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July 16, 2018Posted by on
There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.
Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.
This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:
- #1 overall pick: DeAndre Ayton
- #2 overall pick: Marvin Bagley III (aka Bagels, aka I’m not convinced he should be on this list)
- #4 overall pick: Jaren Jackson Jr (aka JJJ)
- #6 overall pick: Mo Bamba
- #7 overall pick: Wendell Carter Jr
- #36 overall pick: Mitchell Robinson
We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.
It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.
The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.
After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.
I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.
(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)
The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.
Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”
Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.
Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])
Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.
Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.
2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.
Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame:
June 12, 2017Posted by on
This is the third post in our 2017 NBA draft coverage. The previous two posts can be found here: Big Board, Players 1-5 deep dive. While there continues to be some consensus here (we’re all skeptical, but also kind of optimistic on Dennis Smith as we see his middle ground as Eric Bledsoe; which is pretty damn good), our comparisons for Jonathan Isaac against NBA players runs an intriguingly wide range. As always, special thanks to my fellow writers/scouts (Bug, Hamilton) and our super talented artist (Maahs).
Hamilton: De’Aaron Fox emerged as high lottery pick during a solid freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 16.7 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists. His head-to-head dominance of consensus top-two prospect Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 propelled him to 2nd tier of the 2017 draft.
Fox has been compared to John Wall for his speed, and it’s possible he’s faster. He changes direction effortlessly without slowing down. While this is a tremendous asset, it can also be a problem. He has a tendency to get sped up in transition and half-court drives, ending up in no-man’s-land without a good shot, or a pass that sets up a shot for a teammate.
Many of Fox’s dimes come from relatively simple drop-off passes and dishes once he has gotten by his own man. His vision isn’t doesn’t appear to be on the level of other top PGs in this class. Playmaking PGs keep a probing dribble alive and change pace while doing so. I would like to see him change pace more than he does both in transition and in the half-court; against NBA level athletes, this is a must. Another problem for Fox as a PG in the NBA will be his well-documented poor shooting. It’s one thing to have a visually unappealing jumper if it goes in. That’s not the case here. Fox’s jump shot is broke and not always for the same reason. As Draft Express notes, sometimes he shoots on the way down, sometimes on the way up. He relies too much on upper body in his shot. Sometimes he floats to his left, sometimes his balance is pretty good. The angle of his elbow is always too narrow, which makes his release more of sling, or flick, than a jump shot. The good news is he’s well-aware of this fact and answered virtually every question in his DX interview in Los Angeles talking about improving his shooting. As it stands, his unreliable shot means defenders can go under on screens and his speed is somewhat nullified at the NBA level.
He also didn’t show much of a right hand at Kentucky and that’s another point of emphasis in his development. For me these factors call his position into question. I can see him developing into a slashing score-first combo guard. Defensively, he should have the ability to guard 1s and smaller 2s. If he can put on weight without compromising his speed, it could translate nicely on the defensive end of the floor for him. He’s not as polished as Markelle Fultz or Ball at this moment but his ceiling is high, and he gets great marks for his work ethic, intelligence, and character. Those things matter. When weaknesses are clear and fixable, a hard-working smart player can overcome. De’Aaron Fox may end up being a top-three player from this draft class, but what the finished product looks like is definitely to be determined.
Fenrich: Jonathan Isaac of Naples, Florida, late of Tallahassee, has a bit of that Anthony Davis thing going on where he played ball in high school as a combo forward before hitting a growth spurt and jumping up to his present height, 6’11”. Like Davis, there’s a natural fluidity in his athleticism. He doesn’t move like a lot of guys near seven feet tall though it seems like young people like Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, are becoming bigger and more athletic. Evolution indeed. When I look at Isaac’s tape though, I don’t see the same transcendent skill so prevalent in those other players I listed (to be fair, I didn’t see it in Towns either). That’s not really a knock on a player though.
Isaac moves great, he has unteachable length, appears comfortable without being the center of attention, has lateral mobility and quickness, can guard multiple positions. In short, he has a combination of physical ability and basketball skills that are ideal for today’s NBA where the ability to guard multiple positions and hit from deep are coveted. That latter piece is my curiosity with Isaac. In his one season at Florida State, Isaac took nearly three threes-per-game and hit close to 35% of them. For a guy who took just eight shots each night, to have nearly 40% of them come from deep is a curious stat.
