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Scouting Dump #4, Part II: You have tools, but do you know what to do with them?

I had intended this to be just a two-part dump, but here we are, nearly three-thousand words on five players who fill me with uncertainty and maybe even doubt, well yes, lots of doubt.

Part I can be found here and includes the 11 games that were scouted during this dump. Through nine players, here’s the overall ranking:

  1. Usman Garuba
  2. Deni Avdija
  3. Kira Lewis Jr.
  4. Aaron Nesmith
  5. Theo Maledon
  6. Grant Riller
  7. Jahmi’Us Ramsey
  8. Devon Dotson
  9. Precious Achiuwa

5. Theo Maledon, ASVEL, trending up, Tier2:

As a narrow-shouldered 18-year-old playing among grown men in the competitive world of the Euroleague, Maledon exhibits a remarkable poise, maturity, and leadership. In my viewings, he’s shown himself to be surprisingly capable and competent as an on-floor communicator willing to direct older teammates into position on both sides of the ball which speaks somewhat to what I heard an announcer earlier this season describe him as having “a certain arrogance, confidence.”

Moxie matters and it translates to a calm, evenly paced style the 6-foot-5 18-year-old plays with. Positionally, he has great size and on the defensive side, he knows how to utilize it. Against Real Madrid, it was fun to see the contrast in defensive approach between Maledon and ASVEL’s younger Matthew Strazel. Strazel, a 17-year-old who looks like he could be the French cousin of Tre and Tyus Jones, played up in the jersey of Madrid’s veteran Facundo Campazzo with overactive hands bordering on recklessness while the more seasoned and mature Maledon opted for effectively sliding feet and bodying up the smaller Campazzo. ASVEL as a team plays a full court, aggressive defense that Maledon appears to be more than willing to adapt to. His defensive effort: moving his feet, sitting in a stance, navigating screens, are all present. I wonder about the long-term defensive upside given his slighter frame and OK quickness, but the effort and size will help.

Offensively, he plays a mostly clean game with a fluid handle, understanding of how to utilize screens and angles, and an ability to make basic, pre-packaged reads. He incorporates subtle hesitations and unexpected crossovers that help to keep defenders off-balance. Off these dribble moves, he’s adept at driving and kicking to open teammates. His ability to keep defenders guessing on ball screens is one of the more impressive traits I’ve seen. He’ll go away from screens with a quick first step or setup opponents one direction against a screen before hitting them with change of direction on compact crossovers. There’s something unorthodox to some of these directional changes and I wish I would’ve recorded a couple of them.

In my limited sample, he’s shown touch around the rim and ability to finish over length. I haven’t seen him play through contact as much, but he’s consistently operated around 40% FTr and is at 36% this season.

His catch-and-shoot three is more of a toss than a good, tight snap off the wrist. Off the dribble, his form looks more natural, but at present he’s just an average-to-below-average shooter which is fine given he’s not even 19 yet. Across 162 games in Europe and FIBA, he’s shooting 34% on nearly 500 threes.

The size and ability to change speeds remind me somewhat of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the three-inch difference in wingspan, the strength, and shooting all lean heavily to SGA’s favor to the point that comparison doesn’t add up. Per ESPN, his physical profile is similar to Delon Wright’s and I can see potential similarities there, although Wright was 23-years-old as a rookie and Maledon will be just 19. That four-year difference is massive and speaks to the Frenchman’s upside as a potential low-end NBA starting point or combo guard.

6. Grant Riller, Charleston, trending up, Tier3:

The 6-3 Riller is a better pro-ready prospect than Maledon, but he’s also more than four years older. With all due respect to Aaliyah, age is more than a number and thus Riller is behind young Theo.

Like watching N’Faly Dante devour 6-7 Terren Frank in EYBL competition, Riller the senior just seemed a class above his Colonial Athletic Association opponents. And as such, it created a handicap of sorts when checking in to see him cook on a nightly basis. For the game viewed here (hosting Drexel on Senior Night), Riller nonchalantly kicked ass in myriad ways: NBA range threes, head fakes, spin moves, pull-up jumpers, threes on the move, running jumpers, slashing with efficient angles, post-ups, side-step step backs, floaters, rinse, repeat ad infinitum. The breadth of unforced offensive skill was something to behold and the ease with which he fluidly read and reacted to the defense was surgical. Between catching the ball and shooting it, Riller has as much craft as anyone I saw in college basketball this year and some of that is out of necessity. He has a good frame at 6-3, 190 pounds with good shoulders and lean muscle, but he’s not a twitchy athlete. He’s not blurring past opponents like Kira Lewis Jr.or bulldogging defenders like a focused Anthony Edwards. The combination of handle, deception (via fakery), shot/touch, and understated strength/body control are deadly and Riller knows this. He plays to his strengths; which is a lot easier to do when your strength can be described as just getting to your spots.

In my viewing, Riller has shown himself to have some ability to read the floor and create for others, but it’s nowhere near as natural as his scoring instincts. His ability to anticipate and make advanced reads is heavily skewed towards scoring the ball. Some of this can be attributed to team need: in most scenarios, a look from Riller is more efficient than anything else Charleston is getting. He has a high basketball IQ, it’s just a matter of spreading it beyond scoring.

Defensively is where I was least impressed with him and where the level of competition appeared to be most evident. Against Drexel, he seemed put out at having to defend, was caught ball watching, and wandered off his man without communicating to teammates. His IQ and ability to anticipate plays was evident as he had a highlight help block thanks to an early rotation, but overall the effort uninspiring. In a small sample, it’s hard to hold this against him, but it was by far his least impressive attribute.

He’s not the player or shooter that CJ McCollum was in college, but he looks to be from the same family tree of undersized scoring twos/combo guards.

7. Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech, no change, Tier3:

The 6-4, nearly 200-pound Ramsey has a June 2001 birthday and in terms of age, would slot perfectly into the high school class of 2020. Instead, he’s a young freshman with buckets of talent on a team with an outsized role, and a misunderstanding of how to harness said talent in said bucket.

I first saw Ramsey as a junior in 2018 going head-to-head with Cam Reddish, late of the Atlanta Hawks, and walked away thinking of him as a twitchy defender, a competitor, a secondary initiator, an ultra-confident player capable of falling back on his physical ability if the world otherwise tipped sidewise.

Then the Mega Bemax pre-season game happened and Ramsey dropped 44 on the Serbian club made most noteworthy for producing Nikola Jokic and Goga Bitadze. This game and Tech’s faulty roster funneled Ramsey into the role of primary scorer, a role he wasn’t, and probably shouldn’t have been plugged into.

Scout: good length and athleticism for a two-guard, but probably lacking in height which, in some situations, he can make up for with his athleticism, particularly vertical. He’s twitchy, he’s strong, fluid as an athlete. Capable as a shooter (42% on 141 threes), handler, and passer including out of the pick-and-roll despite not-so-good Synergy numbers; vision translates in transition and half-court; lot of drive-and-kick to his game. Seamlessly and effectively utilizes head fakes and shot fakes as part of offensive attack. BBIQ is strong with improvisational give-and-go’s, flare outs off screens, and dump-offs/wraparounds off penetration. Some truly awful decision making on pull-up threes. For a 42% three-point shooter, it’s remarkable how many bad shots he takes. Some of this I attribute to shouldering too great a role in Tech’s point guard-lacking roster. There was no reliable creation for Ramsey or Davide Moretti. Senior Chris Clarke was their best passer, but as a non-shooting initiator off the bench, his creation ability was under-utilized. This lack of creation put the ball in Ramsey’s hands more than it should’ve been and the result was a lot of J.R. Smith-type shots.

Despite physical tools, appears to have struggled to maintain focus in Texas Tech’s defense. When engaged, uses length as a defensive cushion, moves feet well, can anticipate and help accordingly, strong hands to strip on digs, good timing as help side shot blocker (2.5% on steals and blocks). When floating mentally, which is often, he helps too far off shooters which is either a bad habit, lack of awareness, or too much trust in ability to help and recover; gets lost or confused in TT’s switching schemes, despite showing lateral flexibility and a willingness to embrace contact, is beaten off dribble far too often as he opens his hips. Some of the latter could be scheme, but too often there’s no help.

If Ramsey can comfortably adjust to lower usage (team-high 26% with TT) and improve his defensive focus, he can be a positive NBA player. Not just can, but should. If I was re-ranking, I’d probably move him above Riller based on age and upside. Arbitrary stat: Ramsey was the only player in D1 to have both steal and block rates 2.5% or higher while attempting over 135 threes and making at least 40% and is one of just 12 players in barttorvik’s database dating back to 2008 to accomplish it.

8. Devon Dotson, Kansas, no change, Tier3:

Dotson isn’t a player I’m terribly high on. His strength is overwhelmingly strong: quickness. It’s flirting with Kira Lewis Jr.levels of quick and destabilizes defense in the open or half court. Dotson is more physically developed than Lewis and nearly two years older. He can attack with either hand, although he seems partial to the left, can change direction at speed, finish with both hands, and finish through contact. But beyond scoring, penetrating, and just out-quicking opponents, his game is somewhat unremarkable.

As a passer, I haven’t seen much beyond basic reads. His 22.5% assist rate is likely bolstered (like the rest of his teammates’) by Udoka Azubuike. The whole team, rightly so, has a habit of using the seven-footer as a release valve of sorts and when there’s no other option available, toss it up to Udoka because even if he doesn’t score, he’ll at least catch it. I’m not going to knock Dotson for taking advantage of a weapon, but rather believe he could’ve taken even greater advantage in setting up the big man for more lobs or dump-offs; or anticipating help rotation, drive-and-kick with greater frequency. That being said, per Synergy, his P&R decision making (as shooter or passer) ranks in the high 70s to low 80th percentiles. I’ll give Dotson some grace in their preference for Marcus Garrett’s creation to Dotson’s. The presence of Garrett over two seasons has reduced the need for Dotson’s creation and limited his in-game reps. It’s a theory, at least.

As a shooter, Dotson was 31% from threes and just average on catch-and-shoot threes (one point/possession, per Synergy). He shot 32% on 53 attempts at Under Armour in 2017 and was 36% on 91 attempts as a freshman. All told that’s 33% on 267 tries in an 83-game sample. His mechanics are mostly unmemorable – for better or worse, which is ultimately a good thing. He’s been an 81% free throw shooter at Kansas and, with time and work, he should be able to strive for average from behind the arc. He’s not bad enough that teams can completely play off of him. Even at 32%, he can attack closeouts and utilize his speed. That said, even as a freshman when he shot 36%, Ashton Hagans sagged off and dared him to shoot. Given his speed and untrustworthiness from three, this will be an NBA thing as well.

