Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: NBA Draft

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.

Scouting Dump: Week of November 11th

The below ranking is made up of players exclusively scouted from 11/12/19 thru 11/16/19. All rankings are fluid. Some I changed while writing and didn’t want to rework everything. I will no doubt be filled with regret and seek to course correct as the season goes on. Zero flags have been planted in the writing below though perhaps in some cases, land is being probed for potential flagpoles.

Games reviewed:

  • 11/12/19: Memphis at Oregon (in Portland)
  • 11/14/19: Michigan State at Seton Hall
  • 11/15/19: West Virginia at Pittsburgh
  • 11/15/19: Gonzaga at Texas A&M
  • 11/16/19: USC at Nevada

 

  1. James Wiseman, Memphis:

Stock change: no change

To be honest, USC’s 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman center Onyeka Okongwu has probably passed Wiseman, what with his overwhelming 21 free throws attempted against Pepperdine on November 19th, but I’m leaving Wiseman ahead for now. It’s probably less out of stubbornness on my part and more out of familiarity. The best I’ve seen of Wiseman shows me an emphatic, intimidating giant of a young man who swats shots with the vigor of Mitchell Robinson and snatches boards with the aplomb of Dikembe Mutombo. These skills have a higher likelihood of translating to the NBA, the only problem is that they happen in spurts and that was no different in a loss to Oregon on November 12th. Wiseman spent the first half in foul trouble, then picked up zero fouls in the second half on his way to 14 points and 12 rebounds (four offensive) and only one or two truly head scratching jumpers. We also got to see him switched on the perimeter: first against combo guard Will Richardson and then against point guard Payton Pritchard. Wiseman struggled to stay in front of Richardson and gave Pritchard too much space. It’s a tiny sample size, but both in terms of mobility and technique, there’s a lot for him to work on.

  1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC:

Stock change: rising

This is probably unfair since I watched Okongwu kick the ever-living crap out of Pepperdine a night ago, but Big O, Double O, Onyeka, or whatever the hell you want to call him is a bully. I mean that in the most positive way possible. In basketball competition, he’s an explosive brute who’s built kind of like J.J. Hickson and kind of reminds me of Hickson as well. Okongwu’s dunks have a bullish ferocity to them, but his athletic exploits aren’t limited to dunk shots. Rather, he puts it to work on the defensive end where he’s good as a rim protector and help defender and is at least showing good instincts and execution sliding his feet in help situations. On the glass, he highpoints the ball with strength and precision. He’s shown hints of having a mid-range jumper though he needs to wind up and has a slower release. He shot threes in the AAU circuit, but it doesn’t appear to be part of his USC arsenal yet. I look forward to see him go against NBA caliber bigs at some point.

  1. Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia:

Stock change: rising

Tshiebwe is a walking, breathing brick wall. He’s got around 15 pounds on Okongwu, but looks quite a bit thicker and strong which is saying something. There are a few quick things to get out of the way with Oscar: He plays in Bobby Huggins’s hyper-intense defensive scheme and is averaging over six fouls-per-40 minutes. This player/coach fit is ideal in that Tshiebwe has a motor that doesn’t quit and a coach like Huggins can deploy him like a modern-day Danny Fortson, but the flip is that he’ll wind up in foul trouble and deliver uneven performances. I was lucky enough to catch Oscar’s best game (of three played to-date) against Pitt and it’s true: Oscar is a physical marvel who sucks rebounds up like a giant human vacuum inhaling all in his orbit. His hands and fingers appear to have built-in stickum and vice grip-like strength. This is what we knew coming in, but against Pitt what impressed me were the smaller, more nuanced parts of his game. Pitt threw a zone at the sizable WVU front line and the result was an oscillating triangle of Mountaineers rotating through the post and flashing high into the lane. From this middle spot, Tshiebwe had opportunities to show some passing chops, decisiveness and awareness while also incorporating a show-and-go move that the defender unwisely bit. On another possession, he worked and reworked, using his feet instead of his bulk, to get into ideal position with an inside seal and then mix in a change of direction to free himself up for an easy finish. The physical makeup and effort will get him to the league. The nuance and skill development will allow him to excel there.

  1. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Oh hey, another 6-9, 240-some-odd pound big man. What Tillman, a junior, lacks in terms of Onyeka’s and Oscar’s athleticism, he makes up for with far superior passing and basketball IQ. Tillman can attack a closeout, make plays out of the short roll, and his offensive awareness allows him to react quicker than the defense, swinging the ball to open shooters or picking up hockey assists. His perimeter shot, from mid-range and three, looks fine, but he has a slower release hasn’t shot it too well this season. Given his mechanics, I imagine he’ll be able to develop into a serviceable standstill shooter. Defensively, he’s shown himself to be an excellent team defender, able to help and recover while utilizing his bulk and length to harass attackers. Against Seton Hall’s massive front line (7-2 Romaro Gill, 7-2 Ike Obiagu, 6-10 Sandro Mamukelashvili), he struggled at times on the offensive end which, for a player who doesn’t have a great jumper and isn’t a high-level leaper, is something worth noting. Overall, Tillman’s skillset is significantly more advanced than the three centers above him while his physical tools and upside put a lower cap on his ceiling.

  1. Myles Powell, Seton Hall:

Stock change: rising

Best scorer in college basketball perhaps? Scores at all three levels with NBA range. Can score off bounce, off catch, off the move. Can hit all the shots, all the time. If this was a fun ranking, he’d be at the top of the list; particularly with his performance against Michigan State: 37 points on 6-14 from three and 7-9 from the line. I had Powell ranked in the 30s before he pulled out of the draft last year and like him quite a bit more than St. Johns’ Shamorie Ponds – a somewhat comparable player as a smaller scoring guard. I’ve seen comparisons to Lou Williams which are probably unfair given Williams’s long-term scoring and playmaking development. Beyond the scoring though, the Williams comparison raises another issue with Powell’s current utilization: he has his highest career usage rate with the lowest assist rate (14.5%) and assists/gm (1.8) since his freshman year. I don’t doubt Powell can generate points at the pro level, but can he do it efficiently and within the framework of a winning offense? I didn’t get a good enough read on his defense to comment here, but plan on seeing him in person in December and will relay to you my findings at that later date.