That said, his three-ball and perimeter game come naturally. He has a nice jab step, but if he’s not an outside threat at the NBA level, I’m not confident how effective it will be. Speaking of using range to set up the driving attack, a favorite method of attack for the more developed bigs in the league, Isaac’s handle isn’t anywhere it needs to be to put the ball on the floor at the pro level. At its current level, I envision his pocket being picked or him being stripped by stronger, quicker defenders than what he’s accustomed to.
Concerns around his handle and how his jump shot translate aside, Isaac has the look of a natural pro defender. This is somewhat contingent on him getting stronger, but the length and agility coupled with the willingness to defend are a great foundation to build on. And I can’t imagine teams are looking at him expecting to be a number one or even number two option. That said, the NBA has a bad habit of miscasting players out of necessity. Just because Isaac can make the three and can occasionally put the ball on the floor doesn’t mean that’s what he should be doing. With any luck, he’ll land with a team patient enough to build on his copious defensive strengths and allow him to develop as a competent, but supporting offensive player.
Fenrich: Mark Medina of the OC Register wrote recently that Dennis Smith “had a 48-inch vertical.” The highest vertical in Draft Express’s deep database on NBA-prospect measurements is 46” from viral dunkster, D.J. Stephens. I’m not saying Medina got bad info or that someone is embellishing here, but the iota of possibility that Smith could possibly have a 48” vertical speaks to mind-numbing athleticism and explosiveness.
When I watched Smith’s tape from NC State, my first thoughts were “Baron Davis” and that he plays basketball like a football player. At 6’3”, 195lbs, Smith is built like a brick shithouse and attacks the rim like he’s relishing the contact. (As an aside, where I keep seeing Davis, it seems everyone else sees Steve Francis. I think it’s the thicker-looking build that makes me think Davis, but hey, Davis, Francis, whatever, he’s dunking on someone.) It’s one thing to see an explosive athlete dominate skinny college-level big men. It’s another thing to envision him careening into Draymond Green or Kristaps Porzingis or even Robin Lopez for the violent dunk smash.
Smith showed a serviceable jumper in the NCAA where he shot close to 36% on nearly two makes-per-game. That’s a good volume, but I’m lacking a bit of confidence in the shot. He can get the pull up jumper when he wants, but his balance often looks off. On the three, he doesn’t always hold his follow-through.
Similar to being a decent three-point shooter, but failing to instill confidence, Smith averaged over six assists as a freshman; a quality number, but watching his tape, there’s a glut of bad decisions made. It’s not just turnovers (he averaged nearly 3.5), but the shot selection and the seeming obliviousness of when to shoot or make a play. Smith was far too comfortable pulling up early in possessions when better options were available. Draft Express has what almost amounts to a blooper reel of Smith making the kind of decisions that drive coaches crazy (or get them fired).
Probably most disconcertingly, there are numerous questions around his character and leadership. There’s a consistent lack of effort on defense, boneheaded decisions on offense, straight up looking off teammates trying to set screens, and body language that often communicates disinterest. Some of these intangibles can maybe be attributed to his environment. Like Ben Simmons last season, NC State’s program was far from stable. They fired their coach in-season and struggled throughout the year. While Fultz was in a similar losing situation at the University of Washington (their coach was fired after the season), it was stable in that the coach had been in place for several years and, despite a series of one-and-done players, a culture had been established. This is a bit of a cop out for Smith, but still worth pointing out.
Despite all the concerns, I’m bullish on Smith. I acknowledge there’s a level of risk that goes with drafting him and believe he needs to land somewhere where veteran teammates or coaches can hold him accountable. In the top-ten picks of the draft, that’s not always an option. There’s a reason teams end up in the lottery. I don’t know if it’s better to have all the athleticism in the world and struggle with the mental aspects of the game, or, like his fellow draft class peer, Fox, have excellent athleticism with a great head on your shoulders. And even though I ranked Smith higher because the upside is so massive, as I write this, I can’t help but think that a good player with great character may be the better route.
