). And the jumps? Clarke’s legs appear to be powered by some kind of hydraulic system that’s been surgically installed into his body without any visible traces of its insertion. How else to explain his hyper pursuit of opponent shot attempts or the screaming missile dunkers he hurls through the rim? He dunks with the clean ripplelessness of Lob City DeAndre Jordan or the world’s sleekest cliff diver; he blocks shots like that Russian condor, Andrei Kirilenko. It’s possible that within his hydraulic enhancement, Clarke’s ability to anticipate and react to basketball events was upgraded; a software improvement of sorts. The more likely explanation is that Clarke has committed himself to achieving optimal physical condition for playing basketball and has refined his technique through hard work and dedication.

Trying hard matters, but as the Wizard of Westwood, Mr. John Wooden told us, we also don’t want to mistake activity for achievement. Williamson and Clarke are exemplars of a valuable athleticism and effort combination and both are, for the most part, proficient in their distribution of effort. Steals and blocks are not the best indicators of defensive impact, but they are one of the few available measures to track defensive activity. Clarke, who plays in the low-profile West Coast Conference (WCC), registers over 3 blocks and 1 steal per-game with a block rate over 11%. And comparing Clarke’s blocks and steals in 20 games vs non-Power Conference teams to 8 games against Power Conference teams, we see nearly identical numbers: vs non-power: 3.1 blocks and 1.1 steals, vs power: 3.1 blocks and 1.5 steals. Zion is tallying over 2 steals and nearly 2 blocks each game, making him one of just two players in the country (UW’s dynamic defensive wing, Matisse Thybulle being the other).

Effort doesn’t begin or end with trackable defensive stats. If you watch Duke play, it doesn’t take long to notice that Williamson exists in a state of perpetual sweat. His great wide chest and rib cage expands and collapses as lungs pull in and push out huge amounts of air. It could just be that he’s a naturally sweaty guy, but then you see him sprinting, shuffling, hurling that mass of body into opponents, the rim, the floor – any target, reached at high speed with buckets of sweat flying soaking the court. He doesn’t stop. Following the Gonzaga game in November, Williamson apparently had “full body cramps” (per ESPN telecast on 11/27) and required three IVs. The cramping and IVs can be in part attributed to effort and part to conditioning which needs to be acknowledged and will be below. That’s also not to say that his effort is risk-free. You don’t have to watch too many of Duke’s defensive sets to see his eyes lusting after the ball; hungry, ready, prepared to take it and fly away with violence and bad intentions – and then he catches himself and re-tracks his man.

Clarke’s motor doesn’t run into the red with the frequency or intensity of Zion’s, but at this point, the 22-year-old (nearly 4 years older than his Duke counterpart) is likely a smarter, more judicious player. It’s not that Clarke conserves his energy like I do or like present-day LeBron James, rather his movement is more efficient, his burst-heavy gambling and risk-taking occurring much more infrequently. But see Clarke defending on or off the ball, see him knifing through screens without ever losing his man, see him double and recover, eating up space like Pac-Man in a Gonzaga jersey, see him tracking missed shots on the glass and you see effort of focus. His awareness and ability to be mentally present in all situations means he doesn’t miss boxouts or switches, he isn’t caught ball watching and rarely ball chasing. He puts out maximum effort: getting his butt low in perimeter defensive events, moving his feet to gain post position on both sides of the ball, elevating for rebounds without exerting unnecessary energy due to being out of position. Awareness is no doubt a skill but combining it with effort optimizes for efficiency.

Perfection shouldn’t be expected from these prospects, or any player for that matter. If perfection is the pursuit, playing with circles is a more appropriate endeavor. And when we look at skills, both Zion and Clarke have real and clear deficiencies counterbalanced by athleticism, effort, and basketball intellect, but they are not perfect.

Regardless of how you feel about the growing prominence of the three-point shot in modern basketball, it’s a skill critical to floor and lineup balancing. To-date, Williamson has attempted 48 3s and is hitting 29%. The form and release on his shot are consistent, but he doesn’t do a great job squaring up and his release is out instead of up. The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker covered both his mechanics (~10:20 mark) and potential defensive schemes a limited jumper result in at the next level (~4:05 mark) in this excellent and thorough video breakdown. Players who see the type of defensive treatment that Zion will likely see include Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Draymond Green. Each of those players, like Zion, has a high basketball IQ and are above average passers. Giannis and Simmons utilize cutting and athleticism as additional counters to sag off treatments. Given Zion’s superhuman-type explosiveness, passing, and IQ, it’s easy to envision ways around these treatments, though the most effective counter will be developing into at least an average three-point shooter.

In the clip below which includes some poor Virginia defense, Zion is able to use a player helping off of him twice on the same possession: the first to build up a head of steam and better track an offensive rebound (made much easier by his defender’s poor positioning and awareness) and the second to fill a gaping hole with a well-timed cut and emphatic dunk shot.

His height and length (listed 6-10 wingspan) have the potential to create pesky challenges. In multiple games this season, whether on post catches or dribble drives, longer, taller players have been able to either block or disrupt his interior shot attempts. Syracuse’s 7-2 Paschal Chukwu and Texas Tech’s 6-10 Tariq Owens immediately come to mind as rangy athletes who were capable of harassing his interior looks. For any success those teams had, Williamson countered by drawing fouls and shooting 10 (Texas Tech) and 14 (Syracuse) free throw attempts. His motor and quickness are such that he can get to the loose ball before opponents are even registering there is a loose ball.

If opponent length could cause him minor hassles, his own weight could cause more serious issues. I’m nowhere near qualified to write about the amount of strain Zion’s force puts on his joints and ligaments, but given his speed and elevation, the impact coming down has to be hellacious. Since I saw him in high school, I’ve always had this foreboding sense that injury awaits and it’s likely more of a superstitious feeling than anything rooted in sports science. There’s just something about his generational athleticism, to say nothing of his game, that screams: Too good to be true. I’m fearful of losing it, particularly because I wonder if measures could be taken to reduce its likelihood of occurring. At 280 or 285 or whatever, Zion isn’t in bad shape by any means, but is in optimal basketball shape? For an 82-game grind with a devil-may-care approach akin to young Dwyane Wade or Gerald Wallace, optimal condition is a must. Is optimal 265? 267? At what point does the loss of mass reduce effectiveness? For basketball in 2019, these are the questions that can differentiate long, successful careers from merely good or, I shiver, injury-ravaged ones.

If distance shooting and his physical makeup are potential caution flags, the rest of his game is a joy to behold. For a player who won’t turn 19 until July, Zion’s body control and footwork are exquisite. His size coupled with his hangtime allows him to elevate, absorb or avoid contact, and finish with regularity. He frequently employs a hard spin move off the dribble and executes it without slowing down, his feet and brain in working in perfect synchronization. His handle is good; he keeps it low and has some wiggle, but the right hand (he’s lefty dominant) still needs a bit of work. It’s effective against college big men, but given how he’ll be schemed against in the NBA, it will be interesting, particularly if his jumper doesn’t develop, to see how useful it is or becomes. Off the dribble he has a pull-up jumper that looks a little better than his three-ball, but still lacks in fluidity. Finally, his passing and court awareness are an icing on the cake of sorts. He’s not a passer or creator like LeBron James, but when you have players who are so physically overwhelming, you don’t always expect to see advanced court vision and awareness as the players are often accustomed to imposing their will with force. Not only is Zion a capable passer, but going back to high school, he’s been a willing creator whose passes zip through space with velocity and accuracy. Playing alongside better shooting with better court spacing, it’s easy to see this skill being more fully realized.

A final side thought on what Zion faces at the pro level: despite him attempting over 9 free throws-per-40 minutes, I’ve noted numerous plays where he draws obvious fouls that aren’t called. And as the pro comparisons march through the internets, my first thought on seeing him officiated differently from his peers is LeBron and Shaq. The strength advantage those two MVPs have always had over their peers created officiating challenges and it’s not hard to imagine the beefy, booming Zion running into the same inconsistencies with NBA refs.

I didn’t see any of Brandon Clarke in his 2-year stint at San Jose State, but I’ve seen a ton of his single season at Gonzaga and he struck me early on as a player who plays far bigger than his 6-8, 215-pound frame. In terms of eye testing, Clarke leaps off the screen, out of the picture, and soars across the Spokane skyline. He’s most fun and most effective on the defensive side of the ball which I’ve covered in more depth above. But in an NBA where designated positions matter less than skills, Clarke will have ample suitors.