  1. Aaron Henry, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Henry is a sophomore lefty who has the requisite size at 6-6, 210-pounds, along with mobility and athleticism that projects well as an NBA wing. While watching him against Seton Hall, I learned he hates clowns. He also had a nasty ankle roll, but was thankfully able to play through it though it did appear to hamper his elevation and he sat out their next game. Henry is partial to attacking with his dominant left, but is capable of finishing with both hands. While not quite an initiator, he’s shown flashes of making good reads and passes. Defensively, he’s competent and capable with strength and awareness. Against both Seton Hall and Kentucky, I saw him get visibility frustrated – once with the refs and once with a defensive miscommunication. This is hardly a red flag and is rather standard in the NBA, but in terms of scouting, it’s usually: See something, say something. Also worth noting that Henry’s broad array of skills and size likely make him a more transferable pro than Powell although none of his skills currently rise to the level of Powell’s shooting or scoring.

  1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State:

Stock change: Rising

I look at Cassius Winston and his 43% three-point shooting on 460 career attempts, his round Bonzi Wells-ish face, and stout build and I think Kyle Lowry, Jalen Brunson. I don’t think these are accurate comparisons, but merely surface level. Though, like Lowry, Winston can impact games and fill box scores without flashing a little leg. As a four-year acolyte of Izzo and a three-year starter, Winston is college basketball’s embodiment of stability. He might have that little Clyde Drexler-like leg pump on his jumper, but what’s it really matter when he can hit threes off catch or bounce at that 43% clip? His handle is competent, if a tad loose, but again, over a 113-game stretch, he’s at a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He runs the pick-and-roll with veteran savvy, can drop the pocket pass, sees and typically makes the right pass, and is generally a highly effective college basketball player. Given the development and impact of players like Fred Vanvleet and Devonte’ Graham, I find myself wandering in a forest of uncertainty with these four-year point guards. If nothing else, the shooting seems to translate and if it does for Winston, that’s a path to an NBA role.

  1. Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga:

Stock change: Rising

I’m probably higher on Petrusev than I should be, but against A&M, and in other games, he’s just been a model of composed, refined big man play. He lacks the power and athleticism of the top-four centers on this abbreviated list, but at 6-11, he has a mature understanding of how to utilize his size. He keeps the ball high on catches and boards, has touch off the glass, and a good nose for the ball on rebounds. With his back to the basket, he reads the floor well and against A&M, had numerous plus-passes including cross court and picking out backdoor cutters. Defensively, he shows engagement, focus, and competitiveness. He may be a bit light in the pants for beefier or more athletic bigs, but between his competitiveness and length, can be serviceable on that end. Like Okongwu, I look forward to see Petrusev against higher levels of competition as the A&M bigs offered little challenge.

  1. Malik Hall, Michigan State

Stock change: Rising

I’m happy to own this as a near-term over-rank with potential for some longer-term validation. Against Seton Hall, Malik was incendiary off the bench. He shot 7-7 including 3-3 from three on what were exclusively unguarded threes. Having seen Hall in EYBL, he’s always had an Izzo-player type sheen to him with good footwork, consistent effort, above average BBIQ and athleticism, and an ability to play big. For a stretch, Izzo had him playing some center against Seton Hall’s monstrous frontline and instead of being devoured by the 7-2 Ike Obiagu, Hall was on his David & Goliath, stretching the big man out of his comfort zone and using his feet to navigate around Obiagu’s meager attempts at posting up. Hall doesn’t project as ever being a star, but he already gets the finer points of playing winning basketball and is in a program that will nurture it.

  1. Isaiah Mobley, USC

Stock change: no change

Right now, Mobley’s probably more fun than he is effective. At 6-10, 235-pounds, he has a bag of tricks filled with all types of moves that are mostly foreign to 19-year-old basketball players. There’s a European style to his play: hyper aware on offense with a bevy of craft and deception, high-level fakes and footwork that remind you that basketball is art and can be an expression of a higher plane of the mind-body meld. I see Mobley and I see shades of Naz Reid, but also Dario Saric, just loads of skill and imagination bringing glee to basketball fans young and old. On the flip side, as I watched Mobley against Nevada, I noted, “not too fond of bending his knees.” Defensively, he’s rarely in a ready position. He stands straight up and down, susceptible to being beaten by quick, decisive moves on or off the ball. Between his lack of engagement on the defensive side, average athleticism, and a body lacking strength, Mobley will have some straightforward challenges at the next level, but his skill level is so high and unique at his size that he can and should be able to survive and contribute at the pro level.