On the defensive side, I don’t have nearly the sample of notes as I do on Dotson’s offense. His speed and reaction time is enough to create disruption and his 2.9% steal rate over 66 games evidences that, but in the game against Texas Tech when he matched up with Davide Moretti, he was awkward and uncertain. I wasn’t watching specifically for his defense, but it became something unavoidable.

Like Ramsey, Dotson operates from a solid foundation of physical tools, but unlike Ramsey, I believe his strong skills are less valuable and his compatibility narrower. Tune in in June when I talk myself into Dotson being the better prospect.

9. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending up (but probably shouldn’t be), Tier3:

I’ve probably seen more games of Achiuwa than any other player on this list which probably says more about my ability to prioritize than anything else. Also, after writing about him, I’d probably drop him down a few slots, but we’ll let the record stand and fix it in a future amended board.

More than any other Memphis Tiger, Achiuwa benefited from the departure of James Wiseman as he was able to have the center position all to himself where he led the team in minutes played. He came into the season listed as 6-9, but feels taller and plays bigger. In his 31 games at Memphis, he registered a 6.4% block rate. It’s on the defensive side of the ball that he’s most impactful and impressive. He’ll turn 21 for his rookie year and despite being older than most freshmen, Achiuwa is painfully raw. The rawness is less noticeable on the defensive because he’s shown an ability to leverage his length and athleticism in a variety of defensive scenarios with the most effective being rim protection. He’s not a great shot blocker, but he’s already showing an aptitude for using verticality to disrupt shots rather than exclusively trying to block them and he with his athleticism, he has better-than-normal hangtime that allows him to linger in the air a split second longer than most guys, even on a verticality play. For his size, he’s mostly agile and can switch onto smaller guards. He seems to take a level of pride in his switchability and while he can be had with shot fakes, it’s ultimately a positive attribute. If that’s the good of his defense, the bad is his consistency and focus. There are lapses on switches, ball watching that leads to poor positioning, and generally unreliable awareness. There are times, like on box outs, where you can see him standing upright, watching the ball and suddenly the lightbulb goes off, “oh shit, I need to box out” followed by a scramble to put a body on someone.

In terms of effort, Achiuwa is not lacking. He has a high motor and a bit of a nose for the ball. Since I started watching him at Montverde Academy, I’ve sounded the same refrain: regardless of how you feel about his game, you always notice him. This ability to standout either in running the floor, scrambling for loose balls, or soaring out of nowhere for highlight blocks is a skill that I imagine a 16-year-old Andrei Kirilenko had.

If Achiuwa’s effort and motor are his calling cards and his defense is effective, but unrefined, then his offense is a hot mess. He shot a respectable 33% on 40 threes, 64% at the rim, and had a 51% FTr, but don’t be fooled, he produced on offense in spite of himself. My notes are littered with confusion: “Seems either incapable or uninterested in throwing a fake,” “egregious travel on P&R catch,” “if it’s basic, he can do it,” “trying to attack off dribble and goes nowhere à winds up throwing risky jump pass /eyeroll,” “Airball on C&S3 à just not his shot/game,” “stubborn as a mule trying to force shots in contested space.” It goes on, but I hope the point is conveyed. Going back to Montverde, he’s fancied himself as something of a passer/playmaker and while this seems to be less of an emphasis with Memphis, it still shows its ugly face on his 30 assists to 87 turnovers (~1:3 ratio). ::Insert Pusha T YUUGH::

There’s a productive player living somewhere in Achiuwa, but there’s so much cleanup and TLC that it’s far from a foregone conclusion he’ll reach whatever potential he has. It’s more likely that you’ll forever being trying to strike a tenuous balance between what he adds and what he takes away. To borrow from Fran Fraschilla’s immortal “two years away from being two years away,” Achiuwa is probably a year away from being a year away.

Scouting Dump #4: Part I: Scraping the Barrel in Isolation

It’s the afternoon on Friday, March 20th as I write this. I was supposed to be in Legoland in Kansas City with my three-year-old, Will. I always knew I’d be sneaking peaks at my phone and opening round NCAA Tournament games, trading the craziness of March Madness for the craziness of an overstimulated toddler. Instead, I’m looking backwards (as is usually the case in scouting, I suppose), watching games from February and early March before the Rony (coronavirus) descended on us like an unsensational Hollywood plot device, but alas, we have no Bill Pullman, no Will Smith, no Randy Quaid to fly his plane kamikaze style into the eye of the virus and perish so we can all go on with our bougie existences.

For this edition, we have 11 games and 70-some players spanning multiple continents, countries, and conferences. From Deni Avdija to Devon Dotson, Usman to Udoka, Maledon to McCullar, Merrill, Moretti, Mayer, Mitchell, Moss, McCormack and I could just make up some names and they may have the same odds of making the NBA as some of the players I’ve watched in the past few paranoid-filled weeks.

The games are below and a reminder to anyone reading one of my dumps for the first time: The only players ranked are players I watched in this the games listed below so no LaMelo Ball, Luka Garza, Obi Toppin, or Payton Pritchard. There are two exceptions to this rule which will be explicitly called out.

  • 2/7: Maccabi Tel Aviv @ Fenerbache
  • 2/22: Kansas @ Baylor
  • 2/29: Texas @ Texas Tech
  • 2/29: Drexel @ Charleston
  • 3/2: Texas Tech @ Baylor
  • 3/3: Vanderbilt @ Alabama
  • 3/5: Wichita State @ Memphis
  • 3/5: ASVEL @ Real Madrid
  • 3/7: Kansas @ Texas Tech
  • 3/7: Utah State vs San Diego State
  • 3/8: Memphis @ Houston

 

  1. Usman Garuba, Real Madrid, trending up, N/A Tier:

Garuba was still just a young hooper of 17 when I watched this game from early March. He 18 a few days after, but he looks nothing like either a 17 or 18-year-old with solid square shoulders, a broad chest, and lanky arms. Appearances and stats tell of a young man mature beyond his years: in 21 games of his past three FIBA events against competitors his own age, Garuba is averaging 21 and 17 per-36 with a somewhat inconsistent stretch of shooting: TS’s 68, 58, and 48. In 36 games with the big boy club (Real Madrid) this season, those numbers drop precipitously – which isn’t a bad thing: he’s at 10 and 10 with nearly three stocks/game per-36 with a 62 TS, 17% 3Pr and 40% FTr. He’s done this with Real as a true 17-year-old, a kid playing beyond the depth and experience of probably 99% of all 17-year-old basketball players on the planet.

And while Garuba sits atop my ranking here despite not evening being eligible for the draft until 2021, I don’t quite see him as the same elite-level prospect some others may. For a battered Real, he started against ASVEL and brought what have become trademark traits: willing physicality as a screener with great wide-based screens, ample effort around the basket keeping balls alive against grown men that went for easy boards against his own age group, a high-ish and loose handle, inconsistent shooting, and grace to his movements and on-court navigation that are remarkable for his age. He has excellent straight line speed for a big and runs the court hard.

This is all well and good, but against the experienced and pressuring ASVEL, Garuba was often in a rush; pushing the ball at one speed and unsure or unable to come to a complete stop without shuffling his feet. On separate occasions, refs missed travels and with his high handle and upright gait while dribbling in the open court, he’s prone to have his dribble deflected.

His form on the catch-and-shoot remains a work in progress with an elbow that is over-exaggeratedly tucked in. You can almost see him trying to line up or aim his three-ball instead of just fluidly going through his motion. On 83 attempts across FIBA and Real, he’s 29% from deep.

With his physical ability, size, and movement, he can and will impact the game enough that being a below average three-point shooter won’t break his game, but for all the feel and effort he exhibits, there’s a polish lacking that’s lacking. But again, he just turned 18. If anyone on this list has time, it’s him.

  1. Deni Avdija, Maccabi Tel Aviv, no change, Tier1:

Avdija might not be as good or have as much upside as Garuba, but he’s probably more fun – depending on your definition of fun and tastes, etc. Avdija is 6-8 or 6-9 with a decent, if 19-year-old-ish build and guard skills galore.

For Israel’s FIBA tams (U20, U18, U16), he’s a do-everything self-creating forward with sprinklings of Luka Doncic and Toni Kukoc. With Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team, he plays off-ball, but is aggressive and decisive attacking off the touch. His feel, on greater display with Israel than Maccabi, is elevated. He reads the floor well, anticipates, and can pull passes out of his ass.

Against Fenerbache, he seemed to be playing with an elevated confidence, unbothered by the competition or setting. His quickness is average at best, but he plays at a measured pace, takes efficient angles (offensively and defensively), and has high level of anticipation.

Playing off ball and shooting just 33% on 119 attempts for the season (across FIBA and Maccabi, he’s at 33% on 404 attempts), he had room on a handful of catch-and-shoots. For the game, he was 1-3 on C&S3s and hit one off the dribble. He shoots with confidence and while his release looks like it might be lower than ideal, I imagine he’ll improve over time. Free throw shooting is a bit more of a question mark. He didn’t get to the line in Turkey, but is shooting 52% on the season (on 27% FTr) and is at 54% on nearly 300 attempts across all comps. It’s a poor number for a player who’s otherwise so skilled.

With Israel, he’s proven to be competent and relentless as a cutter and keeps an omnipresent pressure on the defense. He’s also comfortable playing with his back-to-the-basket and mixes in spin moves and up-and-unders to gain advantage. The level of skill pops in technical aspects of his game: post moves, ball handling, passing, and defensive position.

Defensively, he’s severely lacking strength but not will. Against Fenerbache, he wound up on 6-11, 240-pound Jan Vesely a few times. Vesely spent three seasons in the NBA and in addition to just being bigger than Avdija, is more physically mature and powerful. He treated Avdija like a rag doll, using super upper and lower body strength to gain position on post-ups and rebounds. In and of itself, this isn’t anything resembling a death knell for the young Israeli prospect. But it lines up with some challenges I saw from him in the FIBA U20s last summer where his sound defensive technique (verticality and defensive positioning specifically) was frequently muted by stronger or more explosive athletes.

Avdija will get stronger and I believe his shot mechanics are sound enough that he can become an average shooter. The lack of strength does concern me even in the long-term as I believe it limits his long-term defensive upside. If Avdija can be just average as a shooter and defender, his ability and upside as a creator are good enough to slot him in as an above average starter. But getting to average shooting and defending is still years in development.

 

  1. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, no change, Tier1: Nothing has fundamentally changed from when I wrote about him 10 days ago or however long it was, but enjoy some recorded video action:
  2. Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt, trending up, Tier2:

Nesmith is a bit of a fluky inclusion to this edition as his season ended back in January with a foot injury. I hadn’t written about him yet and saw more of his games last season than this one, but wanted to dig in a bit more and to be honest, this scouting dump needed a talent upgrade.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Nesmith has ideal two-guard size. He was overshadowed as a freshman behind McDonald’s All-American teammates and current professionals, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. Even last year, in a lot of ways he projected as a better fit at the pro level. His size, defense, and shooting were promising in his first season at Vanderbilt, but it was his injury-shortened second year that propelled his case forward.