So is he a three, a four, a five? A combo forward? A 4-5? Is he conditionally all of the above? Alongside a pair of bigs who can shoot from the perimeter, there’s no reason Clarke can’t defend modern NBA big wings. In a small-ball lineup, he could easily slide to the 5. The weaknesses I’ve seen in his defense are against stronger, heavier players. Particularly, UW’s Noah Dickerson, a throwback, deep position-seeking post player who weighs at least 235 pounds and Tennessee’s Grant Williams who’s built more like Julius Peppers than Julius Hodge. Both were able to pin Clarke and limit his length and explosiveness. This isn’t to say Clarke isn’t strong, rather that body type, lower center of gravity and thick base, create positional problems for him. Fortunately for Clarke, the NBA doesn’t go to the post with the frequency of earlier eras, nor has it fully optimized the market inefficiency of the PJ Tucker type, but these matchups in addition to mountains like Jokic and Embiid are going to give Clarke trouble in a man-defense setting. His other defensive vulnerability, despite great lateral quickness and effort, is guarding smaller, quicker guards. Clarke is athletic enough to recover when getting beaten, but not going overboard on closeouts and better utilization of his length as a cushion against quickness will improve on what is already an elite defensive profile.

Offensively, Clarke is a much simpler player. He’s attempted just 12 threes with the Zags (made 4) and is a 68% shooter from the line. I don’t believe Clarke’s pro value to be contingent on shooting ability and I have questions about his touch around the rim, but Cole Zwicker makes a strong case for Clarke’s shot development and touch; which happens to be a single skill that could determine Clarke’s destiny in this great global game. He’s most noticeable in and around the paint for a Zags team that’s not short on skilled scorers, but in that painted area, none are more efficient than Clarke who’s currently shooting nearly 70% on 2s. It’s not just that he’s mean as a dunker, but Clarke has already developed as a roll man, regularly catching lobs from point guard Noah Perkins and dunking them down like bolts of lightning from Zeus. He has an off-the-dribble game, but it’s not something I’d expect to see at the next level unless it drastically develops. From my viewing, he’s been better in catch-and-shoot situations as his mechanics hold up there. Similarly to his off-the-dribble game, I don’t anticipate Clarke being used much as a hub or scoring option in the post though with Gonzaga, he gets good position down low with a strong, low base. If he does get the catch inside, it’s almost a guarantee he’s attacking left shoulder with either a little righty jump hook or a mini dribble drive.

The above isn’t the type of clip I’d normally seek out, but it’s a perfect example of Clarke’s footwork and timing in the pick-and-roll while also capturing his non-stop movement. On a single possession, he goes through two screen-and-roll motions, posts up his man, and executes a hand-off. It doesn’t matter that nothing came of it on this possession; rather, the unceasing pressure creates breakdowns that result in easy buckets.

Clarke gets his shots with the Zags (nearly 10 FGAs/gm), but his value is that he doesn’t need them to be effective. He doesn’t need entire sets drawn up or committed to him in order to produce. Between P&R, offensive rebounding, competent grab-and-go- skills, and running the floor (Clarke runs the floor like a man possessed; against St. Mary’s I saw him get a layup just by sprinting the floor off a make), he can be an efficient fourth or fifth scorer. Developing as a shooter is the kind of swing skill that pushes him from highly competent role player into starter on a competitive playoff team.

There could be better athletes or better dunkers in college basketball than Zion Williamson and Brandon Clarke. But there isn’t anyone who better combines athleticism with ability than these two genetic lottery winners (h/t Bill Walton). These brothers in arms pull you in with their highlight dunkathons and keep you there with commitment and effort. If the game was called “run and jump,” they’d still be top-tier. Instead, the game is basketball and timing, nuance, effort, awareness all matter as much as vertical jumps, agility drills, and points-per-game. There exists a substance beneath the style of this fashionable game, and Clarke and Williamson, for whatever stroke of luck and hard work, embody both: the luck to be blessed with world class athleticism and the willingness to work hard to untap it and release it into this ethereal existence.

 

Survivor Series: RJ Barrett vs Jarrett Culver

NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 20: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders drives against RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half at Madison Square Garden on December 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

If we would’ve spoken back in October, I would’ve told you, with confidence, that RJ Barrett of Duke, of Durham, was a better NBA prospect than Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech, of Lubbock. Now we’re in January, 20-something games into the college basketball season and my confidence hasn’t waned, rather it’s been pulverized and rendered null.

Between Barrett and Culver are several similarities: Barrett is 6-7 to Culver’s listed 6-5 (though I suspect he could be 6-6). At 6-10, Barrett’s wingspan is an inch longer. Culver is the elder at 20-years-old (as of today, happy birthday, Jarrett, may your stars always shine bright) to Barrett’s 18-and-a-half. RJ is probably the faster, more athletic, and stronger. Culver has the edge in efficiency as he’s able to generate roughly the same numbers as Barrett (with the exception of scoring volume) despite handling a smaller usage rate (33.3% for RJ to 30.5 for Culver). While the difference in scoring volume is a hair over 5-points (5.1), it takes RJ an extra 6.6 shot attempts to get there. Part of that is because he’s less efficient (51% eFG for RJ to Culver’s 58%) and another part is because he gets to the line less (30% FTr for RJ to 43% for Culver).

These two prospects, both elite in their own unique ways with overlapping positional and physical profiles, are a study in contrasting style and aesthetic. Barrett, at 6-7, 200-plus pounds, is an embodiment physical strength. His father played ball at St. John’s, his mother ran track there, and his aunt represented Jamaica as a sprinter in the 1992 Olympics. It’s unlikely that Barrett is the product of intentional genetic engineering, but if you wanted to design an ideal basketball player, these are the type of athletic genes you’d look for. Barrett’s combination of speed and strength are devastating for defenses and at just 18, he already knows that he’s stronger than most players and when propelled with momentum, short of taking a charge, there’s little a defense can do to slow him down. Barrett is a straight-line player with little in the way of wiggle or shimmy. Against Kentucky and their blue chip freshman, 6-6, 211-pound Keldon Johnson, Barrett was able to easily shrug off the heavier (on paper at least) defender for shot attempts at the rim. This has been a recurrent theme throughout the season where Barrett’s frequent rim attacks resemble peak Darren McFadden breakaways: arm tackles are not enough.

By contrast, Culver reminds me of the John Wooden quote, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” His movements are unrushed, but intentional and with pace. There’s nothing frantic to his activity. Against TCU, Culver had a pair of post-ups where he used the same move: catch on the right block, pivot into a turn-and-face, pivot again, and spin back baseline, dipping the left shoulder to get an advantage on the defender. In one case, he scored after clutching to avoid a help defender, and in the next, he drew a goal tend. These post-ups are fascinating in the sense that they’re simple, but wrapped in a flurry of activity with Culver pivoting 360-degrees before quickly and deliberately spinning baseline. It’s a choreographed move that encapsulates Culver’s game: subtly multifaceted with quickness, and skill.

The visual disparity isn’t limited to degree of aggression. Each player’s end goal manifests itself in radically diverging ways: Barrett’s end goal, it would seem, is to put the ball in the basket. This is a good, worthwhile goal that I believe is motivated by the desire to win basketball games. Within that get-the-ball-in-hoop-come-hell-or-high-water ethos, Barrett is attempting the 4th most shots-per-game in the country and is the only player from a Power Conference to appear on this short list. In and of itself, high volume shooting isn’t anathema. In Barrett’s case, high volume shooting raises two red flags:

  1. Opportunity Cost: is Barrett shooting a contested pull-up jumper more valuable than almost any Zion Williamson shot? Is Barrett attacking against multiple help defenders more valuable than a Tre Jones creation? Or than an open Cam Reddish three? We saw his iso-heavy tendencies cost Duke heavily against Gonzaga. Probably most importantly, is Barrett either able or willing to consider data-based evidence of value and efficiency or is he resigned to a belief in self which has likely helped him to achieve all that he has in 18 years?
  2. Awareness & IQ: When I watched Barrett as a high school senior for National Champion Montverde Academy, my favorite skill of his was passing. He exhibited vision and awareness and utilized that overwhelming physical advantage to create opportunities for teammates. No look passes, pocket passes in pick-and-roll, bailing himself out of tight spots with frozen rope screamers to open shooters. It wasn’t just occasional, it was every game. At Duke? Despite averaging nearly 4 assists-per-game with an assist rate of 21.1%, Barrett has frequently proven to be an unwilling passer. It’s not that he’s not seeing the floor well, but that he’s not even bothering to look. In the second half in Tallahassee against Florida State, Barrett was at his best and most willing as a passer when Williamson was out with an eye injury. Oddly, he didn’t register any assists (though he certainly should have been credited with at least two and had teammates miss shots on potential assists), but with the increased space and being relieved of the pressure of competing with Zion (will reference this below), Barrett appeared to play freer and less forced.