  1. Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga at Seton Hall, trending up: I’ll admit this is probably me playing to my favorites more than it is a genuine rank of prospects, but the 6-5 sophomore point guard from France has elite quickness, wiry strength, plus-length, an ability to attack with both hands, and well above average BBIQ. He can and does do a bit of everything when he’s on the court and has been impossible for me to take my eyes off at both FIBA U19’s this past summer and with Gonzaga this season. His shot needs work, but hot damn, his per-40 numbers are: 11-points, 7-assists, 13-rebounds, and over 3 steals.
  2. Anton Watson, Gonzaga, no change: Smart people whose opinions I respect (Ross Homan, Mike Gribanov, Jackson Frank) are super duper high on Watson which means in all likelihood that I’ve overlooked Watson’s shine in favor of Ayayi, Drew Timme, and Corey Kispert in Gonzaga’s games. If anything else, it gives me another area to focus my attention in future Zags games. I’d seen Watson in high school and noted an advanced skill level and consistent effort. He has a strong handle, can pass or get his own shot, and competes defensively. He plays at a mature, unrushed pace filled with nuance and timing. I’m assuming he’ll climb my rankings as I consume more Zags games.
  3. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga, up: side note: for the longest time, I thought his name was Cody. Kispert is 6-7, 220 pounds with a rock solid build. He looks like he’s in a state of perpetual sweat and, from what I’ve seen, is prone to going balls to the wall (BTTW). He’s from Edmonds, Washington (just north of Seattle) and I’d been aware of him from his high school days, but never thought much of his pro prospects until I saw him against Alabama State earlier this year when he went for 28 points on 10-13 from the field and 5-6 from 3. For his Gonzaga career, he’s shooting 37% on over 300 attempts. But I don’t think the shooting is his best skill; rather it’s his wing size, defensive versatility, athleticism combined with the shooting that make him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect.
  4. Emmitt Matthews, West Virginia, trending up: Good sized (6-7) shooter with offensive awareness, plus passer (lot of zip on passes), who needs to get stronger.
  5. Xavier Johnson, Pittsburgh, trending down: great size (6-3, 190) at point guard, strong kid with length, at his best going downhill, powerful change of direction, decent vision, form on jumper needs work: shooting 40% on 3s, 33% on 2s, 57% from the line. Sloppy at times with ball control: nearly 4 turnovers/game over 39-game career. There’s a prospect here, but he’s still learning to be the best version of himself.
  6. Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending: no change: good shooter, strong athlete, competes on both ends, would like to see more of him.
  7. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending down: 20-year-old 6-9 freshman shooting 47% from the line. Good feel passing and moving without the ball. Struggling to adapt to defending at college level, can’t just out-physical opponents like he could in high school. All the physical tools, but long way to harness it all. I’m not certain what his NBA skill or role are at present.
  8. DJ Jeffries, Memphis, trending up: At 6-7, 225-pounds, Jeffries projects as a big wing who plays bigger than his size. Against Oregon, he was up and down, but showed flashes of rim protection and the versatile offensive attack that initially attracted my attention in EYBL. He’s a good athlete with an above average handle for his age and position, he can make improvisational reads and passes off a live dribble. While just six games into his college career, it seems he’s still trying to settle into the pace of play, particularly in Memphis’s young, stacked offense. Averaging 2.7 stocks in 26 minutes/game.
  9. Lester Quinones, Memphis, trending up: 6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes. Won’t be surprised to see him put up 40 in a G-League game in two years.
  10. Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change: first time seeing Baugh, a 6-3, 185-pound combo guard. Strong, pass first guard can attack off bounce, pick out open man, run pick-and-roll, and compete defensively. Odd allergy to shooting: scoring 9 points and taking 5 shots per-40 minutes.
  11. Drew Timme, Gonzaga, trending up: fun big listed at 6-10 though he looks shorter to me. Excellent passer with great footwork and feel for game. Doesn’t shoot threes (zero attempts in five games) and very little presence protecting the rim although averaging a block-per-game. Would like to see him develop some sort of jumper.
  12. Will Richardson, Oregon, trending up: Probably one of my favorite things with young players is seeing how they develop physically from season-to-season. Richardson is a 6-5 combo guard with twiggy arms and legs as a freshman and while he’s no Tshiebwe as a sophomore, he’s filled out quite a bit and it shows in an improved ability to attack off the bounce and absorb contact. Richardson was a point guard in high school and has retained his ability as a passer with high BBIQ in addition to becoming a more confident three-point shooter. He’s only taken eight threes in five games this season, but is 5-8 in addition to shooting 11-13 (85%) from the line compared to 67% a year ago. He just looks more confident. His craft and IQ help to compensate for average athleticism. He’s almost like a smaller, less hypnotic version of Kyle Anderson.
  13. Payton Pritchard, Oregon, maybe trending up: Pritchard’s a four-year starter at Oregon, a career 36% three-point shooter and 78% free throw shooter who’s shooting career worsts in both, but a career-high 63 true shooting on the strength of 68% on nearly eight two-point field goal attempts/game. At 6-2, 195, he’s not going to overwhelm you with size, speed, or strength. He shares Myles Powell’s size, but nowhere near the breadth or depth of his scoring ability. That said, against a young Memphis squad, he was able to use his experience to hunt mismatches against Achiuwa and Wiseman. Against Achiuwa, he bumped the younger player off balance for a clean look while he took advantage of Wiseman giving him too much of a cushion on the perimeter to bust his ass from three. He competes, but doesn’t project as an NBA player.
  14. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending up: fresh off a 27-point, 16-rebound, 5-steal game against South Dakota State, the 6-11 senior, Rakocevic used all his refined fundamentals and relentless motor to shit all over Nevada (24p on 10-15, 11r). He’s a legit 6-11 with narrow shoulders, a high motor who’s exceptional running the floor and an above average passer. He’s not a great rim protector and while he’s a smart player, he hasn’t blown me away as a team defender. He’s shown a turn-and-face and mid-range game at USC, but is just 2-9 from three in his career. Absent stretch ability and rim protection, it’ll be hard for him to land in the league, but his energy, effort, and smarts give him some potential as a two-way player. More Zeller than Plumlee.