Fenrich: I get the urge to see in Markkanen, a seven-foot, sweet jump shooting giant from the Nordics, a younger, modern version of German great, Dirk Nowitzki, but I don’t see it. I never scouted Dirk, never saw any tape of him back in the summer of 1998. So I went ahead and found this clip of Dirk going against America’s finest teens at the Nike Hoop Summit of ’98. And there are a few things that pop:
- The announcers were comparing Dirk to Detlef Schrempf
- Watching Dirk back then, you can see the badass, but aside from say, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, I can’t think of many guys you’d scout as an amateur and say, “He’s going to be a top-10 all-time scorer, MVP, and NBA champion.” As good as Dirk was in this clip, I don’t think anyone expected him to be the guy he’s become.
- Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk
But Markkanen is a lot of other things. He’s a big kid with a basketball pedigree. His dad player for Kansas and the Finnish national team. His mom was also a national team player. He’s a legit seven-footer with a big, broad-shouldered frame that occasionally looks even bigger because he wore big t-shirts under his jersey at Arizona. In his single season in Tucson, he shot 42% from three on over four attempts-per-game. His range extends out to the NBA level and he appears to have a strong base. He does have a little hitch when he catches on spot up threes where he’ll catch and bring the ball down before elevating into his rhythm. It’s a small thing and he’s such a great shooter that I doubt it matters but when thinking about a vastly more difficult level of competition, these split seconds matter.
What the three ball opens up is the dribble drive as NBA bigs are often challenged to close out on shooters with a hand up and still defend the dribble drive. Not convinced he’ll be able to put it on the floor at first, but it should be something he develops.Sticking with the dribble drive, it was difficult to discern his ability to pass off the drive. Can he develop to the point where he can put it on the floor against a closeout defender, make a move, see the help and then find the open man? This is the type of skill level that takes a player from Channing Frye rotation-guy to Ryan Anderson-starter or better.
The big differentiator with Anderson though, is that Markkanen is a legit seven-footer while Anderson is around 6’10”. Neither player has great length, but based on those broad shoulders and average athleticism, Markkanen has the potential to be a load around the basket though that appears to be unlikely given his current stylistic approach.
Defensively, I’m not expecting much. To borrow from Jeff Van Gundy, so much of a defense is about effort. Is he willing to put in the hard work and effort to try on the defensive end or is he content to shoot seven threes each night? From the materials I’ve seen, there’s no indication he won’t put the work in, but it’s difficult to project at this point.
What’s most intriguing about Markkanen is that he’s likely the best shooter in this entire draft class. Being seven-feet and having that type of stroke automatically lifts the floor to Channing Frye-type levels. Even with the league evolving in terms of its size/skill versatility, Markkenen has the potential to be among the best shooting big men in the league. And that designation, “best shooting big man,” can mean anything from Channing Frye to Dirk Nowitzki – even though he won’t be Dirk.
Bug: If you’ve never watched Zach Collins play, you might look at the stats and wonder why he’s a projected lottery pick. Ten points, six rebounds, and only 17 minutes-per-game…what’s the fuss about?
Luckily for those of us that can’t keep our eyes open for those late night west coast games, we got a good look at Zach Collins in the NCAA Tournament. He had stretches during in March where he was the best player on the floor, with potential oozing from every orifice.
The correlation between what you see on the court and his stats don’t quite match up though. Why does such a skilled player only play 17 minutes-per-game, and only average ten points and six rebounds? We could blame it on the high foul rate that kept him off the floor, or we could claim that his youthful status on a veteran team held his minutes back. Either way you slice it, there is a mystique about Collins. Everything you see from him just screams “can’t miss prospect,” but the elephant in the room will always be “why did he play so little?”
Based on what I’ve seen from the tournament, and various clips, he has immense potential. He hits the three at a 47% clip, blocks four shots-per-game/per-40 minutes. The inside/outside game brings Pau Gasol to mind. He can bang down in the post, but also take it outside and knock down open jumpers. He compliments the offensive game with more-than-sufficient rim protection. When put in situations where he is required to guard smaller players, Collins shows the lateral movement to not be a liability in pick-and-rolls with good lateral movement for a seven-footer.
Using the term “leap of faith” could be applied to most prospects, but that phrase is the slogan for Collins. I see him play and get excited, but the 17 minutes of playing time is always the footnote. Can he extrapolate his impressive stats over a full game, or did he see limited minutes for a reason? We’ll find out soon enough, but based on what I see on film, it is worth the gamble to make Collins a lottery pick.