Culver is frequently the primary ball handler and initiator for Texas Tech’s offense. The game seems to unfold slowly in front of him, leaving time to read and react. While he and Barrett average roughly the same number of assists, Culver’s assist rate is 28.4% to RJ’s 21.1%. Both players are expert at drawing in help defenders though they do it in different manners. RJ is force personified, using explosiveness to beat opponents while Culver slaloms towards the goal, shifting direction with crossovers, and creating moments of pause with hesitations. As defenses react to help against these attacks, Barrett will try to muscle through it all while Culver, with head and eyes up, is aware of release valves and windows and doors opening and closing. His ability to process under duress allows him to see the dump off or kick out and execute both with equal accuracy and appropriate velocity. What makes this frustrating, from a Barrett critique, is that I believe he’s capable of finding and hitting the open man. That he doesn’t is a waste or poor judgment.

Neither player is a very good shooter at present. Culver’s shooting 35% on over 4 3-point-attempts per-game while Barrett’s at 32% on close to 8 attempts. Against Power Conference opponents, both players see field goal and 3-point percentages drop: Barrett from 45% (FG) and 32% (3) to 42% (FG) and 30% (3) while Culver’s falloff is greater: 52% (FG) and 35% (3) to 46% (FG) and 31% (3). Keeping with the theme of contrast, each player is developing with different quirks. Culver’s base is narrow with his feet close together and he sometimes leans back on his jump shot. He has a high release and high arcing shot that often looks like it’s short, but just sneaks over the nose of the rim. Despite having some truly awful nights shooting the ball (4-17 vs Syracuse, 0-7 vs Texas Tech), Barrett’s form has improved from high school when it seemed he would aim the ball. It’s more fluid now, but fluid in this case is a relative term. Much of my concern with Barrett’s shot is judgment based and can be lumped into my analysis of his general basketball philosophy (get the ball in the hoop). Barrett will fling up threes in questionable time and circumstance. Evolving this part of his game, ideally through coaching, is key to his attaining his ceiling.

Defensively, Culver is on one of the nation’s top defensive teams. As of this writing, the Red Raiders rank 1st in opponent field goal percentage, 3rd in 3-point percentage, and 3rd in opponent points-per-game. Coach Chris Beard has the appearance of a man obsessed with defense and the team often appears to operate with a Borg-like shared consciousness. Whether Culver arrived on campus with a passion for defense or mainlined these concepts into his bloodstream doesn’t matter as much as his clear internalization of commitment to the defensive end. He sits low with open hips and moves his feet well. He sees and checks cutters, anticipates help, is willing. For as much as his offensive game has grown, his defense has fine-tuned. Most of my notes on RJ are critical: not low enough in stance, kind of stiff, missed rotation and pouted about it, beat backdoor. It’s hard to knock an 18-year-old for defensive shortcomings and Duke doesn’t have a reputation for cultivating defensive minds. Barrett has the tools to be an awesome defender, but as I type this, I the waves of de ja vu bubble to the surface reminding me of the last highly touted Canadian draft prospect: Andrew Wiggins, another wing with all the tools, but now in his 5th season, those tools remain largely unused.

In terms of intrigue, Barrett gets the nod by a wide margin. On July 8th of 2017, donning the jersey for the Canadian Junior National team in the FIBA U19 World Basketball Cup, he put up 38-points on 12-24 shooting with 12-15 from the line, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in upsetting an American team that included current teammate Cam Reddish and current NBA rookies Kevin Huerter, Hamidou Diallo, and Josh Okogie. Canada won the hold and Barrett headed into his senior season at Montverde as the undisputed top-ranked candidate in his class and held that imaginary crown for the remainder of his high school days. It was against this reputation that Barrett landed at Duke in the middle of a circus that quickly shifted its spotlight from the group of freshmen to the beefy, bulky highlight machine Zion Williamson.

And for me, this spotlight sharing is at the crux of the shoot-first, second, and third RJ. From watching him in high school and hearing that his dad was a college player, that his godfather was Steve Nash, there was a sense of inevitability with him; not that he would inevitably make it to the NBA, that’s far too low. Rather, that he would be one of the best. Even in high school, his approach and demeanor were all business without the immaturity prevalent in many young stars. He competed in regular season games like it was the NBA playoffs. To arrive at Duke and suddenly, rudely, be shoved aside would be culture shocking – even if that the new chosen one is your good friend. In my most meager attempt at armchair psychology, this schism between what should have been and what is lies at the heart of Barrett’s iso-heavy hero ball approach. Of separate intrigue is how much accountability for navigating the psychological twists and curves of assimilation lies with the coaching staff who, to outside eyes, appear to be enable Barrett’s aggressiveness instead of re-channeling it.

For the purposes of this piece, we’re ultimately simplifying through comparison; a head-to-head comp to answer the question: Who’s the better prospect: Culver or Barrett? Based on his size, speed, and strength; based on a passing gene I saw in high school and in flashes at Duke, and based on a similar distance shooting rates, I believe Barrett has a higher ceiling. Unfortunately, I have a lot of doubt he gets there. There’s a streak of self-reliance that I’m not convinced can be redirected. The athleticism is good, but not great. The defensive commitment is somewhere between inconsistent and not that good. Culver’s best skills: his defense and passing, are more NBA ready than anything Barrett currently has. Both players will improve and while Barrett likely ends up with better NBA stats, Culver’s potential to contribute to winning basketball gives him the nod in this strange, possibly unnecessary head-to-head pro prospect comparison exercise.

Bol Bol: Always on the Move, still Tall

Born in Khartoum, Sudan, moved to Cairo, Egypt after his former NBA-playing father, Manute Bol, refused to convert to Islam and was accused of being a spy; before eventually landing in Connecticut as political or religious refugees (depending on the source) and finally relocating in Olathe, Kansas in 2006, 7-3 NBA prospect Bol Bol has been perpetually moving since birth. After attending two high schools in Kansas, he went west: first to Santa Ana by way of Mater Dei, and then Henderson, Nevada by way of Findlay Prep. As a human, as an adolescent, moving around creates its own interruptions. As a basketball player? It likely introduces obstacles to consistent learning and development; it likely places artificial ceilings at levels they may not otherwise exist.

Bol’s game is nothing if not unorthodox. That’s somewhat to be expected when you’re an ultra-slender 7-3 teen with high hips and long arms. It’s to be expected when your father’s shot form resembled what one would expect from an alien sea creature. And it’s definitely not a surprise when the prospect in question attended four high schools in four years and spent barely a semester in his pitstop at the University of Oregon.

Sudan to NBA by way of many basketball teams

Bol’s travels can be tracked here: from two Kansas high schools to Mater Dei in California, then Findlay Prep in Nevada. It’s not rare for top high school players to bounce around from school to school, but given Bol’s unique playing style and inconsistent effort (more on that), it feels more relevant than it might otherwise. While there have likely been a smattering of consistent figures in Bol’s basketball life (the elder Bol passed in 2010 when Bol just 10-years-old), the never-ceasing whirlwind in search of something (A basketball home? Opportunity? Cinderella’s high-top?) has to have stunted his development in more ways than one.

It’s this stunting alongside his rare skill-size combination that makes Bol compelling and I can’t consider one without the other.

The first time I settled in to watch Bol, the announcers were questioning his attitude and effort. This theme hasn’t quite abated as after an exhibition game in early November, Oregon coach Dana Altman said of Bol, “He’s got to play a lot harder … He coasts a lot. But he’s getting better. He’s working at it. He’s going to be a work-in-progress all year but there’s a lot more that he can do.”