  15. CJ Walker, Oregon, trending: no change: Walker’s a spindly 6-8, 200-pound combo forward for the Ducks. He committed three fouls in five minutes against Memphis and is averaging less than a point in his first five college games. Early returns aside, Walker is a high-level athlete with questionable BBIQ who has long-term potential as a multi-position defender due to his length and high-energy play. He also has potential to get lost in the shuffle.
  16. Chandler Lawson, Oregon, trending up: The younger brother of Kansas’s Dedric Lawson, Chandler is a 6-8, 205-pound Memphis native who’s similar to Walker in that he’s rangy and plays with energy. Based on the Memphis game alone (8p on 2-3 shooting, 4-5 FTs, 4r – 2 offensive), he’s the more college-ready player. His activity and length translate well and he’s a competent and capable passer. His strength and handle are areas he can improve upon.
  17. Jazz Johnson, Nevada, trending up: Gotta love a 5-10 combo guard who’s shooting 42% from three on over 440 career attempts. Johnson doesn’t have the athletic pop of shorter guys like Isaiah Thomas or Chris Clemons, but he’s probably a better long-range shooter and defender. Longshot for the NBA, but likely G-League or overseas guy.
  18. Jalen Harris, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Jalen Harris before Nevada played USC, but he’s a 6-5, 195-pound incoming transfer from Louisiana Tech. According to coach Steve Alford, he’s an “elite athlete with great BBIQ.” The athleticism was easy to see, but he was 3-19 from the field and just kept firing up contested looks. He’s at 46 TS on the season so the cold streak wasn’t limited to one game. That said, Harris has feel for the game. On a Nevada squad lacking in playmaking, he’s one of their primary initiators with nearly 4 assists/game. He’s a plus-rebounder (over 6/game) with a strong frame and potential as a multi-positional defender. In an ideal role, he’s a standstill shooter who can attack closeouts and defend both guard spots.
  19. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall, trending: no change: Mamukelashvili is an unconventional big, a 6-10 native of Georgia (Stalin’s Georgia, not Dominique’s) who’s not particularly good at rim protection or shooting, but is a primary creator on Seton Hall’s Powell-heavy offense. He has a fluid handle and moves well with a great feel for the game on both sides of the ball. His fundamentals are sound and he’s strong as a team defender. Against Michigan State, he was able to attack off the dribble, but struggled to finish through contact and control the ball. He was 3-7 on twos with four TOs. He’s a fun player, but one who likely has to many holes to succeed in the league.
  20. Derek Culver, West Virginia, trending down: A 21-year-old sophomore, Culver is a hulkish 6-10, 255-pounds with boulder shoulders and an average-to-below average feel for the game. He showed some unreal athleticism in the clip below, but for the most part, his athleticism doesn’t pop in game. He shows flashes of intrigue with the occasional nice pass or he-manish rebound in traffic, but there’s a lack of consistency to his game and his defensive awareness is consistency lacking as evidence by his 7+ fouls/40 minutes. He does have some touch and is currently shooting 88% from the line on 24 attempts this season.
  21. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending up: near-seven-footer with decent looking jumper (0-5 from three this season) averaging over six blocks/40 this season. Rail thin. If he can increase volume on three ball and put on weight, shows touch of potential as a Channing Frye-type specialist.
  22. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, trending: no change: Believe his destiny is as a point guard, but alongside Cassius Winston, those opportunities are few and far between so the 6-2 freshman is a steward of sorts, charged with not fucking up and through four games, he’s done well in that role with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His shot isn’t broken by any means, but he’s shooting just 3-17 from three and struggled at times in EYBL. Solid build, willing competitor and defender, rebounds well for size.
  23. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, trending up: lefty shooter with defensive versatility at 6-7; spent lot of time guarding Powell in game against Seton Hall. More athletic than I expected from a guy with a reputation as a “shooter.” In limited game film, handle hasn’t looked great. Shoots it well off catch and movement.
  24. Lindsey Drew, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Drew before this season, but he’s a 6-4 point guard for Nevada who’s started 98 of 105 career games and has averaged 2 stocks/game for his career. Added a three-point shot this season and is shooting 40% on 5 attempts/game. There’s almost a laziness to his game in that his dribble and playmaking unfold slowly as he pokes and prods for holes in the defense and excels at keeping his dribble alive. He has a slower wind up on his catch-and-shoot jumper as well. Against USC, he struggled to stay in front of his man on defensive side and was limited in his overall defensive impact. He’s trending up here because I’d never even heard of him or considered him. Nothing to something equals rising.
  25. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending up: at 6-2, 210 with a thick neck, Anderson looks more football player than point guard, but the freshman is a consummate lead guard for USC. He’s averaging six assists with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He plays with poise and despite his lack of experience, doesn’t get sped up by the defense. He can change speeds, change direction, and mix in eurosteps as needed. His passing translates in half court and transition settings. The glaring issue with Anderson is his Omar Cook-like shooting: 42 TS through six games including 32% on 25 twos. If the shooting comes around, he’ll climb pretty quick for me.
  26. Shakur Juiston, Oregon, trending: no change: Not much to say. Broad shoulders, rebounds well.
  27. Savion Flagg, Texas A&M, trending down: looks the part at 6-7, 223 with a ripped frame, but maddening to watch with poor ball control and defensive lapses and miscommunications. 3.5 turnovers to 2.5 assists with a 22% usage this season.
  28. Tyrese Samuel, Seton Hall, trending down: has potential as a stretch-4 (6-10, 220 with a pretty jumper), but only sniffing the edges of the Hall’s rotation. Work-in-progress.
  29. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: 6-6, 225-pound grad transfer at USC. From 16 and 5 for Akron in the MAC to 20-minute/game role player with USC. Utomi looks like a brick shithouse with broader shoulders and sturdy frame, but is presently relegated to a supporting dirty work guy with this USC team. He can shoot it (39% on 7 3s/game last two seasons at Akron) and defend and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him starting or playing as sixth man for this USC team. Pro prospects: unlikely, but physical tools are there.
  30. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down
  31. Trey McGowens, Seton Hall, no change
  32. Ike Obiagu, Seton Hall, trending down
  33. Francis Okoro, Oregon, trending down
  34. Jordan McCabe, West Virginia, no change