He uses his size, strength, and length well on both ends, but it stands out more on the defensive side where he averaged 2.3 stocks/gm with steal and block percentages both over two. He’s shown strong defensive principles as a team defender who exhibits awareness of who he’s helping off of and where he’s helping to. His length is most valuable as a shot blocker in a variety of scenarios: as a help defender (clip below), on-ball defender, or in recovery. He showed improved strength in his sophomore year and should be able to switch up and guard smaller fours in the NBA although he has room to improve as a defensive rebounder; specifically his positioning and box out consistency. If he’s defending up, he’s likely to give up a decent amount of second chance opportunities.

Despite accumulating 500 minutes in just 14 games, Nesmith was a flamethrower, shooting an unsustainable 52% from three on 115 attempts. Per Synergy, he was on some Steph Curry-type shit, finishing in the 95th percentile or higher across spot ups (31% of the time), off screens (21%), hand-offs (8%), and in isolations (5%) while merely 90th percentile in transition (18%).

He’s most comfortable and effective shooting jumpers either off the catch or bounce and is already developing an ability to burst hard off off-ball screens, take the pass or handoff, stop on a dime, set his feet and elevate into his motion. It’s not the Korver, Klay, Redick-level of body control, but the foundations are there. I’m also not quite ready to put him into that realm of pure shooter off the strength of an incendiary half sophomore season.

The offensive effectiveness trickles off quite a bit after the shooting. Per barttorvik.com, he’s middle of the road at the rim while Synergy has him in the 60th percentile (good) on around-the-rim non-post ups. In my viewing, his athleticism and length on drives has been evident. He’s a long-strider who can get to the basket although I think he can be both more selective and effective attacking closeouts, but is somewhat limited by an average-to-below average handle, very little passing threat or awareness, and occasionally wild or off-balance shot attempts. There are possessions where he commits to the drive before he catches the ball and is dead set on getting off a shot. This is more maturity and game reps than anything else, but it’s an area of opportunity. With his frame, athleticism, and shot, attacking off the bounce has the potential to be a scary weapon. And while I see this as opportunity, it’s worth noting that he nearly doubled his free throw attempts from 2.5/gm to 4.5/gm while improving his FTr from 27.5% to 30.7%.

Because of the defensive impact and potential versatility combined with the shooting, I keep thinking of him as a bit smaller Dorell Wright although I believe Nesmith’s 14 games as a sophomore are probably better than any shooting stretch of Wright’s 549-game NBA career and while both athletic players, they’re completely different types of athletes. There are some low key hints of Klay Thompson as well, but this is more in the defense/lack of creation with slight nods to the shooting. Somewhere between Wright and Thompson is a yawning canyon of potential outcomes, but such is life: choose door #1 and find love, peace, and happiness. Door #2 is a highway to hell without the fun of an AC/DC accompaniment.

Scouting Dump #3, Part II: Tiers 3 thru 10

This is part two of Scouting Dump #3 and includes tiers three thru 10, players seven thru 78. I’m not really sure what differentiates the tiers except there’s some level of break in skill or differentiation in ability and future potential between the players in one tier and another. It’s not based on hard science or even soft science, but rather on my arbitrary, un-copyrighted “system.”

You may also notice a trend of me suggesting that a player should be moved higher or lower and may ask, “why didn’t you just move them around instead of mentioning it. It only makes things more confusing.” Apologies for any confusion, but I kept them as initially ranked for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s helpful to understand the thought process for ranking or re-ranking a player and in some cases, I’ve explained that; 2) it’s helpful for me to see where my initial, less-thorough scrub landed players and where further investigation cast a new perspective.

Point two above is super important for me as a writer and draft “analyst” in that the process of writing and laying thoughts bare can be a revelatory process. My initial response and outside influences pushed Jalen Smith up my list (#8), but the more I poked and prodded, the less impressed I was and suggested I would drop him down to 12, behind Nico Mannion, Devin Vassell, Josh Green, and Patrick Williams. This is helpful for me to see and think through and hopefully it helps you better understand my process.

Games included:

The games:

  • 2/15/20: DePaul @ Creighton
  • 2/15/20: Maryland @ Michigan State
  • 2/6/20: USC @ Arizona
  • 2/8/20: Kentucky @ Tennessee
  • 2/1/20: Arkansas @ Tennessee
  • 2/9/20: Alabama @ Georgia
  • 1/30/20: Baylor @ Iowa State
  • 2/3/20: UNC @ FSU
  • 1/22/20: Rutgers @ Iowa – in person
  • 2/11/20: Alba Berlin @ Ulm
  • 2/19/20: Indiana @ Minnesota
  • 2/20/20: USC @ Colorado

Tier 3:

7. Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama, trending up, Tier3: In case you didn’t know, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did know, Kira Lewis Jr. a college sophomore, doesn’t turn 19 until April. For age purposes, he’s essentially a freshman who happens to have two years of college experience including one (this season) as the engine powering new coach, Nate Oats’s run and gun offense. Listed at 6-foot-3, 167-pounds, Lewis is wispy. Not quite Trae Young wispy, but the young man could possibly hula hoop through a proverbial cheerio. The thinner frame is most noticeable as a disadvantage on the defensive end where the slightest protruding hip or butt or screen is enough to throw him off his on or off-ball tracking. Off ball and away from screens, Lewis’s speed and quickness are his greatest defensive strengths and with a 6’6.5” wingspan, he has enough length to be a disrupter on that end. For the season, he’s averaging nearly two steals/game with a 2.6 steal percentage. On-the-ball, I’ve seen Lewis struggle to guards like Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, a speedy pocket rocket of a guard the likes of which can make a killing at the collegiate levels, but struggle against NBA size. It’s not just that player type that has success against Lewis, against Iowa State earlier in the season, their 6-3 off-guard, Rasir Bolton, a solid player who doesn’t project as an NBAer, was able to frequently get by him. More than strength or physical limitations, I get the sense on-ball technique is the area he can improve on: staying in ready position, taking better angles, these will help him contain. Coming into the season, I wasn’t completely sold on Lewis as lead guard and I’m still not necessarily convinced he’s a starting point in the NBA. And despite somewhat of a flat statistical development (TS same, 3Par down, FTr down; steals, assists, rebounds, and points up), he’s significantly improved. The frequency of quality passes seems to have exponentially increased specifically with drive-and-kicks and over-the-shoulder one-hand passes out of pick-and-roll. The skill improvements are bolstered by video game-like speed and quickness. Lewis is a blur in the full or half court. He changes directions so suddenly my own knees ache at the sight. The speed and quickness will absolutely transfer to the NBA, but where Tyrese Maxey’s base allows him to play at high speed with body control and balance, some of Lewis’s faster forays feel a bit out of control or off-balance. Strengthening his lower body, continuing to develop his passing and reads, and ultimately improving as a three-point shooter (35% on 282 attempts) are keys to NBA effectiveness. ESPN has placed him in the 30s on their big boards and mock drafts. Without having built out my own, I’d likely rank him higher than that based on upside and having a clear attribute (speed/quickness) that is NBA-ready.

8. Jalen Smith, Maryland, trending up, Tier3: Smith is another sophomore and ranks as the second-highest big behind Onyeka Okongwu in this player set. Without taking away from the man they call “Stick,” it’s worth noting that he’s over a year older than Kira and if we consider the leaps Smith has made from his 18 to 19-year-old season, it’s easy to see why Lewis supporters will beat you over the head with his age as a sign of development to come. But we digress and take away from the goggle-wearing Smith. He’s lean-ish at 6-10, 225 with a listed wingspan of 7’1.5” although it sometimes seems like he’s longer. I enjoyed him as a freshman alongside current Atlanta Hawk, Bruno Fernando as he showed flashes of being able to hit the jumper (27% from 3 on 71 attempts) with good rim protection and rebounding. In his second season, everything has improved: he’s over 62 TS, his block percentage is up to 8.1, his shooting splits up from 49-27-66 to 53-36-75. Even his at-the-rim numbers are up from 67% to 71%. Improvement is always a positive (I think), but it’s not to say Smith has entered a realm of flawlessness in this draft class. That leanishness I referenced earlier was on display against Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman (#17 on this list) in mid-February. Numerous times, Smith had Tillman boxed out, only to have the 6-9, 245-pound Tillman use swim moves and superior upper-body strength to dislodge the younger player. Some NBA box outs look like rugby scrums and while Smith will absolutely get stronger, packing functional strength on that frame is going to take time and work – it’s not enough to out-jump and out-reach guys for loose balls. If strength is an area of improvement, being physical isn’t. Smith won’t win all the positional battles, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and typically puts forth effort. Defensively, he shows good technique staying vertical in rim protection and bodying up potential drivers. Offensively, he has touch from the perimeter to the interior, but is somewhat limited on that end. He’s best shooting the three off the catch and while I don’t have the data, his accuracy seems to drop when he rushes or has a quick release. A lack of awareness and vision limit his passing impact as well. He misses open teammates, and like his shot, he has occasion to rush the play. If he finds a path to being effective as a pro, it’ll be driven by consistent shooting, rim protection, and improved understanding of NBA team defense. A part of this exercise that’s revealing is how the under-the-hood view of a prospect can skew your valuation more than you expect. If I were to do this over again, I would likely drop Smith down to 12 and bump up Nico, Vassell, Josh Green, and Pat Williams.

9. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending down, Tier3: I ranked Mannion atop a list of 45 players back in December and while I believe he’s improved since then, the combination of other players revealing more and me placing more scrutiny on Mannion’s strength and limitations have put him on a downward trajectory. I watched him against USC earlier in February in a game where he scored 20 on the strength of 12-18 free throw shooting with seven assists to four turnovers and kept thinking that he has this base of great fundamentals, vision, and anticipation that are somewhat muffled by an average-to-below-average physical profile. This feels kind of lazy in terms of race-based analysis, but his inability to get the slightest of edges on defenders prevents him from fully accessing his passing and vision. If he’s lacking somewhat in burst and vertical athleticism, he finds other ways to play bigger than his size. Like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, he’s a great screener who uses his smaller size to set solid screens on bigs. Arizona runs a lot of screen the screener actions from which he benefits. Offensively, his passing his far and away his best skill. Despite strong mechanics and mostly good shot selection, he’s shooting just 33% from deep (that number drops to 30% in 14 conference games) with a 44% 3PAr. Mannion’s been at his best when attacking aggressively – seeking his shot, attacking off the bounce, and not letting defenses settle in. I still believe in the shot, but he’ll have to shoot it better and develop more skill and craft off the dribble in order to unlock his full scope of ability. If I’m projecting out, I’d have him as a reserve guard in the NBA which is great, but a far cry from what I expected back in November.