In the games I’ve watched of Bol’s since early 2018, his effort, conditioning, and general preparedness ebbed and flowed, but not remarkably more than I’d expect for a maturing young person. In a handful of Oregon games, his weaknesses were much less effort-based and more rooted in defensive technique and strength. This is mostly reckless speculation as I’m not a medical professional, but in my limited experience watching Bol, I’ve seen him fatigue easily (at Findlay), cramp up (against Iowa), and now suffer a stress fracture. His durability is a minor, but potential concern as the NBA’s 82-game season against physically developed men is a leap from Bol’s previous experiences. In the quote above, Coach Altman talked about Bol being a “work-in-progress” and upon his signing, said, “Our job is to get him here in the summer and to help him grow as a person.” This repeated emphasis on Bol’s development makes his departure from Oregon’s program worrisome.

Bol Bol

 

Despite the completely valid concerns, in his abbreviated, Kyrie Irving-esque, stint at Oregon, Bol was statistically devastating averaging 21-points, over 9 rebounds, and just under 3 blocks in his 9 games. According to Sports-Reference.com’s database, since 1993, it’s been done less than 20 times and never by a freshman. He walks away from college basketball with a 63% true shooting rate and a block rate north of 12%. Despite the Ducks’ struggles in his nine games, Bol was remarkably impactful.

In Bol’s case, stats articulate his uniqueness, but don’t do his game justice. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a player his height run as smoothly or gracefully as he does. Against Iowa back in November, I was mesmerized by how he glided down the court on light feet with long strides. He’s nimble as an athlete and unlike most humans this big, he’s agile. While on-the-ball perimeter defense is a weakness, he’s capable of sitting low in a defensive stance which makes me think there’s potential lurking somewhere inside. Unfortunately, when it comes to lateral movement while in a stance, he’s either unwilling, unable or just too slow to react.

The defensive question marks don’t end with his lack of lateral movement. Bol’s closeouts essentially resort in a matador’s ole with even slow-footed opponents easily beating him off the dribble. Given his length, it’s a confounding as to why he doesn’t more frequently put up a hand to contest on the catch and give himself a bigger cushion to guard against the drive. This type of minor adjustment is where one can imagine repeated and consistent coaching drilling in new habits where bad ones exist today. And it’s also why I believe he has a high defensive ceiling. Bol’s most consistent and reliable strength is his ability to protect the rim. Even if by accident, just his presence, just being there, is something opponents are aware of and adjust to. Sometimes he blocks shots and sometimes he doesn’t, but if he’s in the vicinity, at both the collegiate and high school levels, he’s a deterrent. This may elicit a “duh” from some readers or watchers, but there are plenty of tall people who don’t share this presence. It’s not simply that Bol is tall and long, it’s that he’s agile and willing – around the rim at least.

Whether he plays the four or five in the NBA, strength will be a challenge. One of the first games I saw him in high school, he was easily rooted out of position by a kid about 6-2. Unless he sits his butt and hips low on box outs or defending the post, shorter, stronger players will be able to knock him off balance or position. Against Montverde’s RJ Barrett, the two blue chippers collided and it was only Bol who was knocked backwards. He doesn’t have enough mass to absorb that kind of contact and savvier pros will try to nullify his length by attacking straight into his chest.

Image result for breaking bad habits

I’m fascinated by Bol on the offensive end. He seemed to improve and his role evolved over the short course of his nine games in Eugene. After starting out making 2 of his first 6 3-point attempts, he shot 58% on 19 attempts in the following five games. His form looks improved, both quicker and more fluid than in high school, with range that extends to the NBA line. If the 3-point shooting is real (it looks like it is, though probably not as efficient as he shot it in college), it will be his great differentiator. Similar to his grace in motion, Bol has soft hands and innate touch. It’s not limited to his jumper, but carries into the mid-range and around the rim. In high school, he seemed to settle more for pull-up jumpers off the dribble or more inefficient east-west dribble dancing forays. At Oregon, he was more decisive, attacking north-south and forcing less pull-ups. He still loves to attack off the dribble and against true fives, particularly at NCAA level, he easily beats opponents. While this likely translates against bulkier, slow-footed NBA fours and fives, it’ll be more difficult against the more versatile bigs. Where I’d like to see him evolve is in the variability of his attacks off the catch. He’ll mix in the occasional closeout attack, but given his potential as a shooter with his high level handle, he should be able to attack more frequently before the defender is set. What he does from that attack is another story. He really has three options off the dribble: the pull-up, the rim drive, or the pass:

  • Pull-up: I don’t have access to his advanced numbers, but it took me a while to get a feel for the awkwardness of his jumper. There’s just so much gangly motion generated from his arms that the mechanics look funky, but funk doesn’t equate to negativity. And what his pull-up often reminds me of, and I don’t believe it to be intentionally, is Kevin Durant’s rip-through move where arms upon arms become tangled and in the confusion, KD ends up at the line. In high school, this was a more prevalent form of attack that I didn’t see as much at Oregon. It will be interesting to see if and how he tries to develop at the next level.
  • Attacking the rim: I don’t imagine there are many 7-3 people that can contort their body the way Bol can. He’s not strong enough to go through defenders and needs to wind up to get lift. His go-to is an old man-like scoop shot that he tosses up from his midsection. Like the pull-up jumper, this needs a lot of work.
  • The pass/creation: in his nine games, he had 9 assists to 18 turnovers. There’s a level of feel and awareness to his game, but its tertiary to shooting and scoring and at times it appears he has blinders on to teammates.

Bol’s touch is most evident around the rim. His footwork is basic and he has two moves, that’s it: if he turns to the right shoulder, he’s shooting a turnaround or, if he’s close enough, he’ll reach out and dunk or toss it in. If he turns left shoulder, it’s absolutely a jump hook, a shot he shoots with accuracy, touch, and has range well beyond the charge circle. Developing at least a single counter move for each shoulder would immediately add to his versatility.

Of less concern for a 19-year-old is his screen setting which is, for all intents and purpose, non-existent. Rather than seeking out contact or seeking to force a defender, Bol still goes through the motions and fools no one – least of all the defenders. He doesn’t roll with any frequency and when he does there’s no intensity or purpose. He’s more likely to mimic a screen and then drift to the arc.

I’m probably higher on Bol Bol than most based on what I view as a boundaryless ceiling. The feel, shooting, length, size, and athleticism make me think he has the potential to be a special player. Alas, the gap between where Bol is today and where he could be coupled with his turnstyling defense and history of questionable effort reduce my confidence in his long-term improvement. He can be a 20 and 10 NBA player and struggle to impact games. The proof won’t be in the numbers, but the effort and execution. What does Bol Bol become in a world of stability? Are his bad habits replaced with efficiency or consistency? Is stability even attainable in a world you spend months at a time on chartered flights with late nights and ice baths and the Steven Adamses of the world kicking you in your narrow ass? There’s a sad distance in Bol’s deep set eyes. I can feel it in his lack of expressiveness, in his words about his father, in the transience of his basketball life. The NBA, for all the hopes and dreams placed on its attainment, doesn’t seem like a place for healing. Good luck, young Bol.

Romeo Langford: Damn you, Expectations

I first saw Romeo Langford a short nine-ish months ago playing in the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage – which was when I first saw several players in this freshman class. It’s odd what sometimes does or doesn’t stand out to you about a player, but with the 6-5, 6-6 or so Langford, it was his ability to rebound in traffic. There he was, this skinny, straight-faced kid with long arms (6-11 wingspan), taking the rapid-rising elevator up, up, up above the towering trees and snatching that ball out of the clouds with strong hands. There’s something about seeing one triumphant leaper emerge from a mass of high-flying bodies, but at the McDonald’s events, that’s what Langford did and, in the process, snatched affections.

At the time, he hadn’t committed to Indiana and was waiting to see where everyone else would go or something. That seemed weird, but seeing him at McDonald’s and then at the Jordan Brand Classic, it was clear he was in the right place competing easily with positional peers, Keldon Johnson and Quentin Grimes. He out-leapt UNC’s Nassir Little on the boards and exploited Bol Bol’s defensive limitations with a lefty hesitation which was followed by soft touch on a layup high off the glass. I didn’t walk away from the all-star cycle smitten with Langford the way I was with Naz Reid, but I saw him with a higher probability of pro success and with that intrigue, eagerly approached Indiana’s November games with optimistic curiosity.