Unranked players that I noted, but didn’t get a large enough sample: Au’Diese Toney, Gerald Drumgoole, Karim Coulibaly (I do like him), Miles McBride (WVU reserve PG, probably better than McCabe), Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis (64% on 31 3pas this year – should be in mid-20s of list above), Foster Loyer, Emanuel Miller, Jay Jay Chandler, Andre Gordon, Nisre Zouzoua, and Justin Champagnie

From Ottumwa with Love: Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster

The following is a piece based on a few hours spent in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. ~25,000) at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) watching a JUCO basketball game with the principles being Jay Scrubb (John A. Logan) and Tyon Grant-Foster (IHCC).

The Hellyer Life Center is home to the Indian Hills Community College Warriors men’s basketball team. It’s a small gym with modern plastic maroon-colored pull-out bleachers and an upper balcony of sorts. To reach the court level, you walk down a staircase and your proximity to the court is that of a high school gym. Everything and everyone is accessible. I’d ordered my tickets for the game online, apparently I was the only person to do this because I saw my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the ticketing desk when I showed up. I was given my choice of any open seat and chose center court: eight dollars.

I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, about 90 minutes northwest of Ottumwa and when I was just a skinny teenager with a full head of hair in the late 90s, knew of IHCC for its prodigiously winning men’s team. But in all my years, I’d never made the trek to see the JUCO juggernaut and was reminded of their dominance upon walking into the Hellyer Center and seeing the banners: 89-straight wins and three straight national championships from 1997 to 1999. They were led by Cincinnati Bearcat and eventual Euro MVP, JUCO par excellence, Pete Mickeal.

The stage was more than up-to-par for a battle between the country’s top two JUCO players: 6-foot-6 wing Jay Scrubb from 4th ranked John A. Logan, committed to Louisville and 6-foot-7 wing Tyon Grant-Foster from IHCC, committed to Kansas.

This was less a head-to-head comparison either in my intent (I didn’t go down there to crown Scrubb or Grant-Foster) or in their on-court matchup (they were rarely matched up with each other), but drawing comparisons and contrasts is only natural and the first ones we make are typical surface level. Scrubb looks the part: he’s more physically developed, lean but with square shoulders and the face of a young man with mustache and goatee. He looks like he was cast for the role and carries himself as such. By contrast, Grant-Foster has the look of a high schooler, his facial features soft, his chin hairless, his long arms dangle but without much definition.

And of course, there are my own biases and preconceptions. Scrubb was the prime attraction. He averaged 20-a-game as a JUCO freshman on 55-46-79 shooting. He was the only freshman to make the JUCO D1 First Team All-America squad and prior to committing to Louisville, he flirted with going pro after his sophomore season at Logan. Scrubb was the main attraction, Grant-Foster an intrigue, a recent Kansas-commit who averaged just 8 points as a freshman; I was more intrigued by KU coach Bill Self’s interest than my own.

JAY SCRUBB:

Off the opening tip, IHCC made their intentions with Scrubb clear by face guarding him with the solidly-built 6-2 Chris Childs (it does not appear he’s related to the former NBA player though of course it’s entirely possible). This portended what would be a long night for the Cardinal commit who would struggle get breathing room for all 38 of his on-court minutes.

Breathing room be damned, it was easy to see how Scrubb’s game comes together. At 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan and listed at 220 pounds (this seems generous but people hide weight in strange places), he has a pro ready frame though his functional positional strength looks to be an area he can improve upon (more on this below).

He moves extremely well, on and off-ball, guarding ball or defending off-ball. He gets low with a strong knee bend on post-ups, which appear to be part of his repertoire though, again, his strength holding a seal is something I’ll get into, and does the same guarding the ball. His lateral and hip movement are effortless and his focus and intensity, particularly on-ball, are high; he locks in well. Off-ball, he had the occasional bad habit of turning his head and losing sight of ball in order to stick with man, but this is relatively easy to correct.

Scrubb’s been reported as having a 40-inch vertical and his functional elevation was easy to observe; most notably attacking the offensive glass and on his pull-up jumper. He averaged over one-and-a-half blocks as a freshman and given his lift and length, it’s easy to see why. In this game, he attacked the offensive glass, but with limited success. IHCC was great putting a body on Scrubb and his instincts were to elevate for boards instead of seeking out optimal position. That said, he shows good awareness attacking the o-glass in the first clip below. Unfortunately, going backdoor against an overplaying defender wasn’t a route he frequently sought out.

On the night, Scrubb shot just 4-15 from the field which isn’t that big of an issue. The IHCC defense was keyed in and focused on slowing him down. John A. Logan surprisingly did very little in terms of off-ball actions to help create space for him, opting for the occasional ball screen or post-up, but mostly settling for a balanced shot distribution. While I didn’t chart all 15 of Scrubb’s looks, I want to say 13 or 14 were contested and probably 11 or 12 were outside the paint.

He’s clearly more jump shooter than slasher and emphasizes his elevation to create space on pull-ups. The errant try below felt like a shot more out of frustration than anything else. While it’s a bad miss (and many of his misses were bad bricks), the lift and form are evident. His mechanics don’t break down from three and while I felt his release could use a bit of work, his balance and body control are strong:

As mentioned above, Scrubb sought out post-ups throughout the game and while he was able to establish position, he struggled to maintain it. Credit to IHCC’s coterie of defenders who, even when losing position, contested all entry passes, but some of this was an inability from Scrubb to hold the defender on his hip for extended periods. I don’t anticipate him doing a lot of posting up in the ACC, but it’s interesting to see how and where strength does or doesn’t translate. While not being the strongest player, he didn’t shy away from physical contact on either side of the ball or lose his cool over IHCC’s physical play.