10. Devin Vassell, Florida State, trending up, Tier3: I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched a ton of the lengthy 6-7 sophomore from FSU this season. He’s an advanced stats darling with one of the top BPMs (10.2 as of this writing) in the country, 59 TS on 43% three-point shooting, a 4.4% block rate and 2.9% steals. In two seasons at Tallahassee, he’s shooting 42% from three on over 150 attempts, but unlike a lot of college shooters, he incorporates a pull up mid-range game and while his handle isn’t tight enough to create space with frequency, his length and high-release point allow him to get shots off without a ton of room. He’s a plus-defender who second naturedly navigates screens and switches with a high defensive IQ that allows him to anticipate play development and act/react quickly. Like most Leonard Hamilton players, he stays active and engaged on the defensive end with his length and anticipation game helping him to rack up those steal and block rates. Like many players in this draft, he’s a very good complimentary piece who can plug into a role without needing to be a high usage (19.4%) focal point. Bonus: per barttorvik, as of February 26th, he’s one of only three players (as of Feb. 26) in the country with over 20 dunks, over 20 threes made, and above 40% from three.

11. Josh Green, Arizona, trending up, Tier3: Like Mannion, I wrote about Green back in December and not a ton has changed. He’s a plus-athlete who can pass, and competes defensively. At Arizona, he’s probably been a below-average shooter (42-32-77 with a 52 TS), but I kind of buy his shooting a bit more than the current output and believe he’s lacking some confidence on the perimeter as he sometimes catches and hesitates before letting an open catch-and-shoot fly. Ultimately I see him as a fringe level starter who plays hard on both ends of the floor, doesn’t shy away from physicality, and has shown a willingness to buy into a role which I probably value higher than others. Like so many of these prospects, he desperately needs to find consistency in his shot in order to be a regular contributor. Bonus: per friend of blog, Spencer Pearlman, Green has two left handed finishes over the last two years counting AAU and Arizona (not IMG). Two.

12. Patrick Williams, Florida State, no change, Tier3: I initially had Williams as the first player in my T4, but given his age (turns 19 in August), size (6-8 with 6-11 wingspan), and defensive versatility (3.5 stocks/40min and can defend both interior and perimeter – more on this), I bumped him up to T3. I’ve seen a handful of FSU games this season and given Williams’s propensity to be deployed in the corner as something of a floor spacer, I was surprised to see him second on the team in usage (among players with actual minute volume) behind senior point, Trent Forrest. While he’s far from an initiator with FSU (9% ast rate with 1.7 TOs to every assist), he’s shown a little mid-range ability in multiple games. These are usually one or two hard dribbles into the pull-up or into a jump stop with the occasional fade mixed in. There’s not a ton of passing or creation off the bounce and this dates back to his 2018 EYBL season as well (1.8 assists to 1.5 TOs). His physical ability, the lanky, muscular frame, best percolates on the defensive end. I’ve seen him defend shooters like Florida’s Noah Locke and point guards like Indiana’s Rob Phinisee and harass the hell out of these smaller, in theory quicker players. His size, bend, and lateral mobility allow him to sit deep in a defensive crouch and mirror dribbler movements. His length and push off power allow him to quickly cover ground both vertically and laterally. And this is apparently a theme of this player set, but as I write this, I realize I’d likely swap Williams with Green. His defensive versatility and shooting, albeit on low volume, have a higher likelihood of seamless transition to the NBA.

Tier 4: Not quite lightning round, but let’s get it moving:

13. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana, trending up, Tier4: Only a freshman, TJD is already 20-years-old and plays like he has some grown man strength. He’s listed at 6-9 or 6-10, 245-pounds and he makes opponents feel it. Physical player with no problem elevating. Prefers back-to-basket camping on right block, but can face up as well. No three attempts on season, but strong FTr (65%) and hits 70% clip. Struggles to defend in space. Kind of poor man’s Okongwu, projects as rotation 4/5 in the NBA. Has bit of an edge, will dunk on you.

14. Tyler Bey, Colorado, trending up, Tier4: Lanky 3/4 or 4/3, listed at 6-7 but seems taller to me with ton of length (listed at 7-0). Uber efficient Mr. Do Everything type of player for Buffs. Can hit unguarded three (13-26 on season) at low volume; lot of garbage man work on offensive end; 64% of his shots come at the rim with 59% being assisted; over 8 FTAs/40 with a 69% FTr. Roughly three TOs to every two assists; not a playmaker, but can make basic passes/reads. Plus on rim protection, able to make himself a massive obstruction at the rim with sound verticality, good lift, and long arms. Somewhat of an intangibles guy that maybe comes from a similar family tree as Shawn Marion, Shane Battier, and/or Andre Roberson.

15. Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change, Tier4: At the lazy, surface level, Nnaji reminds me of Jordan Hill: both big-haired Arizona big men with high motors. Beyond that, the comparison pretty much falls apart. I bring this up to say that Nnaji is not Jordan Hill. Against USC in early February, I wanted to see how the Minnesota native who grew up playing piano would matchup with noted ass kicker, Onyeka Okongwu. It took some adjusting, but Nnaji, was able to match USC’s big man through effort and positioning, using tireless footwork to gain position on box outs and post deflections. Offensively, he used a blend of skill, strength, and quickness to create good looks including a post catch into a shoulder fake, then immediately following the shoulder with a quick shot fake that Okongwu bit on before attacking for the finish. This is the type of move Okongwu would use himself and is the type of advanced post play that rounds out Nnaji’s strong offensive arsenal. He has range out to 18 to 20 feet and is a threat to roll, pop or slip screens. He’s also at 78% from the line on a 65% FTr which greatly aids his already efficient game – 65 TS. If he can extend his range to the NBA three-line, he can become super interesting as a pro prospect. He doesn’t have the rim protection of TJD, but he’s nearly a year younger and given his shooting, it’s not a stretch to see him as the better long-term prospect.

16. Santiago Vescovi, Tennessee, trending up, Tier4: I took a weird route to put the 6-3 Uruguayan point guard this high. After watching him against Kentucky (2/8) and Arkansas (2/11), I walked away thinking he’s not dissimilar from Nico Mannion. Both are cerebral, pass-first point guards. Mannion probably plays a tighter, more controlled game whereas Vescovi has more improvisational cleverness. Mannion is stronger with more burst as well. Vescovi was granted eligibility midway through the season and has struggled at times to adjust to NCAA officiating; most noticeable in his ball control and 5.2 turnovers/40 (1:1 ast:TO rate), much of which are travel and carry violations. He has good length, decent-sized hands, range out to NBA level, runs a good P&R game, and is active and aware as a team defender. Finishing at the rim and developing better decision making on dribble drives are areas for improvement, but I like him longer term as a potential NBA rotation piece and it’s worth noting that he doesn’t turn 19 until September. Bonus: Tennessee has two McDonald’s-level players coming in at guard next season in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson which has some interesting potential implications if Vescovi is still there.

17. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State, trending up, Tier4: I’ve gone back and forth on Tillman since the season-opener against Kentucky and despite him being undersized as a pro five, I always come back to him just knowing how to play the damn game. He’s solidly built at 245-pounds with a thick neck and a +4 or 5” wingspan and has an extremely efficient economy of movement that allows him to quickly close space and make quick, decisive movements. He’s hell on the defensive end and has made life difficult for Maryland’s Jalen Smith and Iowa’s Luka Garza among other Big 10 bigs. As of this writing, he’s at 3.2 stocks/game. He has a habit of overplaying, over-helping and cheating on the defensive end that leaves him susceptible to back cuts, but this type of thing can be coached up. Offensively, he’s less impressive as a shooter/scorer (53-28-66 shooting with 58 TS), but exceptional as a screener with above average positional awareness, and capable of making somewhat advanced reads. He seems like he’d be an excellent fit on the KG Celtics and maybe that’s because he kind of reminds me of Leon Powe, but his intangibles, feel, fundamentals, and build make him feel like a reserve big with the potential to contribute to a winning team.

18. Paul Reed, DePaul, trending down, Tier4: Paul Reed is the only player in the NCAA D1 this season to average at least 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks and is the first player in six seasons to do it. He kind of looks like Hakim Warrick with a long, lanky frame and a fluid gait with long strides, but he wrecks shit in ways Warrick could not. Reed is possessed of good hands, a high motor, and quick leaping ability. Multiple times a game, he’ll catapult into the screen from some unknown place (the bench? Dunkin Donuts?) and snare a rebound or aggressively swat a shot off the board. He can make basic reads passing out of the post, but can be rushed into mistakes with double teams. Reed has touch around that hoop that includes jump hooks and Steven Adams-like push floaters and while he can make threes, there’s a lot of movement in his form and it’s not a shot I trust in its current form (shooting 33% on 102 attempts for his career). Given the lack of bulk and what is, to me, somewhat of an unreliable shot, I like him as a dive man playing the 4/5 in an end-of-bench role with his defensive potential opening up more avenues to playing time as he physically develops.

19. Aaron Henry Henry, Michigan State, trending down, Tier4: Fairly certain Henry is ambidextrous. He shoots jumpers with his left, but attacks with the right and has a variety floaters and finger rolls from close range. He has pro size at 6-6, 210-pounds with a +4” wingspan, doesn’t shy away from contact, and is aggressive in attack although mostly average as a shooter (35% on threes, 42% on non-rim twos, 72% FT). Good as a team defender like most Michigan State guys and capable of defending the one thru three spots. May be able to defend smaller fours, but it’s not something I’ve seen. Pretty clearly behind Josh Green, Patrick Williams, and Devin Vassell for me. They each offer greater athletic and offensive upside with similar defensive potential.

Tier 5: More ranking, less writing, please:

20. Cassius Winston, Michigan State, no change, Tier5: Good enough passer, floor general, role accepter that I believe he’ll stick if he can hit the pull-up and three-ball at average rates. I do question his defensive ability; particularly on-ball.

21. Joe Wieskamp, Iowa, trending down**, Tier5: **had been trending up, but recent shooting slump 6-27 FG, 1-12 from three including missing wide open, high-leverage looks have made questions about mental toughness resurface. Completely disappears at times and looks confounded in quest to find effective contributions. For his player type (shooter), he needs to be better.

22. Romeo Weems, DePaul, no change**, Tier5: **had been trending down, but recent run of aggressive attack rebalanced him. Great physical profile with massive defensive upside has struggled mightily to find offensive consistency. Inconsistent shot and inability to create space off the dribble mean he’s only really effective as a cutter. I blame some of this on what appears to be an abysmal DePaul offense and team approach in general, but Weems is collateral damage. If he comes out, I’d absolutely gamble on him in the second round and if he wound up better than Vassell, Green, and them, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

23. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota, trending down, Tier5: Weird scoring big man at 6-10 with 7-2 wingspan, always looking for his shot. Likes to turn and face off the catch and capable of hitting mid-range or putting it on the deck and attacking. Gaudy 28% usage with excellent 62 TS, but more than two TOs for every assist. Decent defensive timing and length. Screams G-League to me.

24. John Petty, Alabama, trending up, Tier5: Far and away one of my favorite players in this class. After a ho hum first two seasons in Alabama, under the tutelage of Nate Oats, Petty is flashing the ability that made him a top-35 recruit in the class of 2017. He’s always had some J. Smith pull-up confidence, but this season has cranked up his efficiency (45% on 189 3s vs 36% on 413 previous two seasons). What’s been more impressive though is his improved rebounding and assists with declining turnover percentage despite more minutes and lower usage. He’s made leaps and bounds as a passer, able to create off the dribble and find teammates on drive-and-kicks or drive-and-dumps with one-handed whip passes or more conventional dump offs.

25. Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: Like Petty, Quickley has enjoyed a breakout season. He’s a lanky 6-3 guard with a 6-8 wingspan and wiry strength. He’s rightly been recognized for his shooting this season (91% on over five FTAs/game and 43% on five threes/game), but has rounded out his game with passing creation, quickness, and defense which make me think he can spend time as a combo guard in the NBA or play alongside bigger point guards and take the point guard matchup defensively. More compelling as a prospect than Winston, but maybe bit more risk.

26. Ashton Hagans, Kentucky, trending down, Tier5: Hagans is a real MFer and I mean that in the most positive sense. He’s a floor general who competes on both ends, has strong hands he uses to strip bigger (or smaller) opponents, has a high BBIQ, and is above average as a college facilitator. But he can’t shoot (28% on 108 3s in two seasons), is average at the rim, and poor from non-rim twos (30% on 73 attempts). Every guard I have ranked above him in this set shoots the ball better and unless he can make improvements there, it’ll be hard to stick at the league’s most competitive spot.

27. Nick Richards, Kentucky, trending up, Tier5: 22-year-old junior with a 7-5 wingspan, runs floor hard, plays within himself, probably slots in as a roll man with bit of potential for elbow pick-and-pops. Good rim protector is a better fit for pro style than Oturu despite being less skilled.

28. Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton, trending up, Tier5: Listed at 6-2, but not convinced he’s that big. Looks smallish, but has no issues getting his shot off against taller opponents and is 64% at the rim. Plays with good speed despite lacking quickness, has clean handle, and good offensive awareness. Shoots it well from all over the court (42% on 301 career threes, 44% on non-rim twos), struggles to contain penetration at times on defensive side as is lacking lateral quickness.

Tiers 6 and 7: Lightning round-ish

29. Ron Harper Jr. Rutgers, trending up, Tier6: Thick at 6-6, 245 with long arms with shot potential (33% on 101 attempts this season). If you told me he winds up in Houston or Boston, I would say, “Yes, that makes sense.”

30. Jared Butler, Baylor, no change, Tier6: Have seen very little of him.

31. Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton, trending up, Tier6: Bit undersized to play off-ball at 6-4, but shoots it well 59 TS and 40% from three on over 175 attempts. Does bit of everything and makes me think of more well-rounded, but worse shooting Quickley. Big fan of his.

32. Luka Garza, Iowa, trending up, Tier7: Massive physical evolution, monster motor, back-to-the-basket player in mold of Al Jefferson is up to 36% from deep on nearly 100 attempts this season after 31% on 118 attempts previous two combined. Still runs awkwardly and lacks agility required to defend pretty much anyone in space. Potential to be end-of-bench big or Euro MVP.

33. Malik Hall, Michigan State, trending down, Tier7: 6-7, 215 pound combo forward, plays up in position in Izzo’s scheme and shown more flash than consistency as a 19-year-old freshman.

Tier 8:

34. Keion Brooks, Kentucky, trending up, Tier8: I know what was going through my head when I had Brooks trending up, but I believe it was an overreaction: over the course of the season, I believe he’s gotten bigger, is moving more fluidly and generally looks a bit more confident on the floor, but none of it translates in the numbers and given that the bulk of games I saw from him were pre-conference season, I’m trusting the data here. He should be lower, my bad. (The more I think about this, the less sense it makes.)

35. Yves Pons, Tennessee, no change, Tier8: freak athlete at 6-6, 205-pounds with 7-foot wingspan. Third year at Tennessee and he still can’t shoot a jumper, but is the only player in the country 6-6 or shorter with a block rate of 8% or higher per barttorvik. Feel like he’d be amazing at parkour.

36. McKinley Wright, Colorado, trending up, Tier8: Pit bull of a point guard with a nose for the rim, plus-speed, handle with either hand and stays low with it, touch on floater, but just average from deep (34% on 292 career attempts) and solid at the line (78%). Size on defense and lack of high level vision/passing have him behind guys like Zegarowski, Butler, and Hagans.

37. Mark Vital, Baylor, no change, Tier8: 23-year-old redshirt junior fascinates me because he’s built like a middle linebacker (6-5, 230, thick neck) and jumps out of the gym. Can’t shoot to save his life (14% on 49 career threes, 43% on 60 FTAs this season) should be behind some of the guys I have him ahead of.

38. Nick Ongenda, DePaul, trending up, Tier8: Impossibly long freshman looks like baby giraffe, but surprisingly fluid movements; reminds me of Stephen Hunter based on build, but he’s probably skinnier. He’s a two years away from being two years away kinda guy, but the length and mobility offer hope.

39. Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up, Tier8: Great size at the point, good passer, pushes with pace, and (mostly) plays under control, can defend on-ball, average shooter. Positional size probably greatest strength, but doesn’t strike me as pro level guard.

40. Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia, trending up, Tier8: Ehhh, maybe empty calorie four man. Likes to shoot and can attack off dribble, but below average defender and inefficient shooter. Probably would not be trending up on a redo.

Tier 9: some mistakes; probably punch drunk

41. Johnny Juzang, Kentucky, trending up, Tier9: looks better than start of season, willing and capable defender with strong lower body, and decent looking shot. Mostly incomplete though.

42. Toumani Camara, Georgia, trending up, Tier9: all effort garbage man hits o-glass, probably ranked too high here.

43. Mitch Ballock, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Impressive shooter with decent size (6-5, 205); 40% from three on 552 career attempts with quick release off catch or dribble. Should be in Tier8.

44. Christian Bishop, Creighton, trending up, Tier9: Another impressive Creighton kid; plays up at 6-7, active defender (3.3 stocks/40) with plus BBIQ, and impressive athlete. Not a shooter, probably too small for player type.

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45. Mason Jones, Arkansas, trending down, Tier9: 32% usage, weird guard with somewhat of a throwback, ground-based game built on craft. Not good enough to warrant high usage in NBA and doesn’t do enough outside of scoring to be effective in league.

46. Charlie Moore, DePaul, trending down, Tier9: smallish player with plenty of scoring and passing ability, but wind up questioning his reads and deep forays into the paint with nowhere to go. Not a DWN favorite.

47. Trent Forrest, FSU, no change, Tier9: Plays point guard, but don’t believe he’s a point guard. If he could play defense only, he’d be more valuable.

Tier 10: getting late

48. Christian Brown, Georgia, trending down, Tier10: long wing, probably more combo forward than wing, good athlete, incomplete.

49. Anthony Cowan, Maryland, no change, Tier10: Big shot maker, average shooter, probably deserves to be a bit higher, but is he really going to be a scoring guard in the NBA?

50. Donta Scott, Maryland, trending up, Tier10: Burly, banging Maryland four-man who can shoot a bit. Not scared.

51. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending down, Tier10: 6-11 soph with a 7-5 wingspan who shot 43% on 14 threes as a frosh, but is 5-27 (18.5%) this year. Better in theory than practice.

52. Armando Bacot, UNC, trending down, Tier10: Supposedly Cole Anthony’s wingman, rebounds ball well, narrow shoulders with ok length, ok around rim, but doesn’t shoot it well anywhere else. Turns 20 March 6th. Bonus: Same birthday as Shaq.

53. Aaron Wiggins, Maryland, trending down, Tier10: Has regressed as a sophomore who showed 3-and-D potential as a frosh. Not good enough to regress.

54. Raiquan Gray, FSU, trending down, Tier10: Fun player, kind of built like Zion, but with maybe half Zion’s vertical and efficiency. Cool spin move.

The rest.

55. Marcus Carr, Minnesota, no change

56. Isaiah Mobley, USC, trending down

57. Christian Koloko, Arizona, no change: super long, fun shot block disrupter, missed two free throws to seal fate in loss against Oregon. It’s ok.

58. Balsa Koprivica, FSU, no change

59. CJ Fredrick, Iowa, trending up: Probably not an NBA player, but carries himself like he is and it matters.

60. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, no change

61. Davonte Gaines, Tennessee, trending up: super long and skinny redshirt frosh. Has defensive upside.

62. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending down

63. Jaden Shackelford, Alabama, **trending down: Should probably be trending up.

64. George Conditt, Iowa State, trending down: had higher hopes for him; seems to struggle against first units.

65. Sahvir Wheeler, Georgia, no change

66. Jaylen Butz, DePaul, trending down

67. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, **trending down: Had career game against Iowa on 2/25 and played with uber confidence. One game can flip flop a freshman, I guess.

68. John Fulkerson, Tennessee, trending up

69. EJ Montgomery, Kentucky, trending down

70. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down

71. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down

72. Darious Hall, DePaul, trending up

73. Eric Ayala, Maryland, trending up

74. Rasir Bolton, Iowa State, trending down

75. Shereef Mitchell, Creighton, no change

76. Joe Toussaint, Iowa, no change

77. Matthew Mayer, Baylor, no change: Should probably be 8-10 slots higher.

78. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: I’m a sucker for hoopers who look like they live in the weight room.

Incompletes: Ethan Henderson, Reggie Chaney, Serrel Smith, Uros Plavsic, Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, Max Agbonkpolo, Kyle Sturdivant

 

 

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: Half-cocked Ideas and Hairbrained Theories feat. Cole Anthony

This post was supposed to be about players I reviewed back during Thanksgiving Feast Week or whatever the hell that cavalcade of games was marketed as. I scouted/watched 60-some-odd players that week and ranked 47, but the more I marinated and ruminated and procrastinated, the more it became clear that the bundle of point guards at the top, players not named Anthony Edwards, deserved their own inquisitions.