We’re presently 12 games into what will likely be Langford’s only season in Bloomington, Indiana and what’s become painfully apparent, and what, when I look back over my notes from those all-star games was apparent then, is that he’s not much of a shooter. Through the first third of his freshman season, Langford’s made 9 of 44 3s (20.5%). He’s one of just 12 players in all of NCAA D1 who’s taken that many threes and hit so few. On 400 pre-college 3-point attempts in ESPN’s database, he’s shooting 30% so it’s hard to say if this 44-shot sample is a blip, a downward trend, or the result of greater opponents and pressures. In each of the three pre-college games I scouted, I commented on his form: “not fluid or smooth,” “Hit b2b contested 3s, but form isn’t great,” “C&S 3 form isn’t perfect, but it’s going in.” And in my first note from watching him against Arkansas, I was commenting that his pull-up was “forceful” – not as in a forced shot against set defense, but as in violent.

Despite my recurring notes implying there was a significant and concerning wart to an otherwise solid all-around game, it took me taking an aggregate view to accept how this skill has the potential to significantly lower Langford’s ceiling. If an NBA wing can’t shoot, they sure as shit better be able to do something or several things extremely well. There’s the Andre Roberson/Tony Allen route of defensive specialists with utterly broken shots. There’s the DeMar DeRozan path of being an elite scorer with an optimal mid-range game. Shawn Livingston, Rajon Rondo, and Elfrid Payton are playmakers who, at one point or another (or even the present), couldn’t or can’t shoot. Each of the aforementioned players counterweights his shooting struggles with some kind of uniquely packaged skill/size combination and even in a league where shooting has become one of the most valuable single skills a player can have, these specialists still survive, thrive, add value, and possibly most notably, they evolve – sometimes.

As a 19-year-old, Langford’s best attributes are his length and athleticism. He has a frame designed for basketballing with his long arms and catapulting legs and in a lot of ways, he knows exactly how to utilize these tools. Even though he’s not a threat to beat opponents from the perimeter, Langford makes a living at the line and the rim. Per-40 minutes, he gets to the line 8 times/game where he makes 69% of his attempts. On that list of 12 players shooting as poorly from 3 as Langford, he has the highest overall field goal percentage by far (49%) and is shooting 61% on 2s. Despite that abominable 3-point rate, his true shooting is a respectable 56% and it’s in part because he does so well attacking the basket. He has a quick, long first step he uses to get past initial defenders and he’s a good enough ball handler to drive effectively in either direction. If there’s much more than a sliver of daylight, there’s potential for this:

That dunk may have bounced off the back rim, but it’s not because he wasn’t high enough. Langford has a tendency to drive baseline and when he’s isolated, more often than not, he’s beating the defender. When help arrives and shuts down his driving lanes, the results are less effective. He’s not a bad passer, but he hasn’t yet exhibited great vision or decision making with any regularity. If he loses that driving lane, he’ll resort to picking up his dribble or looking for kickouts, but his decision making isn’t always fast enough to take advantage of the help. In the play below, he executes a beautiful leading pocket pass and this is the type of play he needs make more of, particularly if he doesn’t develop the jumper. From what I’ve seen of Indiana, they don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll with Langford and he doesn’t spend a lot of time at the top of the key. That’s not an excuse for his average decision making out of dribble drives though, but it does reveal an area where he potentially has more ability than opportunity:

Defensively, he has ability, but like his playmaking, he’s just average right now. He’s averaging over a steal and block per-game, but much of that is based purely on his length and athletic ability and not effort or technique. When he wants to, he can get low in a defensive crouch and moves well laterally. In terms of focus and intensity, like many 19-year-olds, he can be much better and more consistent. I’ve seen him lulled into ball watching and susceptible to backdoor cuts and he has a weird habit of keeping his hands and arms low when playing on-ball defense instead of being at the ready. I’m not convinced he’s lacking defensive intensity or if he just always has the same facial expressions. Whether dunking or locked into tough defensive assignment or standing in the corner waiting for the ball, Langford has proven inexpressive.

In his Game Theory podcast, Sam Vecenie described Langford’s jump shot as one of the draft’s biggest “swing skills” as in a skill that, depending on development, could swing a player’s future prospects in one direction or another. I thought this was an apt and accurate description. Langford’s average-to-good at a lot of things, but he hasn’t yet developed an elite skill or developed enough consistency in his playmaking or defense to offset shooting concerns. The DeRozan player type I mentioned above is similar to Langford in terms of neither player, as a college freshman, having an elite skill. DeRozan was bigger and more explosive which can mask some effort and skill deficiencies. I don’t write this suggesting Langford is on a trajectory like DeMar’s, but rather to point out that there are ways to overcome weaknesses or develop. On appearances alone, Langford seems to be getting more comfortable at the collegiate level; partially reflected by averaging over 6 rebounds and 4 assists in his past 3 games. He’s far from a finished product and a rugged conference season in a stacked Big 10 is likely to produce up and down results, but 12 games into his freshman season, Langford is far from a finished product. No one’s drafting him for today, they’re drafting him for a high ceiling and a floor that rests easily on awesome athleticism and measurables. I don’t think it’s as simple as hard work and dedication for Langford, but rather a confluence of opportunity, nurture, will, work, and stars aligning. After all, how many of us truly reach our potential? Some of us are content just snatching rebounds from on high.

Ja Morant: Boom Boom in Tuscaloosa

Sometimes when I use Chromecast to watch ESPN+ games on my TV by way of phone, the stream chops up or reverts to standard definition and I fade into the pixels of my own distracted thoughts, unable to focus, uninterested in taking notes, just a breathing, beating being on the couch in a mind of its own making surrounded by striped pillows. Other times, the toggling between standard and high-def is nothing more than a minor inconvenience and the content, the game in all its magnificence, captivates and sucks me in like a magnet for my brain’s thoughts. The latter is what (mostly) happened on the evening of Monday, November 26th, 2018, the night I bought into the myth, the legend, the mystery of Ja Morant.

Morant is a point guard for the Murray State Racers, a college basketball team based in Murray, Kentucky near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, a couple hour drive from Nashville. The school has produced current NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan (recently cut by the Suns) and Cam Payne and based on the 40-plus scouts that attended the Murray-State/Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, Morant is a lock to join them as pro basketball representatives of the Racers.

This wasn’t my first experience with Morant. The Racers made the Tournament last season when Morant was a sophomore and draft heads have been gushing about him for a while. But impressions (first or otherwise) still matter and the lithe guard, who’s built like a shorter version of Jamal Crawford with equally supple limbs and joints, didn’t bother waiting to impress himself upon the ‘Bama faithful and NBA scouts on Monday night:

The defensive read and react is helping to push him towards 2 steals-per-game and is an example of risk-taking instincts that can be both a weapon and a hinderance. What’s not a hinderance is Morant’s ability to get it and go, to survey the floor, the speed, the opportunities and make optimal decisions. After the game, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said, “Oh he’s really good, he’s a problem solver.” If open court situations are problems or opportunities doesn’t really matter though “opportunity solver” is an awkwardly apt descriptor of the 6-3 Dalzell, South Carolina native. In this case, Morant doesn’t push pedal to metal, instead he takes an almost leisurely but intentional pace, looking, reading, and then accepting the screen which buys him the slightest edge against defender Kira Lewis Jr. The beauty happens at the next level when Bama’s Donta Hall steps up to help. Instead of attacking the big man immediately, Morant waits for Lewis Jr. to scramble back before hitting him with two moves: first the shoulder turn which forces the defender into a second scramble and then a left-to-right crossover which the defender overruns and creates space for the funky clutching jumper.

In the first 10 to 15 seconds of game action, Morant firmly impressed and imprinted himself upon the game and predictably, didn’t stop there. The subsequent 39 minutes and 45 seconds (of which he played every possession), were flush with highlights and not just the style-over-substance variety, but purely functional, occasionally improvisational. Morant is an athlete at work, the court some kind of stage on which the unchoreographed dance unfolds.

Basketball has blessed with a medium for the long, graceful, and athletic among us to soar, pirouette, and breath life into our imaginations. Morant does these things with what appears to be casual ease which isn’t to question his effort or the work he’s put into his game. As a freshman last season, he shot 52% on 2s, 30% on 3s. Just a season later and he’s cranked his 2s up to 67%, his 3s up to 33% while nearly doubling his attempts in both measures. He makes playing hard and effectively look easy.

Again, with Lewis Jr. defending him, Morant uses the screen as a decoy before explosively changing direction with a right-to-left crossover that easily beats the younger defender. Once the second level has been attained, Morant has a few choices: release valves in the corner and wing, a dump-off to the big, or take the shot himself. In this play, Morant’s speed both works for and against him: It forces the help defender to commit, but it also forces Ja to make his decision sooner and by the time he leaves his feet, it’s either dump-off or shoot. The pass itself is perfect, a laser like zipper into the waiting hands of his teammate. That ‘Bama’s rotations anticipated the dump and shot don’t take away from the read and execution.