In a lot of ways, seeing how a player reacts to adversity is ideal and between his shot being off and IHCC’s parade of physical defenders, Scrubb played within himself with the exception of a short stretch in the 2nd half when he sought out contested jumpers. His effort remained high and his offensive gravity allowed teammates more operating space. He projects out as an off-ball player, ideally operating off-the-catch with catch-and-shoots and attacking closeouts. In this 38-minute sample, he threw a couple of good passes and lost his dribble in traffic a couple times, but ultimately the sample was too small to draw any significant conclusions on his creation and playmaking though it seems secondary to seeking out his shot.

GRANT-FOSTER:

Part Jordan Crawford, part Jamal Crawford? Maybe it’s the similar skin tone or looping languid limbs, or maybe it’s the sharp handle, comfort freelancing, or heat check pull-ups, but Tyon Grant-Foster brought to mind those two Crawfords.

On a night when NBA scouts and Bill Self were in attendance, Grant-Foster navigated some early foul trouble to put together a signature second half. After a mostly forgettable first half marred by foul trouble, I didn’t write off Grant-Foster, but rather shrugged my shoulders and envisioned him as a future end-of-the-bench Jayhawk.

That he came out with a 22-point second half is less interesting than how he did it. While playing wing, Grant-Foster is one of IHCC’s primary initiators though he’s presently much better suited to create his own shot instead of creating for others. This is evidenced by a negative assist-to-turnover rate over his 34 career games at IHCC (1.5 turnovers for every one assist). That’s not to say he doesn’t vision or awareness as he exhibited good feel passing off the dribble, rather it’s an area he’s working to improve.

But getting his own shot? In both half court and transition, he showed ability to break down defenders, rise for the pull-up, and finish in traffic. For Grant-Foster, like Jamal Crawford, it all starts with the handle. An assortment of hang dribbles, hesitations, and crossovers kept defenders off-balance all night. Once he achieved advantage, he opted primarily for pull-up threes or slashing attacks. From deep, he shot 4 of 7, including some huge clutch makes while IHCC clawed back from a double-digit deficit, but there were some questionable attempts and his release could probably use refinement. Grant-Foster doesn’t hold his follow-through at all which isn’t a death knell to the jumper, but over longer samples, I’d expect struggles with accuracy. In the clip below, his wiggle and confidence are on display, but that quick release, almost fling, is worrisome:

When not banging in heat check threes, Grant-Foster attacked the basket. He got to the line seven times and showed natural instincts for getting to the rim. His wiggle combined with the threat of the outside shot allowed him to beat primary defenders. His change of pace and direction allowed him to beat help defenders while his length, craft, and touch helped him to finish inside. And while not the explosive leaper Scrubb is, Grant-Foster showed good lift finishing one dunk and just missing a second one in traffic.

Where he can expand his attack is in creating for others off-the-dribble. He’s good enough to beat defenders and while he was able to connect on a couple of drive-and-dumps, a combination of spacing and more consistent awareness will help bump him to the next level. The other area that was of some concern was his dependency on somewhat of an isolation-heavy, freelance approach. IHCC desperately needed him to takeover this game, but he’s prone to pounding the ball east-to-west (and back, and back, and you get the point) trying to shake a defender and there’s likely fine tuning to occur there. That said, I’m somewhat loathe to mess with a player’s natural expression, particularly if it’s effective and would be interested to see if and how frequently Grant-Foster goes on these forays. He’s not a selfish player, but he is a self-interested, confident one.

Defensively, I didn’t get near as good a sense of his game as I did Scrubb’s. He was engaged on the defensive end and looked to pounce on passing lanes at times, but by focusing on Scrubb’s offensive game, I missed out on finer details of his defense. Purely looking at his stats, he definitely makes an impact defensively. Through a short two games, he’s averaging 1.5 steals and a single block, but last season he put up a gaudy 7.5 blocks/40 minutes. That number’s ridiculous enough that I wonder if he was just leaping at everything trying to swat balls into the bleachers.

Driving home in the dark with a quarter moon hanging low on the horizon, smoke curling into the sky from factories and plants sitting miles off the highway, it still struck me as random that out here, in southern Iowa lives and breathes a JUCO basketball hotbed that’s produced 22 current NCAA players, over 30 current pros, and five NBA draft picks. My dad had driven up to Ottumwa from where he lives in Kansas City and was kind enough to bake some chocolate chip cookies for me and I drove, eating cookies while the moon finally dropped below the horizon, pondering that basketball history and the spaces being carved out in the present by young men half my age like Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster. Future pros in some league somewhere; perhaps as obscure as Ottumwa.

James Wiseman: More question marks and less exclamation points, please.

It’s fitting to start off this 2020 NBA draft prospect season with the incoming freshman who’s widely recognized as the top prospect of the 2019 high school class: James Wiseman. But it’s also fitting for a blog that rarely takes hard and fast stances to pick a player who the experts love, but draft Twitter cocks a skeptical eyebrow towards. And I’m an appropriate author of such a piece as my viewing experience has revealed a case of not one or two Wisemans (Wisemen?), but multiple Wisemans. More appropriate yet is that these schisms in style are part of a long tradition of basketball playing big men whose basketball-playing selves (to say nothing off their non-basketball playing selves) are caught in a crisis of uncertainty between how others view their potential and they themselves view it. Or, to quote the writing of the great Leo Tolstoy, “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”

For Wiseman, there’s not much doubt about how he sees himself. It’s expressed in his play and through his words, “I’m a very versatile player, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can run the floor really well for my size.” He’s “patterned” his game on “Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, and even David Robinson.” His high school coach, Jevonte Holmes, sees KG, Bosh, and Marvin Bagley and his new coach at Memphis, former NBA player and portrayer of the fictional Butch McRae, Penny Hardaway, also sees Bosh. It makes good sense to model your endeavor, whatever it may be, on the best. I think there was a time where I fancied my writerly self some kind of Jack Kerouac even if my style and talent in no way matched. Wiseman at least shares physical dimensions with the aforementioned and I may have shared similar measurements to Kerouac. Wiseman appears longer than his comps (although his long-reported 7-foot-6 inch wingspan may be closer to 7-foot-4) with a massive 7-1, 240-pound frame that moves with the fluid ease of the Mississippi rolling along Memphis’s border; it’s a body that expands and explodes to block shots as though it were a natural birthright.

The clips I’ve watched of Wiseman span from the 2018 EYBL season up through the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit with his 2018-19 high school season in between. The player I’ve watched is wildly inconsistent, a player capable of flattening oppositions like that giant lizard-dinosaur and that gorilla in Rampage (these characters appear to be unimaginative knockoffs of King Kong and Godzilla, but are not those name brand giants) in one sequence and morphing into an overdribbling, fade-away shooting wannabe Kobe Bryant (but without the touch) on others. Younger players will inevitably be less consistent than their older, more physically developed and experienced players, but with Wiseman there appears to be a yawning gap between capability and even moderately efficient reality.

As far as identity is concerned, Wiseman isn’t alone and isn’t completely at fault for any incongruities between what he is and what he thinks he is. Basketball and big men have a long, strange, unimaginative history that has taken creative, experimental minds to untangle. A year ago, inspired by a draft class of versatile bigs, I wrote about basketball’s relationship with its tallest players, a relationship that for years yielded to orthodoxy. In that piece, I argued that players like Bob McAdoo, Dirk Nowitzki, and Draymond Green, paired with creative coaching in Jack Ramsay, Don Nelson, and Steve Kerr, redefined not just what big men could be, but what was required of them. As presently deployed, James Wiseman is the experiment gone too far.

From 2005 to 2012, Dwight Howard was mostly an ideal marriage between ability and execution. I say mostly because, despite being surrounded by shooters, for every assist he threw, he turned the ball over twice. But beyond the occasional detour into playmaking or advanced post moves, Howard dunked home over 40% of his 4,000-plus made field goals. He set screens, rolled, caught and dunked. He anchored what was consistently a top-five defensive team with defensive awareness, effort, and scheme combined with an idealized mix of size, length, and explosiveness. He won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and was MVP runner-up in in 2011. But throughout Dwight’s history of being elite Dwight, there was the insistence on being an offensive focal point which were accompanied by mumblings and rumblings desiring a greater share of the offense and in his recent vagabond years, even an expressed a desire to become “his own version” of Kevin Durant or Draymond Green. The problem isn’t that Howard wants to expand or improve his game, it’s that his strengths and abilities don’t align with his stated role models.

The original big man who navigated a complex on-court identity crisis was Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t believe him to be the greatest of all time or even the most dominant, but I have no issue with people who make those statements about a man once nicknamed the “Big Musty” for his overwhelming body odor. But Chamberlain was a sensitive man who heard all the criticisms and responded with an almost childlike obstinacy. Peter Vescey, then of the New York Post, wrote in 1999:

He once told me the one regret he had was that he didn’t play more aggressively against Russell. Red Auerbach would say stuff and get into his head, and the papers would write stuff and get into his head. He let the criticism affect him.

Following the Jayhawks’ 1-point defeat to unbeaten UNC, Wilt never could seem to shake his loser’s image. A couple insufferable setbacks in championship games to the Celts and everybody readily bought into the perception. Maybe even Wilt himself, who became more insecure and defensive as Russell’s hands swelled with rings.

Somewhere along the way, Wilt, like everybody else, got numbed by his numbers, blinded by his brilliance and spoiled by the spectacular.

Rather than bully people, he badgered them. Instead of becoming vengeful, Wilt often got passive. Instead of piling it up from point blank range, he upgraded his degree of difficulty. Instead of dunking on people’s domes, he aided them by adopting a fadeaway. Other times, he hardly shot at all in an attempt to prove critics he could accomplish anything he wanted. One season he decided to become league leader in assists, refusing to pass the ball to cutters whose field goal percentages didn’t warrant the risk. Wilt became consumed with proving his success wasn’t based on brute force, but elan and aptitude.

In his GOAT: The 40 Best Careers in NBA History series, Ben Taylor made the case that Chamberlain’s (9th all-time on his list) “four best teams, by far, come from his non volume-scoring years, and the last two come from his ‘Tyson Chandler’ vintage.” Chamberlain was unstoppable on the offensive end, but, Taylor shows, that dominance didn’t make his teams better offensively. And as Vescey points out, he got in his head to lead the league in assists, but as Taylor again articulates, “he was letting defenses off the hook by looking to pass too much.” Chamberlain’s greatest contributions to winning were done on the defensive end as a rim protector, rebounder, and fast break initiator and yet he was almost dragged, kicking and screaming, into this role by Los Angeles Lakers coach Bill Sharman. It’s not that Chamberlain should have played like Russell, he was far too talented offensively to be an equal cog in the wheel, but that his utilization required a moderation that he struggled to accept and likely never fully accepted. Chamberlain was a great scorer and excellent passer, but instead of a steady diet of either, much of his career was spent overexaggerating these skills at the expense of team success because, like most everything Chamberlain did, he did it to excess.

Which brings us back to James Wiseman, the 18-year-old supposed Chris Bosh. I’m not bringing Howard and Chamberlain (a Hall of Famer and future Hall of Famer) into the conversation to make any comparison in terms of ability, but rather to draw direct and emphatic comparisons regarding the fickle nature and deployment of NBA big men. At this point, it’s even fair to pose this as a chicken/egg question with Wiseman. If he never fell in love with the top-of-the-key three-ball or shitty fadeaways, does he elicit the same excitement and “unicorn” hyperbole? If teenage Wiseman operates as a back-to-the-basket dunker and rim protector (I suggest that because the roll man role doesn’t exist at the high school levels in a way that allows a player to define himself), is he still as attractive to the scouting world? Put another way, Clint Capela is not sexy.

If Wiseman can escape the ghost of Bosh and play his game, what can he be? Despite a lanky build, Wiseman is sturdy at 240 pounds, but it’s a 240 that he’s still figuring out how to use. While not being the most physical interior presence, with his size, footwork, and ability to squat low into position, he’s exceptional at gaining position on interior seals and being a big, high-reaching target for lobs. Against college teams with advanced scouting, this type of action won’t be as readily available, but Wiseman has an improving basketball IQ and if he can incorporate his interior seals and spin moves into improvisational reads, he’s fleet footed enough to get easy, high-percentage attempts more frequently than most players.

Wiseman has exhibited inconsistent competence in reading the floor out of the post – in isolation and against doubles. While his reactions to doubles aren’t the quickest, he’s able to use an escape dribble and his size to find an open man, but this comes and goes. Sometimes he’ll look calm reacting and seeing the crosscourt pass while others will find him panicking to get rid of the hot potato before someone steals it. The skill is further mitigated when he takes a premeditated shot; which he’s shown a tendency to go from catch-to-post move all in one motion without regard for the lay of the court or defense. He can make basic reads and occasionally advanced reads, but in the EYBL circuit specifically the lack of spacing limits these opportunities.

His greatest strength at present is his defense. This was best on display at the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit in May when he blocked seven shots in under 23 minutes of play. This was on an NBA court (Portland’s Moda Center) with a 24-second shot clock and against high D1 players. Wiseman was on full throttle, but he remained in total control of his effort. Instead of swinging for every shot attempt like pros Hassan Whiteside or Mitchell Robinson are prone to do, his contests were measured, but relentless. While he blocked seven, he deterred or forced adjustments on many more. He was most impactful as a help side defender as the World team struggled to make him pay for helping, but in one-on-one possessions against Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and N’Faly Dante (Oregon), he frequently stayed between man and the basket while holding his ground despite giving up pounds to both. In the clip below, he blocks two shots and contests a third in about a five-second stretch which, maybe it’s because I’m 38 and overweight, but it’s exhausting considering jumping with exertion that many times in a row.

If Wiseman is capable of bringing that type of defensive effort with consistency, he can directly impact winning in both college and the pros. In the 10-plus games I scouted, unfortunately, this effort wasn’t consistent. Against four-star big man and fellow 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, Wiseman’s effort was semi-catatonic, a 7-foot pylon outworked physically, unable or unwilling to compete. It was the kind of performance that triggers red flags. When fully present and working, defense is the greatest utilization of his copious physical gifts and given his size and athleticism, it has the potential to translate early on. In terms of switchability and perimeter defense, I haven’t seen a ton of examples showing he can or can’t move his feet on the perimeter. I have seen him use his length to get out on jump shooters and contest shots that typically be clean looks. While this ability doesn’t mean he can move laterally, he’s long enough that he can use his length to create somewhat of a cushion, but again, less than his ability to move side-to-side on the perimeter, consistent effort will be the deciding factor in his effectiveness.

In terms of weaknesses, the biggest issues arise on the offensive side of the floor where Wiseman is maddeningly inconsistent. His offensive decision making, particularly his shot choice, was so poor at the 2018 EYBL that I wondered if I should throw out the entire league when assessing his play. The amount of contested threes, step backs, and fade-aways are mind boggling. According to D1Circuit.com, Wiseman shot 4-27 (~15%) from three. He was a much more respectable 54% from twos and shot 55% from the line. For his 2018-19 high school season, one broadcast in December had him shooting 17% from three, but his high school coach claimed he shot 42% – which is a hard number to accept given his previous rates and the shot in general.

It’s not just that Wiseman is an inaccurate marksman, it’s that he insists on taking contested attempts and, at least in EYBL, he had the team running sets where Wiseman would sprint to the corner for quick catch attempts – which just enables the kid. I get the need to develop and the need for in-game reps, but between game film and stats, there’s no reason Wiseman should be taking these shots with any level of frequency. It would mildly more acceptable if he was seeking out catch-and-shoot threes, but in the true spirit of mucking it up, he prefers contested, off-the-dribble attempts and has the awful habit of straddling the three-point-line. It’s all strange and reinforces the damn Tolstoy quote above: “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”

I don’t know the ideal blend of in-game reps versus practice reps for a move or skill. A high school coach I had suggested we need to be able to hit 8 of 10 shots unguarded to be able to attempt it in a game. Does Wiseman shoot 80% on step backs, fade-aways, and threes in practice? It’s certainly possible. At times, he exhibits soft touch on his jumper and in my notes I, just like Penny and Jevonte Holmes and Wiseman himself, wrote of a particular fade-away: “that’s the most Chris Bosh-like thing I’ve seen from him.” But at what point does a glimpse become a possibility or a building block? I’ve seen enough Wiseman to know why people make the comparisons they do, but the slivers and snippets of good-to-great basketball moves are outweighed by the accompanying bumbling of it all.

There are two clips below: one of Wiseman utterly destroying top-3 2021 prospect Evan Mobley. The other of Wiseman settling for a crappy contested jumper and having it blocked by a shorter, weaker, less-gifted-but-still-very-gifted player. Neither of these clips defines James Wiseman – either as presently constructed or as imagined. His basketball reality and future live somewhere in a vast infinity of possibility which will, bizarrely, make perfect sense whenever we arrive there. Wiseman has a supreme confidence in self, but is that confidence enough to bridge the gap between what he feels and what he can do? Or is his destiny an endless pursuit of congruity? Could he be the best of his class? It’s possible. After all, just because I didn’t sniff the heights of Kerouac doesn’t mean I was wrong for trying.

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.

Cam Reddish: Laissez-faire Basketballism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ja Morant: Boom Boom in Tuscaloosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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