Six of my top nine from that week project as some form of NBA point guard and I presently have them ranked as such: (This list only includes players I watched that week so you won’t see Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, etc.)

But there’s something that feels oh-so-fragile to this exercise in subjectivity. We were recently alerted that Cole Anthony, son of Greg, would be out six-to-eight weeks for surgery on a meniscus injury. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton of the NBL are both in the midst of their own injury-related hiatuses. The opportunities for scouting these young men are growing less by the day and thus the opportunity for inaccurate assessment grows. I will be wrong. I will change my mind. I will doubt myself. I am human, born to make mistakes.

COLE ANTHONY

So why Cole at the top? I came into the season with Cole Anthony as my number-one overall prospect based on a powerful athleticism that none of the other point guards on this short list can compare with and that goes for Kira Lewis too. Anthony’s strength and elevation exceed that of his fellows. To top it off, in 21 games of the 2018 EYBL season, he shot 89% on 195 free throw attempts alongside 38% on 142 threes. When the best athlete is arguably the second-best shooter (Nico Mannion the best), is passable as a creator, an elite guard rebounder, and flashes defensive potential, it’s easy to get giddy, and overlook gut feelings that I’ll explore further below.

Too, every one of these players has warts. If a massive aspect of scouting is projecting how these players develop and what they become as pros, then deeply understanding their flaws and how deeply ingrained they are in relation to the strengths, which we so rightly celebrate, is a requirement of the exploration.

WARTS & STUFF

Cole: average-to-above average passer/creator, possibly lacking in feel, questionable defensive IQ, questionable finishing and release angles, old for class

LaMelo: defense defense defense inclusive of strength, focus, and effort. Shooting, shot release, core strength, lower body strength

RJ: shot and touch, uncertain if he’s a full-time point guard, ability to defend smaller/quicker guards, developing defensive awareness

Nico: average athlete, average length, can be stymied by team length, lacking vertical explosiveness, ability to generate good looks for himself

Tyrese: creation for others beyond pick-and-roll, attack instincts, shot mechanics, strength

Kira: passing instincts, point guard feel, strength (I’m fully aware that Kira is young for his class), defensive consistency

It was a combination of Anthony’s EYBL and Oak Hill tape, bolstered by the stats above, that drove him to the top of my list. But what’s happened in his month of competitive play at Chapel Hill that tilted the narrative and exposed some of those vulnerabilities?

Anthony shot out like a rocket in his debut against Notre Dame with 34-points on 65 true shooting and 11 rebounds. For all its small sample size, it appeared his strengths would translate seamlessly. But if Anthony chooses to shut it down following his knee surgery, that game will be his collegiate high-water mark, the points, rebounds, threes made, and true shooting all career bests. Against Notre Dame, he performed in his templatized style: an array of pull-ups from two and three, an omnipresent threat attacking off the dribble, and a general physical imposing of will.

Even in high school, when Anthony dominated, there were hints and tics of potential inefficiencies that I should’ve better sniffed out and over his subsequent, post-Notre Dame games, they surfaced with greater frequency and clarity. Unlike Mannion or LaMelo, Anthony is not a pure point guard in the sense that he’s not a natural facilitator. I believe the notion of “pure point guards” is overblown gatekeeping nonsense, but in this case, it merely serves to articulate that Anthony neither defaults to the pass or can pass/read with the gusto of some of his peers. Of the six points in this scout, I’d say he’s on par with Lewis as the two least-talented passers of the bunch. In his nine games as a Tar Heel, Anthony picked up 34 turnovers to just 31 assists, easily the worst ratio of any guard in this set.

The UNC challenges don’t end there. Anthony, like many players before him, has succeeded, has thrived, in spite of himself. His combination of athleticism and highly developed skill has meant he can excel in high-degree-of-difficulty scenarios. Case-in-point are the pull-ups he loves so much. Further, looking back over my notes from his Oakhill days, I called out his challenges in both generating clean looks for himself and finishing around the rim. At UNC, I’ve seen a series of odd-angled shot releases on penetration, particularly upon making contact with help defenders. He has the strength and hangtime to make in-air adjustments and absorb contact, but how he adjusts and gets off his shots, often while pulling back in-air instead of driving all the way through, seems like it hurts his ability to finish.

Defensively, I don’t tend to get concerned with guards this age unless effort or physical ability are significant red flags. With Anthony, he’s averaged nearly two steals/game with a 3.2% steal rate, which are both fine. He’s shown an ability to focus in on-ball situations, has great feet and hips that allow him to easily and fluidly change direction, and a hyper burst allows him to recover on plays where he’s been otherwise beaten and positively impact the play. In terms of off-ball defense and drill fundamentals, he has a lot of work to do. He loses his man from ball watching, has off-ball lapses, and multiple times this season, I’ve seen teammates physically push him into right position or shout instructions to him as he’s failed to execute the right coverage. Again, he mostly gives full effort and with his physical tools has plenty of upside. The work comes in the less sexy realms like pick-and-roll coverage and help defense.

All of this leads to an attempt at answering what does a pro version of Cole Anthony look like? What translates? What doesn’t? Or, to what degree do his skills and abilities translate? I believe in the athleticism: the burst, elevation, strength, and balance. As a foundation, his physical/athletic profile is vastly superior to the other guards with the exception of maybe RJ Hampton, who Anthony is still more athletic than, just not by as great of a degree. The athleticism, build, and effort mean he should be able to hover around average defensive impact for a guard with the potential to be much better. Stubbornly, I trust in in Anthony’s ability to assimilate and adapt as a scorer at the NBA level. With better spacing and a commitment to developing as a finisher –in terms of touch, decisiveness, and release – his scoring profile would be well-rounded with room to grow in efficiency and decision making. The clip below exemplifies Anthony’s wide range: he uses his burst and handle to split the double, but his eyes are only on the rim. To be fair, he’s surrounded by non-shooters, but the commitment to the shot is a limiting habit at present. It’s also a good of both his inconsistent touch (it comes and goes) and what could be an inability to decelerate – a recurring trait I’ve seen on his drives.

To go deeper on his offense, there’s a subtlety of skill that will lend itself to his eventual NBA transition and acts as a good reminder that he’s the son of an NBA player and has spent much of his life around NBA gyms. Anthony is adept at getting the most out of his screens: he’s patient and when he does decide to go, he rubs shoulder-to-shoulder with the screener. He’s also a bully who knows how to impose himself, both vertically and horizontally, against smaller guards. While he won’t see many guys in the NBA as small as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (6-0, 190 which seems generous) or Virginia’s Kihei Clark (5-9, 155), against both, Anthony leveraged his strength on drives to the rim, easily finishing through both of the smaller players. In EYBL, he’d even take taller players into the post where his strength and two-foot rise gave him an advantage. His off-dribble game is effective in part because of his excellent body mechanics and ability to dribble hard, stop, square, and rise in one (mostly) fluid motion. In high school, he showed a greater utilization of head fakes and feints, but in his limited UNC stint, I saw this less frequently. These skill-based attributes are advanced for a college freshman and are further evidence of how and why his scoring ability can translate.

And in a world where the above prognostications are spot on, my greatest concerns aren’t addressed or resolved. Against Virginia, in a game where Anthony was already dealing with the injury that will keep him out for the next one to two months, I had the stinking, sinking realization that he wasn’t elevating his teammates and despite what I’ve observed of him as an engaged and encouraging teammate, he wasn’t making guys better. As a shoot-first lead guard, he hasn’t figured out how to operate off the ball and is prone to existing as an all or nothing offensive piece. He can make the pass if he can get to the read, but my interpretation of his attack is that his mind and eyes are seeking avenues to score first, distribute second. It’s not that a modern point guard must be pass first either. Trae Young and Luka Doncic both score a shitload of points while using dynamic scoring and vision in a complimentary fashion: the scoring opens up the passing and vice versa. Anthony doesn’t have to be Young or Luka to be effective, but he hasn’t yet exhibited consistency for advanced reads or passes or an ability to reliably utilize one skill to set up the other.

Despite trending down, I still have Anthony as my second-ranked prospect in this draft behind Anthony Edwards. There are worlds where he can follow paths or styles that resemble Jamal Murray or Kemba Walker. I get the Russell Westbrook comps too, but don’t see Anthony reaching that level of passing. In a draft class severely lacking in high-degree-of-confidence stars, Anthony slides in as a flawed, but somewhat ready-made player, a physically mature player whose upside exists in nuance and mechanics. He exists for me as a high-floor prospect with a low likelihood of achieving his potential and, as currently constructed, unlikely to be a significant contributor on a winning team.

Scouting Dump: Week of November 19th

Welcome to the second scouting/prospect dump of this 2019-20 prospect season. (I almost titled this “Scouting Dump #2” but opted against for what should be obvious reasons.) (I added the “prospect” descriptor because these are not exclusively scouting reports though there are layers of scouting, from Chicago deep dish thick to buttermilk biscuit flake thin, accompanying each player and rank.) I write these completely in arears and have seen several of the players included here play in Thanksgiving tournaments and those games will no doubt influence these rankings and commentary.

The purpose of these rankings is multifold: to sort through my own reactions and thoughts, to compare and contrast prospects, to rank and re-rank as we move through the season and player traits and skills solidify or dissolve. There’s a point, even in a 35-game season, where a player establishes himself as the present version of himself. Last year, I didn’t need to watch much Zion Williamson to understand who or what he was. This year, in the short span of a month, RJ Hampton went from spindly-legged athletic point guard in New Zealand to broad-shouldered, symmetrical-man-athlete. This can happen when we’re watching teenagers grow up before our eyes and it makes a weekly (or bi-weekly or whatever) exercise valuable and insightful.

As always, rankings are fluid and entirely possible to be inconsistent from week-to-week. 45 total players pulled from the following games:

  • 11/19/19: Pepperdine @ USC
  • 11/21/19: South Dakota State @ Arizona
  • 11/21/19: Ohio vs Baylor – snippet
  • 11/21/19: Texas vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
  • 11/22/19: Mississippi State vs Villanova
  • 11/22/19: Duke vs Georgetown – 2k Classic
  • 11/24/19: Florida vs Xavier

 

  1. Nico Mannion, Arizona, trending up:

Mannion deserves his own piece and at some point during this draft season, perhaps I’ll sit down to it. For now, I’ll content myself with a snippet of a profile: he’s listed at 6-foot-3 although he looks shorter to me with a negative .5” wingspan per 2019 Nike Hoop Summit. While possessing what appear to be Chase Budinger hops (can elevate with a runway, but also goateed white basket-athlete), he’s not going to sky over bigger players for rebounds or roast defenders with quickness. His physical and athletic profiles have not proven a hindrance to his ability to produce at the high school, AAU, or college levels. Through a brief nine-game sample, he’s scoring 15-points on 52-43-78 shooting splits while flirting with a 3:1 assist:turnover ratio in just 29 minutes/game. He drives a high impact on offense by dictating game flow as a multi-threat player with optimal decision-making ability. He can score off quick-release pull-up jumpers from well-beyond the college three-line, attack defenders either direction with a low, tight handle, has a mature runner off one-foot that appears to be master class already (CLIP), and can pass with the type of improvisational imaginative functionality that expresses the poetry of basketball (CLIP). He is exquisite, technically functional without being robotic. Defensively, his impact is significantly lower, but he is a plus as a team defender, able to recognize rotations and anticipate ball movement and positioning. In a game against Wake Forest on December 1st, I saw what appear to be vestiges of a John Stockton/Kyle Lowry-styled defensive nastiness that borders on dirty when Mannion was switched onto a big and instead of passively accepting his fate as barbeque chicken, he pushed, kneed, and thighed his way into better position. He is, and continues to be, a joy to behold.

  1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC, trending up: Very little to add since what I wrote a week ago. I’d still have him behind Wiseman, but like Bone Thugs in 199-whatever, he’s creepin on ah come up.
  2. Josh Green, Arizona, no change: Like Mannion, the 6-6 with 6’10”+ wingspan Green deserves his own piece. I’ve been high on him for a couple of years so I’m not surprised to still be high on him, but rather to be high on him for his role which, as is so often the case, makes perfect sense in the hindsight of present reality. Against Wake, Green didn’t score his first bucket until a few minutes into the second half and yet was arguably one of AZ’s most impactful players through rebounding, offensive facilitation, two-way effort, and individual and team defense. Watching him grab-and-go off the defensive glass, seeing his quick hands create problems for Wake players, and his plus-instincts as a passer (in both full and half court), I suddenly believed he could be an Andre Iguodala-type super role-player. This isn’t to say he’s the second coming of Iguodala, so please put away your tar and feathers. Rather, the similarities I see are elite athleticism (positional strength, vertical and horizontal explosiveness, and quick reactions) coupled with plus-IQ and effort, and facilitator instincts. That he’s currently shooting 38% on 29 threes with 81% on 32 free throws only add to his well-roundedness.
  3. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova, no change: The 6-9, 235-pound Robinson-Earl is the son of former Kansas and LSU dunk maestro, Lester Earl and where his pops was a bundle of unrefined athleticism with two legs, two arms and whatnot, Robinson-Earl is basketball refinement manifested and requisite parts included. He projects as an NBA four with stretch-five potential (41% on 17 3s at Villanova), has excellent size, average length, and a sturdy build. For a freshman, he shows a high basketball IQ as he frequently flashes into space, plays the game at a measured, unrushed pace, quickly diagnoses and reacts to defensive assignments and rotations, and generally exhibits an ability to rapidly process the game. Even when JRE makes the occasional misread defensively (failing to drop on a pick-and-roll cover or getting beaten on an overplay denial), he recognizes the mistake and it’s easy to understand what he was going for. He has plus-footwork inside, knows how to use his wide body as a screener/box out man, and consistently runs the floor hard. He doesn’t strike me as ever reaching All-NBA levels, but his high-floor game replete with effort, intelligence, and fundamentals, should translate well to the NBA. Reminds me a bit of David West but without the wingspan or reputation.
  4. Scottie Lewis, Florida, trending up: Lewis is a 6-5 defensive menace with a wingspan sniffing 7-feet. He’s older for a freshman, turning 20 in March, but he’s just a damn dog on the defensive side of the ball where he channels a best-in -class intensity into constant harassment and impact. Through eight games, he’s averaging 4.4 stocks/game, many of which are the highlight variety. I see shades of Matisse Thybulle in his dropdown blocks: the DNA of a hunter stalking in silence and pouncing (CLIP). The way he moves his hips, mirrors opponent movements, crouches and slides call to mind a defensive back – but at 6-5 and with a huge vertical. His defense is what will get him to the NBA. His offense? He’s shooting 74% from the line with a 46% FTr and with his speed and stride length can be effective as a straight-line driver. Beyond those two attributes, he’s been limited at Florida. He can make the right read and pass, but isn’t expected and probably not capable of doing much more at present. From October of 2018, Draft Express had him as a 33% career three-point shooter, but he’s just 4-17 (23%) at Florida. In my viewing, his threes have primarily been catch-and-shoot. The shooting mechanics don’t appear to be broken, but one gets the sense that the same intensity that makes him so dangerous defensively has an adverse impact on his offense and shot.
  5. Zeke Nnaji, Arizona, no change: listed at 6-11, 240-pounds, Nnaji somehow plays bigger than his size. On the interior, he establishes position with a deep, wide, almost crustacean or arachnid-like base. He’s proficient around the basket, shooting nearly 80% at the rim per Barttorvik and tied with Obi Toppin for the most close twos made, but equally impressive has been an uber-confident and decisive mid-range game which extends to the elbows. Outside the rim, he’s shooting 68% on 28 attempts. With a 79% rate on over five free throws/game, he shows some potential as a floor spacer although it’s not being utilized beyond the mid-range at all. Plays with intensity and focus on both ends, covers lot of ground with long strides and in defensive slides. Arizona frequently uses him to help trap ball handlers on the perimeter and he’s shown ability to be a disruptive there while also capable of recovering to his own man. While not statistically foul prone (four fouls/40), he’s gotten in foul trouble in multiple games I’ve seen. He has upside and probably projects better as a team defender than a rim protector (1.5 blocks/40) which, unless he can extend his range, limits his overall potential impact.
  6. Saddiq Bey, Villanova, trending up: The 6-8 Bey is a 21-year-old sophomore shooting 54-47-78 through the first quarter of the season. His three-ball, in my viewing, has been primarily off catch-and-shoots. He’s a bit of a do-everything power wing who can handle with both hands, create for himself or others off the bounce, defend multiple positions, and overall contribute positively to winning basketball. While his minutes are largely unchanged from his freshman season, his usage has leapt up from 14.4% to 22.2%, a change that’s been accompanied by 57 to 65 jump in true shooting, nearly doubling his assist rate (from 8.6% to 15.3%) and a flat turnover rate (up 0.3%). He’s functionally strong, able to use his frame to create space on the glass or, as he is apt to do, back down opponents, draw in help, and kick to the open man like he does in the clip below though his shoulder fake to shift the defense away from the corner man is some next level shit. Like his teammate, Robinson-Earl, Bey processes the game quickly and is decisive in attack. For me, it’s easy to get lulled into the idea that Villanova players project as role players who contribute to winning in the pros. That may be Bey’s destiny, but depending on where his output and impact plateau, he could exceed that already-lofty designation.
  7. Vernon Carey Jr. Duke, no change: Carey is a super-sized, offensively skilled lefty big who’s listed at 6-10, 270-pounds. For a while, he was the top player in the 2019 high school class, before his defensive foibles (typically effort-based) ultimately caught up with him. Carey’s per-40 numbers are as impressive as they were predictable: 31-points and 15 rebounds with 4 blocks and 13 free throw attempts. There was never any doubt Carey, with his massive size, power, and skill, would struggle to deliver in college. In terms of scoring, he can do pretty much anything you’d ask of your collegiate big: go to either shoulder with his back to the basket (CLIP), finish with power or touch, shrug off contact like a hippo flicking away a Spud Webb, bulldoze the offensive glass, turn and face. He doesn’t have Kevin McHale’s footwork or post moves, but he has an effective and versatile arsenal. He has touch, but it’s struggling to carry over at the free throw line where he’s just below 60%. And despite over two blocks/game, defensively is where he struggles to maintain focus and where his few athletic shortcomings are evident. He lacks high-level bounce and is not particularly long which limits his rim protection ability. He has, and has had, the terrible habit of taking entire defensive possessions off, standing stiff-legged, and unfocused. This was hideously evident against Georgetown as he was soundly beaten off the dribble by basketball-player-in-training, Qudus Wahab. This type of play was the norm and not the exception during his high school days and if he’s unable to correct it, his NBA path could follow that of fellow Duke big man, Jahlil Okafor. My last note/thought on Carey is that I believe he has some potential as a shooter. He’s just 4-5 from three this season, but his mechanics are sound and he’s exhibited touch from other areas of the floor. He can produce, but it remains unclear how much he can help a team win.
  8. Isaiah Mobley, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
  9. Keyontae Johnson, Florida, no change: 6-5, 225 pounds with the neck of Marcus Smart or the neck of a boxer, your choice. Johnson isn’t the glass eating defender Smart is, but he goes hard and is a significantly superior vertical athlete (CLIP). As a flawed human myself, I think it makes sense to fall in love with flawed basketball players and maybe love is too strong a feeling to ascribe, but I do enjoy Keyontae. His greatest attributes are his strength, build, and athleticism; all of which are good enough at present to carry over to the NBA. On the skill side, things are a little less clear. He’s shooting 38% from deep on 79 career 3pas, is up to 71% from the line compared to 64% last year, and is just a hair under 63 TS. He has a one-dribble pull-up which he can hit at a decent clip and consistent, steady form on catch-and-shoot threes. On the inside, he has a little right-handed flip shot he’ll use with good touch. Where he gets in trouble offensively is his decision making. As a passer, he makes both bad reads and bad passes with the poor habit of trying to force the ball into post situations that aren’t available. His handle isn’t bad, but he occasionally tries to do much with it. Defensively, he’s not a great stocks guy (1.3/40) which seems to be based on average-to-slower-than-average reaction speed. He’s shown an awareness of how to use his size to gain advantage on offense, but I haven’t seen him consistently wall/chest up defensively. The NBA seems to be placing a higher emphasis on strength and mass and Johnson has all the natural tools coupled with adequate skill on which to build and ideally find a rotation/specialist role in the league.
  10. Colbey Ross, Pepperdine, trending up: At 6-1, 180, Ross isn’t much to look at, but against USC a few weeks back, he was a diminutive juggernaut, a small man lacking muscular definition attacking USC from all angles: changing directions, changing speeds, sweating confidence, crying competitiveness: busting asses. It so happens that I tuned in primarily to see his teammate Kessler Edwards, but it also happened that Edwards was relegated to wallflower status while Ross made mincemeat of USC’s guard rotation to finish with 38 on 13-20 shooting with an array of long bombs and cutting penetrations. He carries a gaudy workload on a not-so-great team and it shows in a 20% turnover rate alongside a usage rate just under 30%. I don’t believe he projects as a starting point in the NBA given his slighter stature, but given his shooting (42-40-92 on the season, 40% on 318 career 3pas), playmaking and competitiveness, it’s not hard to see him as a 2-way or UDFA guy who figures out how to assimilate his game into value for an NBA team.
  11. Wendell Moore Jr. Duke, no change: Moore is a strong, broad-shouldered 6-6 freshman wing for Duke who fancies himself a playmaker of sorts. This fancying may well be true, but it hasn’t translated with any sense of efficiency in his nine games at Duke where he’s shooting 42-33-63 and averaging 5 turnovers/40min. But for all the broken eggs Moore produces, the occasional delights show themselves as glimpses of an idealized, stabilized, maximized future. With his powerful build and burst, he’s great at getting past defenders with his shoulders low and capable of finishing on his own or with the drive-and-kick. He’s a bear in transition with plus-body control and speed. As a passer, he’s shown more vision than the ability to actually execute the pass. Too, there’s an improvisational element to his game (CLIP) that is largely unteachable. While these moments are outweighed by the larger story of his inefficient stats, they still exist as a notion of possibility and sometimes in this world of cloudy days, possibility is all we need (That would not be a good draft strategy.).
  12. Matthew Hurt, Duke, trending down: I kind of feel like going to Duke or Kentucky as a highly-touted recruit is like being Chris Bosh going to the Heat with Bron and Wade – but without the financial security or mental/emotional maturity. Last year we saw Cam Reddish struggle to integrate with better players and this year Hurt seems to be navigating a similarly bumpy transition. Statistically (10-points on 45-42-86 shooting), he’s around what you’d expect, but visually, he’s looked unimpressive for stretches. He bottomed out in the Georgetown game when he played just five minutes and struggled mightily on the defensive end with slow feet and an inability to sit low in his stance; guarding in space was always going a concern and, at times, it has shown itself as a weakness. In high school, Hurt excelled in and around the paint; he welcomed contact and used balance rather than power to navigate it, mixed in fakes, finished with either hand over either shoulder, and was efficient around the rim without being explosive. Per barttorvik, he’s shooting just below 54% at the rim. I’ve seen enough of Hurt to trust his skill-level, but trusting his ability to ratchet up the skill and adapt to a longer, more athletic opponent set while maintaining his confidence in a system where he’s getting less touches is something I’m less comfortable in. For what it’s worth, in three games since the G-Town debacle, he’s averaging 15-points on 51-50-80 shooting.
  13. Tre Mann, Florida, trending down: I loved Mann coming out of high school as an initiating off-guard with oodles of skill as a ball handler and shooter. What I overlooked was his lithe physical profile. At 6-4, 180 (Where are these pounds? I cannot see them.), Mann is close to scrawny. Guys wear weight different and his doesn’t appear to translate into much mass. It’s worth noting that we’re looking at a tiny sample already and that sample was interrupted by a few-game absence due to a concussion, but Mann’s best skills are shooting and scoring and he’s currently sitting on dismally abysmal 32-21-44 shooting splits. He appears to be adjusting to the speed and physicality of older, stronger, faster players, but I posit some of this is pure confidence and comfort. At moments, he’s been able to create his own looks off the bounce, but the frequency is such that it’s difficult to establish rhythm and confidence. One could make the case that Mann’s assessment should be N/A, but the physicals and the shooting, even in isolation, are enough for me to cock an eyebrow in concern. To be clear, I am not jumping ship on the young man, but patiently waiting for an injection of that insane Scottie Lewis confidence into Mann’s skinny arms and shooting fingers.
  14. Cassius Stanley, Duke, trending up: 20-year-old Duke freshman is better than I expected. Stanley has a compact, muscled 6-6, 193-pound frame topped with a small head and resting on thick legs. In high school, I saw him as this oldish (for his class) athlete dominating kids and falling in love with pull-up jumpers. There were flashes of playmaking and passing, but his reputation was that of a dunker. As I look back through my notes, there are hints of the player he’s been at Duke: scrappy, intense, active defensively. He’s likely out until January with a hamstring injury, but in his first eight college games, he’s shooting 47% from three, averaging 2.6 stocks, and getting two offensive boards/game. If Hurt has struggled somewhat to find a happy home on the court in Durham, Stanley has kicked in the door and announced his presence (CLIP) with an edge this particular Duke team needs. In terms of prospect, being 20 as a freshman lowers the ceiling somewhat, but with his physical tools and temperament, and if his shooting is anywhere near real, then he projects out as a rotational two in the league.
  15. Reggie Perry, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-9 or 6-10 big with plus-length and athleticism, broad shoulders and high motor. Good in pursuit of ball off glass. Shooting it well this season (7-18 from 3 for 39%, 79% at the rim) and showing touch around basket. More opportunities to show passing chops as key initiator and handler for Mississippi State and surprisingly thriving there (25% ast rate). Still waiting to see if the shooting is real; 54% from line isn’t reassuring. And while showing signs defensively, would like to see bit more impact on that end. Great signs of development at FIBA U19s this past summer. Have seen some shades of Kevon Looney in his game (not counting the handling/playmaking), but that could also be because they share similar builds.
  16. Jason Preston, Ohio, trending up: super small sample of this 6-4 Ohio point guard. Has +size for position, good pop on his passes, decisive with ball and crisp, accurate passing off live dribble (CLIP). Can handle with both hands, but maybe partial to right hand and not completely sold on handle in traffic. Crafty with look-aways and hesitations; makes up for less-than-elite quickness/burst. Probably carrying too heavy a load at 37 minutes/game, nearly nine assists, and over four turnovers. 51-33-79 shooting splits, 58 TS, no dunks thru nine games.
  17. Tre Jones, Duke, no change: The sturdy-bodied point has made some marked improvements from his freshman year. He’s improved his deep ball accuracy and volume: from 26% on three 3pas/game to 34% on four attempts. He’s still below average, but alongside a nearly 80% from the line, it shows growth and progress which old Lev Tolstoy would appreciate. Without the ball dominant RJ Barrett and uber-prospect Zion, Jones’s usage is up from 15% to nearly 24% and his FTr has spiked from a paltry 19% to 43% — possibly the biggest improvement in his game. With the increased usage, he’s more than doubled his turnovers, but still has a 2:1 assist:turnover rate. Seeing Jones this year, his most impressive attribute has been his passing. With increased opportunity has come better passes thrown with greater frequency. This makes me wonder how much better Duke could’ve been a year ago with the ball in Jones’s hands more than RJ’s. Is he just a younger version of his brother or is he willing to take the risks and push boundaries to exceed his brother’s metronomic reliability at the risk of soft failure? Nothing is permanent except death, I suppose.
  18. Naji Marshall, Xavier, no change: I initially had Marshall (6-7, 222, turns 22 in January) 13th, but given his age and lack of 3-point shooting (23% this season, 28% on 259 career 3pas), I had to drop him down. What he is/does: at 6-7, extremely crafty and decisive player, ball doesn’t stick in his hands, he catches and acts, ton of shiftiness, good size and length translates as strength to offense and defense, has touch on runner, attacks with both hands, mixes in lot of fakes, good, not great athlete with excellent body control and lateral mobility. What he isn’t/does do: shoot it well from deep; form and mechanics need lot of work, despite being strong initiator, his decision making (particularly on pull-up threes) sometimes leaves you asking questions. Like a lot of players, shooting is his swing skill. (Should be lower than #19 on this list.)

SPEED ROUND:

  1. Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State, trending up: Sophomore power wing with significantly improved shooting, less-than-desirable FTr, and lots of violent dunks.
  2. Cole Swider, Villanova, trending up: 6-9 sophomore shooter who appears to have a thick build though also wears a t-shirt under his jersey which makes it difficult to assess. Uses perceived bulk well defensively. Shooting splits: 57-49-100, 11-13 at the rim, zero dunks. 74 TS.
  3. Paul Scruggs, Xavier, no change: fun, creative, improvisational player who kind of reminds me of Detroit’s Bruce Brown. Low likelihood, but if he carves out an NBA role in his mid-20s, I wouldn’t be surprised.
  4. Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine, trending down: funny looking release on his jumper, but shooting 19-37 on the season (51%) after 37% as a freshman. Was miserable in game I saw him against USC: zero points on 0-7 shooting, zero free throw attempts, 32 minutes. An aberration, no doubt.
  5. Andrew Nembhard, Florida, trending down: one of best passers in college hoop as a 6-5 point, but bad shooting is somehow getting worse: 46 TS, 6-17 at the rim (35%) per barttorvik with some just awful missed layups.
  6. Jermaine Samuels, Villanova, no change: does it all except shoot well for Villanova as a versatile combo forward. Strong awareness and passing.
  7. Ethan Anderson, USC, no change: nothing to add from last week.
  8. Iverson Molinar, Mississippi State, trending up: 6-4 off guard, just found out he’s a 20-year-old freshman and that changes things. Solid college guard with potential to score at all three levels.
  9. Josh LeBlanc, formerly Georgetown, trending down: currently in transfer portal; facing legal issues, had seen significant decline in output as a sophomore.
  10. Jemarl Baker, Arizona, trending up: 6-4 reserve point with 26 assists to three turnovers and shooting 14-28 from three. Pushes it with pace, but control, luxury piece as a backup point. Shooting 36% on twos. Shoulder/neck length seems longer than normal.
  11. Tyson Carter, Mississippi State, trending up: Slender volume shooter (37% on seven 3pas); capable handler out of p&r, shoots off catch or bounce.
  12. Justin Moore, Villanova, no change: freshman shooter with decent build and BBIQ: very on-brand Villanova player.
  13. Kerry Blackshear, Florida, trending down: maybe it’s the knee braces, but mobility seems limited. Smart player liked more by GBPM than me.
  14. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending down: nothing to add from last week.
  15. Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown, no change: wears a lot of accessories, 26 points and 15 rebounds per-40.
  16. Jamorko Pickett, Georgetown, no change: caught my attention with his length and defense against Duke.
  17. Omar Payne, Florida, trending up
  18. Qudus Wahab, Georgetown, trending up
  19. Douglas Wilson, South Dakota State, trending up: Des Moines, Iowa product from my alma mater. Highly aggressive in attack, likely averages a double double in 1970s NBA.
  20. Matt Coleman, Texas, no change: small (6-2 listing seems generous) shooter, 16-32 from three, 20-24 from line, better than 2:1 ast:TO.
  21. Mark Vital, Baylor, trending up: 4.4 stocks/40 for 6-5, 230-pound four man. Burly player who can jump out of the gym, but can’t really shoot for shit: 42-14-54 shooting splits.
  22. Mac McClung, Georgetown, no change
  23. Elijah Weaver, USC, no change
  24. Noah Locke, Florida, trending down
  25. Jericho Sims, Texas, trending down
  26. James Akinjo, formerly Georgetown, trending down

 

Players I noted, but didn’t see enough of to have strong opinions on: Max Agbonpolo, Devonaire Doutrive, Kai Jones, Gerald Liddell, Brandon Slater.

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.

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