These plays are borderline commonplace for Morant who makes a living beating first defenders. The combination of handle, quickness, speed, and pressure make for a difficult cover for any opponent. ‘Bama’s defensive stopper is a 6-7 sophomore wing named Herb Jones who has prototypical NBA length. As a freshman, Jones helped harass present-day Atlanta Hawk, Trae Young, into a 6-17, 5 turnover game last season and ended up matched against Morant a few times. On the switch below, Jones’s positioning is great: he’s low, moves well laterally, and seems ready for the challenge. Morant is too quick though and gets too low. For a moment, it seems he might go right, which is the side Jones has opened, but instead he smoothly goes right-to-left between his legs at which point he makes his first step, shoulders so low Jones can’t recover. The scoop shot finish is largely unmolested:

In the limited documentation we have of Morant, adaption appears to be a recurring theme – both in game and in role. Against Alabama, after proving indefensible in man-to-man coverage, Johnson began throwing double teams at the lean point guard and watching him change tactics in-the-moment made for a great study in his ability to adjust. The first pair of doubles he saw, he didn’t panic, but didn’t attack either, rather he just passed out. On the third double, he attempted to dribble out of trouble, but quickly passed out. By the fourth double, he put the ball on the floor and attacked before the second man could ever get there, leaving ‘Bama scrambling. His quick reaction didn’t create a basket, but it showed his ability to read and adjust on the fly.

In the below clip, we see Morant gathering the defensive board and pushing the pace but slowing it up for just long enough for a defensive miscommunication. When John Petty (#23) and Lewis Jr. (#2) mistakenly turn away from Morant, he immediately crosses the ball over and accelerates into the lane. This wouldn’t have been there if he had pushed the ball full speed. By the time he reaches the paint, Jones (#10) is sliding into position to take a charge. On the previous play, Ja had picked up a charge on a dribble, but this time he simultaneously dumps it off to Jones’s man while easily avoiding the stationary Jones:

Morant’s adaption doesn’t appear to be limited to in-game adjustments, but is inclusive of his role within the team. As a senior at South Carolina’s Crestwood High School, he was a 27-point-per-game scorer, but with last year’s Murray State squad, he played the role of facilitator with seniors Jonathan Stark (over 2k points in his college career) and Terrell Miller Jr. carrying the team’s scoring responsibilities. Now, as a sophomore, Morant is the undisputed go-to-guy, probably shouldering too great of a load with a usage rate over 37%.

His role is strikingly similar to Young’s with Oklahoma last season even if the players are strikingly different in aesthetic terms. Circumstance dictates that both players carry an outsized load and the outputs almost mirror each other:

Morant through 6 games: 34.4 minutes, 27.2ppg, 8.4apg, 6 turnovers, 37.3% usage, 52.4% ast, 22.6% turnover

Young 2017-18: 35.4 minutes, 27.4ppg, 8.7apg, 5.2 turnovers, 37.1% usage, 48.6% ast, 18.2% turnover

With Young last season, there were questions about whether Oklahoma Coach Lon Krueger was helping or hurting Young by giving him so much freedom. Was Young developing bad habits? For me, it was always about his decision making: How adept was Trae at deciding when to shoot, when to pass, when to leave his feet? 24 games into his NBA career and Young’s showing an ability to assimilate into a team structure while still filling the role of lead guard. Krueger didn’t stain him or lead him astray.

I doubt Morant will be faced with the same questions as it appears his physical abilities will transition to the NBA much more smoothly than Young’s did. And given that we’ve already seen him flex his style from his freshman to sophomore seasons, there appears to be a willingness to adapt.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream for Morant in Tuscaloosa. He had 10 turnovers and was 0-4 from three and his team lost by six. The turnovers were a mixed bag of losing footing or handle on dribble drives, bad passes, and being out of control and maybe this is me showing my bias, but I chalk a lot of this up to growing pains; particularly given the overall talent disparity between the teams. Morant’s body control and elusive slithering are Crawford-like. His handling and explosiveness are serpentine and unexpected. This is a kid who drove into the chest of West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, a shot blocking extraordinaire who has a solid 75 pounds on Morant, and neutralized his length in last year’s NCAA Tournament. At Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp over the summer, he caught a lob and his head was easily above the rim. He casually dismissed the efforts of ‘Bama’s version of the Plastic Man in Herb Jones. He’s not a perfect prospect (jumper, strength), but his kinetic, electric, poised fury has me maybe more excited about him than any guard prospect in this draft class (Kevin Porter?). I’m giddy, I’m geeked. Murray State’s home court is less than 600 miles away and I’m ready for a road trip.

Matisse Thybulle: The Condor Soars … and blocks shots, lots of them

As of the morning of November 25th, 2018, University of Washington senior and NBA draft prospect, Matisse Thybulle has nearly as many steals and blocks as he has points scored. This strange inversion of accumulated stats is simultaneously distressing and impressive and also unlikely to continue, but such is the evolution of Thybulle’s game.

Thybulle is listed as 6-5, 190 pounds, but he looks a little bigger than that. Maybe it’s because he appears to have the wingspan of a condor (listed at 7-0, but he looks longer) or maybe it’s because accurate measures (see LeBron’s weight) are harder to come by than they should be. Whatever the case, the UW wing plays much larger than his size (6-5 or whatever he is). Six games into his senior season, he’s averaging a ludicrous 2.7 blocks alongside 2.2 steals which, when combined, is just a hair beneath a paltry 5.5 points.

If we go back to the high school hoops class of 2015, the year of Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, and Brandon Ingram, Thybulle doesn’t appear on ESPN’s Top 100 and is ranked somewhere between 104th and 126th nationally on 247sports.com. (For what it’s worth, 247 lists him as 6-7.) He came into UW with current NBAers Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss and has started 104 of his 105 games for the Seattle-based school. Even as a freshman, he projected as 3-and-D wing and his play has become borderline synonymous with the type. Through his first three seasons, half of his shots came from behind the arc while he stacked up multiple UW defensive records. As a junior, he was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year with per-game averages of 3 steals and 1.4 blocks; his steal (5.2%) and block (4.8%) percentages are rare and elite for any college player. The only other player in Sports-Reference.com’s database (dating back to 2009-10) to appear in at least 600 minutes with these block and steal percentages is Gary Payton II.

Thybulle’s junior season coincided with the hiring of former Syracuse assistant and Jim Boeheim right-hand-man, Mike Hopkins whose go-to defensive scheme is the ol’ Syracuse’s 2-3 zone with Thybulle up top. UW’s previous and long-time coach, Lorenzo Romar employed a man-to-man switching defense that, by the time Thybulle arrived, had deteriorated into sieving unit that ranked 337th (2016) and 332nd (2017) nationally and that’s despite having Thybulle, the wiry, quick Murray, and a long rim protector in Malik Dime. Defensively, the whole was much weaker than the sum of its parts and Romar ultimately lost his job as a result.

With Thybulle at the top of the zone, his defensive strengths and instincts are being fully weaponized. With a wide stance and long strides, he covers more ground than opponents anticipate and fluidly moves between the paint and perimeter or side-to-side. At his best, he can shut down an entire quarter of the half-court not unlike a shutdown corner. Where he’s at his most dangerous is in his aggressive collapses into the paint to attack would-be shooters. In a way I haven’t seen many top men in a 2-3, Thybulle uses the element of surprise to drop down and block the shots of unknowing, blind-spot-having opponents: they make their move into the paint or towards the rim and the second they turn their head in the direction of the basket and elevate to shoot, Thybulle, who had already started creeping in the direction of the ball, is swiping out with those long arms, swatting a shot that never had a prayer. His length and timing allow him to exploit this blind spot the way most guards or perimeter defenders can’t or wouldn’t even think to and it’s driving that near-3 blocks-per-game. It’s not all roses though as he’s developed a habit of winding up and swinging at the ball – not quite wildly, but in a way that leaves him vulnerable to fouls or slightly off balance. That said, his timing is so good that he typically avoids contact. Against Santa Clara, this drop down technique was happening so frequently that I found myself wondering if UW’s backline defenders were funneling the offense into the lane to take advantage of the Thybulle drop down.

A comic, possibly, likely, almost certainly inspired by Matisse Thybulle; re-produced from the original by Steve Moore

To be an effective defender at the next level, the shot blocks don’t need to carry over. With his length, positioning, and ability to slice through screens, he should be able to close space and make it a little harder for shooters to get clean looks at the hoop. I have seen him open his hips and bait ball handlers into driving so he can set them up for the shot block. He this against Minnesota’s sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington, but the savvy Washington took a scoop shot with the ball well out of Thybulle’s reach. This is the type of adjustment pros will use against his baiting tactics.

Where his defense has become an all-harassing one-man-gang, his shooting from distance has descended into ugly inaccuracy. Through his first 99 games, Thybulle shot 38% on over 380 three-point attempts. He was remarkably consistent as a standstill, catch-and-shoot option who could be utilized by Murray or, for a single season, Markelle Fultz. As a senior, he’s made just 3 of 22 attempts (13%). He’s perfect from the free throw line (6-6), but getting there with less frequency than his previous seasons and his two-point attempts are also down. UW has more options to score this season than previous years, but you have to wonder if his struggles from the perimeter are negatively affecting the rest of his offense. At a glance, his shooting mechanics don’t look to be fundamentally changed. He’s always had somewhat of a tall, erect form with a higher release point and I’m much more comfortable trusting his previous 358 attempts than his most recent 22.

His usage rate is down to 13.7% which is its lowest since he was a freshman playing just 24 minutes/game. His assist percentage (10%) and free throw rate (16%) are the lowest of his four years at UW, but watching him, he doesn’t appear to be tentative. Rather, UW’s offense is frequently stagnant and heavily dependent on sophomore Jaylen Nowell as its only creator off-the-dribble. Nowell is an off-guard whose primary instincts are to score rather than distribute. And when it’s not Nowell attacking, the Huskies dump the ball into senior forward and part-time blackhole, Noah Dickerson who sports a 36% usage rate. There just haven’t been as many opportunities for Thybulle who frequently ends up standing still on the wing. There’s very little cutting in Hopkins’s system which is unfortunate, because Thybulle, who looks more explosive this season, could be better utilized with more movement. When he does put the ball on the floor, it’s powered by a long and strong first step and not much wiggle. He goes one direction at a single speed,  taking what the defense gives him and primarily looking to draw in defenders to kick out or dump off. If the daylight’s there, he’s more than able to smash dunk on the heads of unprepared opponents as he did against Auburn earlier this season.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has Thybulle ranked 45th on his big board and going 39th in his most recent mock draft. Between his game tape and measurements, Thybulle looks like someone who can defend at least the one through three and potentially small ball fours or even lesser-skilled big fours. In the NBA, that defensive versatility is slobber-worthy right now and is present across the league’s top teams. How well his defense translates at the pro level will be fun to see as UW’s zone is just bizarre as a defensive measuring stick. But if you find yourself watching a UW game this season, clear the clutter of the court and watch Thybulle operate at the top of that zone and you’ll see a master, hard at work, swinging, swatting, blanketing, blotting out an entire side of the court. And maybe watch the him on the offensive end as well and hope, with me, that his jump shot returns to form.

Naz Reid: Sometimes Magic Happens

I first saw Naz Reid sometime back in March or April of 2018 during the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage which takes place a day or two before the actual event and might be more a competitive exhibition. Reid, a 6-10, 250-some pound teen from New Jersey was chucking threes and asking for lobs. He was graceful on his feet the way offensive lineman are and took up the same kind of space. He stole my attention by snatching the ball off defensive rebounds and gallivanting down the right side of the court, his shortish braids blowing in the Philips Arena breeze and then, when a defender had the nerve to impede this graceful giant’s progress, instead of a cartoonish collision or some uncoordinated big man bumblefuckery, he channeled an internal 6-4 Dwyane Wade and swiftly, balletically sidestepped the challenger for a soft lay in. I don’t think I took my eyes off him the rest of the game.

There are hints of Andray Blatche in Reid: near 7-feet, a bit soft, with an unexpected lightness of foot. One of his coaches at Louisiana State compared him to Chris Webber, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant saying, “He’s not at that level yet but he’s got that size, he’s got that athleticism, he’s got that mind to him.” It feels a bit hyperbolic to make those connections, but Reid inspires hyperbole.

At the McDonald’s game, the official one, Reid led all players with 11 rebounds while pitching in 15 points and despite the shift in formality from scrimmage to game, his open court ball skills were still at the fore. There were pull up threes (missed), spin moves, finesse layups with both hands. He’s proven to have a penchant for showing up on the biggest stages like he did in the New Jersey state Non-Public B state title game against Ranney which featured two five-star 2019 recruits in Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova). He rejected a shot from Antoine which triggered a fast break that led to a hard-running Naz catching a game-winning lob. Reid’s Roselle Catholic won their state class and went on to win the state’s Tournament of Champions. It helps to have multiple high-level D1 players like Kentucky’s Khalil Whitney, South Carolina’s Alanzo Frink, and UNLV’s Josh Pierre-Louis, but Reid was the straw stirring Roselle’s beverage.

Sometimes it’s a player’s stats that overwhelm you. When I was a youth in Iowa, I remember seeing a then-high school junior named Raef LaFrentz on the All-State team and he averaged roughly 36 points, 16 rebounds, and six blocks-per-game. He played in one of Iowa’s smallest classes, but with numbers like that and a commitment to Kansas, he had cache and credibility. Reid couldn’t be further from LaFrentz’s statistical supernova. As a senior he averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds. His assists, threes, and defensive stats are far from overwhelming and even reviewing Roselle’s clips on Youtube, there are developmental warts. Reid’s concepts of rim protection vacillate between statuesque, entertaining (wild swipes for shot blocks he could never get), and motivated (usually in the form of weak side blocks against smaller players). His knees aren’t always bent which leaves him unable to react, his arms are prone to dangling at his sides, and his ball awareness is inconsistent. Maybe this is just youthful inattention and lack of discipline, or maybe it’s Reid carrying an extra 10 to 15 pounds. It’s hard to say, but trying to map out some kind of developmental trajectory, defensive effort is the primary point of concern.

So his stats are pedestrian and his defensive intensity is lacking. And yet, he still finished 12th on ESPN’s Top 100 recruits for 2018. LSU’s head coach Will Wade was quoted as saying, “Naz Reid, 6-10. Best way I can put it would be, is wait till you see him. He’s something else. He’s like having Tremont (Tremont Waters, LSU’s point guard) at the center position. He can pass, he can shoot, he can do everything. Enjoy him, you won’t see him long.” Way back in 2015 when Reid was just a sophomore, Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press wrote, “Reid is clearly positioned to be the Garden State’s next Karl-Anthony Towns.”

I don’t see KAT or KD or Webber or Draymond in Reid, but it’s striking that others do. My first thoughts when I saw him at McDonald’s was touches of Lamar Odom’s game in Blatche’s body, but the more I think about it, the more he has shades of present-day perimeter player Boogie Cousins including the willingness to bully opponents. The touch and offensive IQ are bursting are like rainbows trailing behind the cross-court passes he whips with NBA velocity. In the clip below, he sticks a heavy-footed, outmatched defender with a lefty inside out that a lot of NBA big men would bounce off their feet. Effortlessly exhibiting pro level abilities as a soft-bodied teen sparks imagination and allows seasoned eyes to draw connections to all-time greats. And for as much as his defense is a royal mess, the Baton Rouge-bound Reid easily runs the floor with long strides and is a bludgeoning weapon filling the lanes with or without the ball. The motor is there, it just appears to be selectively utilized.

Reid’s not the only high-profile recruit heading to LSU this fall. Their 2018-19 class is ranked 4th in the country by 247sports.com and includes Emmitt Williams (26th), Ja’Vonte Smart (35th), and Darius Days (62nd). Being surrounded by this much high-level talent should create some familiarity for Reid who’s been playing with elite teammates dating back to his freshman year at Roselle when Isaiah Briscoe was his teammate. Whether Naz’s optimal set of teammates, the hardcore backing from his coaches, or his own copious talents lead him to a one-and-done college career and springboard him toward pro success is hard to say. He could be a beefier Odom, a taller James Johnson, or an American Kevin Seraphin. That his future paths are so undefined doesn’t unnerve me, but of course I have nothing at stake. Rather, not knowing what will happen, but knowing something magic could happen on any defensive rebound is at the crux of sports as entertainment and at the core of why Naz Reid is the player I’m most intrigued by in college basketball this season.

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 16-20

The fifth and final installment of our 2017 draft coverage. Man, the deeper you go, the more difficult it is to see consistency in these players. It becomes an exercise in possibility and potential which is kind of funny given that most of the top-players in this year’s draft are fresh 19-year-olds with a single season of college basketball under their belts. Attempting to go even semi-deep on scouting some of these mid-range first founders is an eternal balance between flaws (John Collins’s defense), health (Harry Giles’s knees), and upside (Jarrett Allen’s physical gifts). It’s difficult to project with any confidence who will develop and who will stagnate, but that’s what we’ve attempted to do here, just know that we’re fully aware our success rates will likely dwindle into nothingness and that we’ll look back at our player comparisons three seasons from now like “WTF were we thinking?”

Special thanks to my fellow writers, Bug and Hamilton and our awesome designer, Maahs. Additional thanks to Draft Express, The Ringer, Dunc’d On podcast (Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux) and Basketball Reference. Tons of great resources out there that were critical to us being able to put these scouting reports into existence.

With all that said, let’s get into player’s 16-20 on the 2017 Dancing with Noah Big Board.

Hamilton: By some measures, John Collins looks like he belongs near the top of this draft class. He averaged nearly 29 points and 15 rebounds per-40 minutes and had the top PER in college basketball. He gets a lot of those buckets in the paint using an array of quick half hooks and little push shots that remind me of Antawn Jamison. He really uses lower body well to seal for position on post catches, rolls hard and is a good leaper off two feet when he has time to load up his jump. If Collins has any NBA skills that get him on the floor soon it will be his effort on offense, along with his rebounding. Collins’ catch-and-shoot game from 19-feet is solid for a college big. The form on his shot looks smooth enough to develop into a reliable jumper. His willingness to roll hard and fight for rebounds coupled with that shooting give him a chance to become a serviceable offensive player. He hits the glass hard on both ends, as evident in per-40-mpg rebound number. He seems to have a good second jump when battling in traffic for rebounds and tips a lot of balls to keep them alive. Tristan Thompson has made a ton of money with this as a key skill … That’s some of the good stuff.

The not-so-good is mostly on the defensive end. Collins has just OK size for a five-man even in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have enough awareness to guard many fours, frequently getting caught helping uphill against dribblers. He gets lost too often even against basic movement. These things suggest a steep learning curve against pick-and-roll in the NBA. For how physical he is on the glass he doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable with contact while guarding. Oddly (to me at least) is how much better his footwork is offensively compared to his defensive footwork. And therein lies my concern for his career (at least early). He’s likely to be drafted late lottery or by a so-so playoff team. Those teams are more likely to have shorter leashes with guys who get killed on defense (looking at you James Young) than teams picking in the top-5-10. There’s definitely a path to a long productive career for Collins, but we may see very little of him over the next two-to-three years.

Bug: This isn’t Justin Jackson’s first rodeo with the draft process. After his sophomore season, Jackson threw his name in the hat for the 2016 draft without hiring an agent. However, he was not met with the love from the scouts that he was hoping for last year. Jackson saw the writing on the wall, and pulled his name out to head back to school to put in some more work on his game.

Fast forward to 2017: coming off a national title run with North Carolina, Jackson is now getting the positive feedback he was looking for last year. It’s a great success story for him, but there both positives and negatives to his initial failed draft experience. The obvious pros for the UNC product returning to school are that he played his way into a potential lottery slot, won a national championship, and fixed some of the weaknesses in his game (outside shooting jumped from 29% to 37%). That improvement also shows scouts that he is willing to put in the work necessary to succeed at the highest level of basketball in the world. The downside to coming back for another year is that he is now one of the oldest prospects in the draft and loses a lot of his upside appeal. How much more room does he have before he hits his ceiling?

Based on his size and skill set (6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan), I think he projects as a solid “3 and D” guy in the NBA. Guys like Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley come to mind as comparisons, and they have never had a problem finding a team or a spot in the rotation. As long as he keeps improving his jumper and shot selection, while also keeping the same intensity on defense that he brought his junior season at UNC, he should have no problem sticking in the NBA. Jackson may never become an all-star player, but he should have a long, productive career as a solid contributor and possible starter down the road.

Fenrich: Harry Giles of Winston-Salem, North Carolina just turned 19 a couple months ago and yet his basketball career has already been beset by multiple semi-catastrophic knee injuries. In 2013, Giles tore the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee. In 2015, he tore his right ACL. Oy!

Recovery for the second ACL bled over to his freshman season at Duke where he averaged under four-points-per-game and nearly eight-fouls-per-40 minutes. Reading and writing that made my head hurt.

But what didn’t make my head hurt was watching Giles’s highlight tape. He has decent height (6’11”) and length (7’3” wingspan) that are bolstered by fluid athleticism. He runs the floor well without any obvious hitches from his knee injuries. The length and athleticism are further bolstered by what appears to be a solid motor. He understands team defense and doesn’t mind mixing it up on the boards or the defensive end. And where we often opt for the cool, unbiased certainty of stats and measures, seeing a guy give a crap and play hard still counts for something.

He doesn’t seem quite ready to be a contributor on the offensive side. Like a lot of players his position and age, he seems like he’d be wise to watch tape of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan and learn the timing of how and when to roll on the pick-and-roll.

Given that he appeared in just 300 minutes at Duke and has these two knee injuries, it’s challenging to see what he’s truly capable of. In those minutes, he took no threes and shot just 50% from the line on less than an attempt each game. It’s not that his offense is raw, but rather it might just longing for some TLC. I know that’s weird, but there’s a skillset here that’s better than the four-points-per game he showed at Duke.

Maybe it’s just that he plays hard and doesn’t mind doing the dirty work, but I’m a fan of Giles. I have no idea if he can pass or handle the ball or stay out of foul trouble, but agile big men who can switch on the perimeter and don’t mind banging still have a place in the NBA and that means Giles has a home waiting for him in the best basketball league in the world.

Fenrich: The mustache, the little fro, the headband. Jarrett Allen looks like someone straight out of the ABA and for a 19-year-old, he has a mustache that can make grown men envious – at least those longing for mustachioed excellence. Allen is also longer and a better leaper than Giles (his age and positional peer).

And yet, where I find myself excited and hopeful for Giles, I’m unenthused about Allen.

With his length and hops, he can dunk without fear of reprisal. He’s capable of being a plus-rebounder and shot blocker because he’s just so damn long. There’s even a little mid-range set shot that makes me think of Marcus Camby and in his lone season at Texas, he flashed the ability to read double teams.

But there’s a general aversion to mixing it up. In the tape I watched on Allen, he played with finesse (except when he was dunking in someone’s face) and seemed unwilling to bang with opponents. He doesn’t have to be compared to Giles, but where the Duke product went balls to the wall, Allen’s motor is a question mark to me. He’s listed at 235-pounds, but looks just as lean as Giles and without that wiry-type functional strength. It may be there, but he just hasn’t figured out how to leverage it with consistency.

What I worry about with some prospects is that they’re able to get by on talent alone and when faced with equal or better competition, they don’t have the motor or desire to dial up their intensity to match the opponent. Is this the case with Allen or were my expectations just unfair due to his throwback look? Who knows? Is he Trey Lyles or PJ Brown?

Fenrich: If we redid the big board, I think Rabb would likely fall further than anyone else. This kind of bums me out because I followed him over his two seasons at Cal liked what I saw of him around the basket. He’s a plus-rebounder with a good nose for the ball. Like seemingly every other big man in this draft, he’s got NBA height and length, but he’s somewhat limited in how he uses it.

What jumped out to me as a red flag was the decline in his shooting from his freshman to sophomore season where his true shooting dropped from 63% to 54% despite shooting a decent 40% on 8-20 from deep.

As his current skill set is constituted, he doesn’t project as having NBA-level scoring ability. Per The Ringer, he was a below average shooter from nearly every spot on the floor. He likes to play in the post, but at a not-too-strong 220-pounds, he doesn’t have the strength to bang and besides, he’s just not that efficient. Per Draft Express, he shot “a mediocre … 0.75 points per possession” in the post.

He’s a kid who’s willing to work which is best exemplified by his effort on the glass. But the weaknesses are too many and the skill too low to project out as an NBA starter. In a best-case scenario, he’d develop some type of mid-range game-to-three point game, guard fours and fives and mix in some small ball lineups. Absent that, he’s a less athletic Ed Davis or Thomas Robinson.

 

%d bloggers like this: