Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

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The Future is Long; alternately: When Everyone Becomes a Unicorn

There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.

Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.

This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:

We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.

It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.

The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.

After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.

I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.

(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)

The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.

Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”

Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.

Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])

Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.

Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.

2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.

Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame:

 

 

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 7 – 12; alternately: The 3rd, 4th, and maybe 5th tiers/tears of uncertainty

Taking risks is all well and good, but at my nature, I recognize that questions without factual answers are, and should be, fraught with uncertainty. If forced to answer, if forced to pick between say, Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges, I’ll usually think and talk through a litany of pros and cons for each player (Mikal the shooting defender with ineffectual off-the-dribble game, Miles the bouncy, broad-shouldered athlete with pedigree but questionable attitude [for me at least]), before determining that immeasurable variables (work ethic, team/scheme, coaching) will ultimately determine success and (in this moment) picking Miles even though just a few days ago I picked Mikal.

If I put together 10 more big board rankings between now and the draft on June 21st, there would be almost daily movement, jockeying between players by one or two spots. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t trust my rankings (or those of my friends), rather that this stuff is exceptionally fluid. And humans are and our perspectives are fluid and evolving. A different set of eyes (Steve Kerr) can see the potential in a person (Draymond Green) that helps to unlock a potential others (Mark Jackson) couldn’t conceive. ESPN’s Chad Ford (for the purposes of this view, I’m not concerned about Ford’s rewritten history as it doesn’t significantly change the points) had Green 20th overall on his big board which is well ahead of Green’s 35th overall draft slot, but no one that I’m aware of had him pegged as a generationally versatile defender. On June 25th, 2012, Ford wrote, “I’m hearing increasingly that the Pacers (26th overall pick in 2012) are very high on Green…I don’t think Green will slide past here.” The Pacers opted for Miles Plumlee instead, which Ford chalked up to a “messy soap opera” in the front office. In that same post-draft write-up, Ford chided Miami (#27, Arnett Moultrie – traded), Dallas (#33, Bernard James), and Washington (#32, Tomas Satoransky) for not taking Green. Even immediately after the draft, the consensus was that Draymond should not have fallen.

Draymond Green will forever and always be my go-to when exploring the variability of the draft. Green is an ultimate outlier because the variability of human participation; in this case, his own and those of his coaches, Jackson and Kerr. It can easily be speculated that Green would have trended into a strong NBA player with or without Kerr’s addition to Golden State as he only missed three games in his first two seasons while averaging over a steal and nearly a block-per-game in his second season despite getting just 22 minutes/game. But this? A three-time champion, multi-time all-star, two-time All-NBA player, and a Defensive Player of the Year?

Uncertainty abounds and you can tell me different, but I’ll probably be over here with Draymo (wishing I wasn’t), pointing to him as proof that all that probabilities, prognostications, and proclamations still rest in the infinitely fragile tissues of pathetically weak and impossibly resilient humans.

(Big Board rankings below based on DWN’s initial Big Board from 5/14. The updated version from 6/4 can be found here.)

All artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

Michael Porter Jr. (Fenrich): Michael Porter Jr.is one of the harder (hardest?) lottery players to project in this draft. He transferred from a school in Missouri to Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School before his senior season. At Hale, his coach was former NBA All-Star and royal Seattleite, Brandon Roy. The team went 29-0 with Porter leading them to the top of several national rankings and garnering the Gatorade and Naismith Player of the Year awards. ESPN had him ranked as the second-best player in his class and an unnamed “ESPN Analyst” wrote he was “a possible number one pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.”

I put a little more emphasis on Porter’s high school bio because he appeared in just 53 minutes as a freshman at Missouri and now, a year and a back injury later and he’s a wild card. He’s 6’11” with a 7’0” wingspan. He has bounce, can handle the ball, snatch the defensive rebound and push it himself. He’s always been lean, but measured in at just 211-pounds at the combine which puts him on physical par with a younger Dragan Bender. I’m less concerned about the beef, as he was out for the entire season and hasn’t yet benefited from pro-level strength and conditioning. His range extends well beyond the college arc, but it doesn’t mean his form or accuracy are there. When I watched him at Hale, I didn’t love the form on his jumper and in his limited time at Mizzou, it didn’t look any better. His shoulders are shrugged and hunched. The form reminds me of Draymond Green’s but with more lift. Defensively, I’m reluctant to hold any of his NCAA time against him and so the slower feet and lateral quickness are merely a note instead of a criticism.

Like many of these one-and-done kids, assuming health (far from a guarantee for Porter who first sustained a back injury as a sophomore in high school), the physical foundation is obvious. He’s a massively fluid athlete for a kid his size, but I get nervous when kids try to overcompensate or prove themselves the way Porter’s done. During a combine interview, he told ESPN he was “without a doubt … the best player in this draft.” And again, while I’m reluctant to draw conclusions based on two appearances he made with Mizzou at the end of the season while returning from injury, he forced shots and looked fully immersed in a hero ball approach to offense or perhaps an acolyte of the new age “Mamba Mentality” – which can be interpreted many ways. Both the interview and the small sample shot selection are negligible, but when factoring in the injury history with a player who’s accustomed to dominating the game, the uncertainty elevates to a place that makes me uncomfortable. Assuming he regains health and commits to learning the game (his passing and playmaking need a lot of reps and improvement; particularly if he’s going to be attacking off the dribble), Porter has tools of a potential multi-time all-star – like a modern Tom Chambers or something.

Wendell Carter (Fenrich): First impressions are hard to get over and my first extended impression of Wendell Carter from a January game against Miami included this note: “First thought on his boards is Moses Malone.” Carter’s a bear or a bison or a big ass kid with long arms. He’s 6’10,” but measured a 7’4.5” wingspan at the combine in Chicago which helps to explain his activity on the glass where he pulled down 13.5 rebounds-per-40, 4.5 of which were offensive. It’s not just that he pulled down a good portion of misses, but that he did so with definitive emphasis: above the rim, strong-handed (which is interesting because he has comparatively small hands [8.5” width, 9” length], but of course size and strength are often not related), absolute rebounds like Moses used to do.

His activity translated to the defensive end where he averaged over two blocks and nearly a steal-per-game despite getting less than 27 minutes each night. This activity goes beyond just picking up stats. Carter bends his knees well, he’s not stiff. He can get down in a stance and slides well laterally against mismatches. This type of athleticism and commitment to defense should serve him well with the NBA’s present-day switch-happy tactics. In that regard, he reminds me of Tristan Thompson who, at his peak, was a key component to an NBA championship.

Carter took just 46 threes in his 37 games at Duke, but shot over 41%. From the line, he was near 74% on 4.5 attempts/game. His form on both is solid and replicable with a high release point (super higher given his length) and speaks to the overall polish of his game. For being just 19, he’s comfortable using the three to setup the dribble drive where he looks to shoot or pass. He’s a better creator than you’d expect, but the execution is still a mixed bag. Carter’s capable of seeing the pass, either in high/low situations (with Bagley) or off the dribble, but his ability to complete the pass is still developing. That said, just the vision and willingness are already quality. He averaged just 13.5-points, but given Duke’s stacked lineup, it’s hard to hold that against him; particularly when both his inside and outside attack is so varied and refined. That said, in the full games I watched and the clips I’ve seen, he has a strong preference to spin baseline off the left block. I only call this out because it’s the kind of thing NBA teams will book and take away.

Two final areas that pop for me when I think about Carter as a pro are his athleticism and his role. He didn’t participate in the athletic measures at the combine, but watching him, his explosiveness doesn’t jump off the screen. His strength is the most obvious attribute and he can throw it down with ferocity, but compared to teammate “Bagels” Bagley, he’s pedestrian – which is fine. Not all NBA bigs are pogo sticking gazelles, but a lot of them are and they’ll present a different set of challenges for Carter. Role is an interesting one for him. He was comfortable as a fourth option at Duke, but his offensive versatility indicates the ability to take on a larger role. A couple of us compared him to Al Horford and it’s easy to see why:

Carter’s younger, longer, and a better shooter. Aside from the obnoxious fawning over “MVP Al,” he’s had a great career as a five-time all-star and key piece on conference championship-contending teams. Part of Horford’s value over his 10 seasons in the NBA has been his malleability. Be it positional or role versatility, Horford adapts without sacrificing output. If Carter can live up to 75% of Horford, he’ll have a solid career as an NBA starter.

Mikal Bridges (Bug): Mikal Bridges is this draft’s poster child for the 3-and-D prototype. Bridges has a great combination of height (6’7”) and length (7’2” wingspan) for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. He’s coming off a breakout Junior season where we he developed from a 10ppg role player into an All-American caliber player. Bridges has a beautiful looking jump shot that he has refined over his four years at Villanova (he redshirted during the 2014-15 season), making him one of the deadliest outside shooters in the nation (43% from three). Bridges’ ability to get his feet set, square up, and get a three off on the catch reminds me of Ray Allen late in his career. He has a high release point on his shot which makes it easy to shoot over most wing defenders. He has some shortcomings as a ball-handler and a shot creator (for himself and others), but he is much more than just a spot-up shooter. He’s capable of finishing above the rim on drives or on the break in transition, just ask Gonzaga’s entire frontcourt.

Defensively, Bridges uses his length to give opposing wings and point guards headaches. He doesn’t have eye-popping steals stats, but he has active hands and is difficult to shoot over as evidenced by averaging over a block-per-game this past season. Bridges will need to continue to get stronger to be able to handle NBA wings. It is a bit concerning that he is still rail thin after being in college four years, but strength is something relatively easy to fix once he is on an NBA strength and conditioning program. He’s expected to come off the board somewhere in the 7-10 range of the draft and I believe he’d be a good fit on almost any team, but particularly on the Sixers at #10. They are already a defensive-minded club that will need shooting help if JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli walk in free agency. Overall, Bridges is one of the safest picks in this draft as he’s ready to step in and play right away. It’s unlikely he will ever develop into a star, but at worst he will be a high-level 3-and-D guy that will have a long career in the NBA.

Collin Sexton (Bug): Collin Sexton is one of the toughest players in this draft, both mentally and physically. Sexton’s signature moment from his short time at Alabama came in a crazy game in late November when he found himself playing 3-on-5 against Minnesota after a tussle left his entire bench ejected from the game. Facing a 13-point deficit, Sexton took over, scoring 17 points in the last 10 minutes of the game on his way to a 40-point night. ‘Bama didn’t win the game (they lost by five), but Sexton’s grit and will to win were on full display when most would have folded. Sexton is a blur in the open court, putting a ton of pressure on the defense as he pushes the ball. He uses elite quickness to get pretty much wherever he wants. He does a great job of attacking and getting to the line as evidenced by his 252 free throw attempts (7.6 attempts/game) on the season. At the next level, I would like to see him use that same attacking style to create more for his teammates instead of getting himself buckets, but I think that comes with a better supporting cast in the NBA. Another area for improvement is his outside shot. Sexton shot just under 34% from three on 131 attempts, and if he can be just a little more consistent from outside he will be a nightmare for defenders to stop. The fire and intensity he plays with should also serve him well on the defensive end of the floor, so there aren’t many concerns there. The low steal numbers (0.8 steals/game) are kind of surprising for someone with that much athleticism, but he’s not a bad defender by any means. I think the Eric Bledsoe comparisons are pretty spot on for what we should expect from Sexton in the league which makes him a worthy mid-to-late lottery pick. As far as fit goes with lottery teams, I think Sexton would make the most sense with the Knicks. They need a point guard that isn’t going to be afraid of the bright lights, and Sexton has the grit and toughness that the New York fans will love and appreciate.

Miles Bridges (Hamilton): Miles Bridges is one of the most explosive athletes in this class. He has great hang time when he goes up on drives, pull ups, or for blocks and contested shots. A physical player on both ends who is not afraid to challenge people, Bridges gives effort and competes. He dunks with ease in traffic and when putting back offensive rebounds. He is a capable three-point shooter, but has a tendency to settle for contested looks. His quick, lefty release with only a small elevation allows him to get these off but they’re not always good. He has good fundamental footwork upon catching the ball but appears a bit robotic in this regard. Bridges has some tunnel vision, looking primarily to score. While his ball handling improved in his sophomore year, his moves are still pretty basic and choreographed. One of the biggest negatives of his offense is he frequently stops the ball and holds it before attacking or swinging a pass. He seems to have a habit of using a lot of jab steps (Carmelo style) and looking to go one-one, when the better play is to quickly attack or pass. Despite the improvement he is still not a great ball handler as evident by his one- and two-dribble pull ups, and general lack of playmaking for others. Negatives aside, Bridges looks like a modern NBA forward who will eventually be able to play both spots well enough. Although he lacks the 7’0 wingspan of some of the best small ball forwards, like Draymond Green, PJ Tucker, or Harrison Barnes, he is a better leaper thus possibly minimizing his lack of length. As a small ball four on offense, Bridges’ shoulders should help set good, hard screens and shed bigger players to create space. His aforementioned footwork on offense should help him develop into a nice pick-and-pop screener. Physically he is ready to play right away, but his offensive skills will need to develop before he can be counted on to be a major contributor.

Kevin Knox (Hamilton): Kevin Knox has good size at 6’9 with 7’0 wingspan. He’s a natural scorer, with an array of shots from all over the floor. He’s crafty inside the three-point line, using floaters, short pull ups, and both hands to finish. He moves without the ball and finds open space to get his shots off. He has pro range on his jump shot with a high release and good rotation. Knox looks like the type of player you can go to late in a shot clock or broken set. Like Miles Bridges, thinks score first, second, and third. This may be an indication of his feel beyond scoring, which would be kind of weird because that comes so naturally to him. That mentality can create problems for him and his team. He frequently drives into multiple defenders in transition even when at a numbers disadvantage. When he finishes in those situations, there’s no harm done. At the NBA level he’s less likely to finish those plays, and we know missed layups in transition often lead to quick layups at the other end. Knox will have to be more measured in this regard or he will put his team in bad positions a lot. Scoring is his thing. The rest of his game is far behind his scoring. He’s a below average rebounder for his measurements; 6.7 boards per-40 minutes isn’t great. That and his defensive effort and awareness make me question how well he will ultimately fare in today’s NBA. It’s not uncommon for a player to come into the league with either offensive of defensive abilities far ahead of the other. But it is a bit concerning for a player to give great effort on offense while being almost nonexistent on defense. Knox could be coached up on that end and, if he buys in to the level of effort it takes, be a real impact player in the NBA. Otherwise, he could end up being the kind of player who gets buckets early in first and third quarters but isn’t playable during crunch time.

2018 Dancing with Noah NBA Draft Big Board #2; alternately: Kevin Huerter has Landed

We pieced together our initial big board about three weeks ago which, in the world of draft prospecting, feels like it was pieced together many moons past. Between now and then was the NBA draft lottery (May 15th), the combine (May 16th – 20th), agency pro days, player workouts with teams, and finally, the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to retain eligibility for college basketball.

Less than three weeks out from the draft, we’ve re-ranked our big board. Four amateur “scouts” (I use the term oh-so-loosely) looking at 54 players, two of whom are new additions to this board (Elie Okobo and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) ranked bottom to top.

There are some massive risers: Maryland’s Kevin Huerter, Donte DiVincenzo of NCAA Championship fame, Rodions Kurucs (I’m not certain why he rose), elite rebound collector Jarred Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech’s all-world athlete Josh Okogie (it’s a soft “g” in Okogie).

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

As for the fallers, speaking specifically for my own re-rankings, it’s often been a rank of circumstance where a player like Huerter who happened to test, measure, and play well at the combine, rose and pushed other guys down. The same can be said for Okogie and DiVincenzo whose athleticisms were elite in Chicago. It’s also worth noting, specifically with Huerter, a lean white kid with a head of red hair, how a player’s appearance can potentially skew our perceptions. Even the redheaded NBA players that come to mind in Brian Scalabrine and Matt Bonner, while contributors to winning teams in their own right, occupied a place of self-deprecation; a jokey awareness that acknowledged their status as visual demographic outliers. There’s even a hint of this in my original notes on Huerter, where I wrote, “Not to be hyperbolic and it’s probably just a height and shooting thing, but he reminds me of Klay Thompson when he was at WSU.” The use of hyperbole wasn’t inappropriate in the sense that it’s a stretch to compare most college basketball players to one of the greatest shooters of all time. Rather, somewhere in my subconscious was probably a touch of awareness that Huerter’s pasty white complexion doesn’t have a long history of success in the NBA. Racial bias, either conscious or unconscious, is something that exists. Throughout this process, in terms of both our player comparisons and general scouting, I’ve attempted to maintain an awareness of when my analysis drifts into simplistic appearance-based comps, but the truth is that I have frequently found myself, with players of all sizes, slipping into this lazy approach and have had to intentionally make attempts to avoid it.

Then there’s the wrinkle of information dissemination. If you follow ESPN’s Jonathan Givony or Mike Schmitz on Twitter, you’re privy to a steady stream of firsthand reports on how players are performing at agency pro days. I get anxiety just watching these clips: basketball courts surrounded by NBA scouts and executives, all crowded shoulder to shoulder with their phones, clipboards, notebooks. They whisper to each other, seeming to be above it all, maybe even annoyed by the young men shooting, dribbling, and executing basketball maneuvers with their futures hanging in the balance. (And if you believe that landing spot, coaching decisions, team culture, and player development matter in how these young men evolve through the NBA, then yes, for the many of the kids participating in these pro days, whether or not they make a career out of the NBA is contingent on decisions made by the men [and I think it’s almost 99% men] watching them. Meanwhile, the kids, in their late teens and early 20s, exhibit a poise that makes me wonder how in the hell I would’ve performed in a similar setting at the same age. Of course, they’ve been groomed and trained for these moments for their entire lives, but that doesn’t diminish the pressure or largeness of the moment.) As we see Givony and Schmitz (and the Givonys and Schmitzes of the world) tweet out that Moritz Wagner “has been drenched in sweat every workout I’ve seen this pre-draft process. Goes Hard” or that Rodions Kurucs “helped himself after a tough year in Barcelona,” a few things can be taken away. First, it seems like every player is shining. The recaps of the pro days that I’ve seen are exclusively positive. Nowhere in the streams of tweets from Givony or Schmitz are critiques of ability or effort which isn’t to say their scouting reports, a more static piece of content, isn’t more well-rounded. But, for some players, there is silence. And silence in this setting, for me as a consumer of information that is exclusively positive, is akin to criticism.

Givony reported that there were “100 NBA reps expected” at the CAA pro day. NBA teams are plenty capable of drawing their own conclusions from full bodies of work just like the rest of us, but Givony/Schmitz actively influence the market valuations of these pro prospects and to some degree, have a likely hand in shaping where players land. It might be a the slightest of touches, the most delicate of nudges, but how we all land our assessments is influenced by both our own eye and the din of the chorus in all its varied forms and pitches.

Without ado and further meanderings, here are our revised big board rankings:

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 13 – 18

This is the third installment of our 2018 NBA draft coverage where we focus on players ranked 13th to 18th on our Big Board. With the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the draft in order to keep college eligibility passing on Wednesday, May 30th, we saw just a few guys from our big board head back to school. Most notably was the less popular Porter brother, Jontay. Our big board put him at 18th overall with a high of 16 (me) and a low of 24 (Maahs). It’s fair to say that after the combine where Porter had the highest body fat percentage, the lowest max vertical (tied), and the slowest three-quarter court sprint, that NBA scouts and front offices had him lower than our lowest rank.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have tentative plans to update the big board; likely in the upcoming week and I think there’d be quite a bit of movement. My guy Kevin Huerter from Maryland (I ranked him 37th) has been a high riser as has Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. Bug and Maahs are high on Mitchell Robinson and I’m still vacillating on my feelings on DeAndre Ayton which mostly boils down to effort and consistency. I even have trepidation about my number one overall player, Luka Doncic (mostly around his handle).

We’ll explore all of the above and maybe even get into the meaning of life as viewed through the NBA’s annual scouting and drafting in our next several posts. For now, we’ll focus on players 13 through 18 with an empty spot for the still-Missouri Tiger, young Jontay Porter.

 

All artwork done by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

Zhaire Smith (Hamilton):

Zhaire Smith’s unexpected rise could mean he’s either a late bloomer cut from the Russell Westbrook cloth, or, more simply an athletic standout whose skills won’t ever catch up. In his freshman year at Texas Tech he came out of nowhere both literally and figuratively. He was projected to play only 10-12 minutes per game but instead logged 28 on his way to 11 points and five rebounds with 58% eFG. This wasn’t your run of the mill Texas Tech team either. The clear number-two in the Big-12 ended up a three-seed and made it all the way to the Elite 8. Smith came out of nowhere literally by flying in for tip dunks and rebounds over bigger players. A 6’4” guard getting almost three offensive rebounds-per-game is impressive. He pops up around the ball a lot on both ends and plays hard. That effort combined with elite physical tools can carry a player a long way. Smith told the ESPN combine crew he played center in high school and didn’t shoot threes until his senior year. My fellow Iowan Ricky Davis had a similar career at Davenport North. He’s another NCAA/NBA wing with elite athletic gifts that didn’t get to adequately develop his perimeter skills in high school. Ricky transitioned quickly to the wing at Iowa, but I always had the feeling his development was a stunted a bit by playing out of position during formative years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for battling big players and learning to play in the paint. That may be even more useful in the modern NBA with all the switching and defenders guarding pretty much everyone at one time or another. Jimmy Bulter and Jae Crowder both played a lot of center at Marquette and have turned into two of the toughest and physical perimeter defenders in the NBA. Smith’s rebounding ability and instincts around the hoop show he picked up some things that may help him at the next level. A few of his weaker performances came against tough college defenses like Villanova (seven points, 3-8 shooting) and West Virginia (four points 1-4; nine pts 3-7). He’ll need to improve his ball handling, passing, and most of all shooting from outside to come close to the ceiling his athleticism has set for him. At this point he is just figuring out what do to with his powers and looks like a player teams picking between 10 and 15 will be afraid to take and afraid to pass up too.

Robert Williams (Hamilton):

Robert Williams has the physical profile of a contemporary NBA center. He’s a quick leaping big(ish) player who runs well and has great balance. He plays kind of like a smaller DeAndre Jordan but moves like Rudy Gay. He lacks the handle or shooting to be a wing player in the NBA, however. But there’s a nice career path for true small ball center offering legit rim protection. He tries to dunk everything around the hoop and many of his shots come in the paint and go up quickly via dishes, lobs, and rim runs in transition.  He attempted an underwhelming 70 free throws in 30 games, only attempting more than five in four games. This could be due to how and where he operates but could also be a concerted effort on his part to not get himself to the line. I’d probably try to stay off the line if I shot 47% too. Defensively, he works himself into nice positions for blocks, often coming over from the weak side. For how well he moves around in tight space he probably should have rebounded better in his second season at Texas A&M. 9.2 is good but it just looks like he should be getting more. That sort of thing is the knock on him – he’s not consistent and leaves you wanting more. There were two significant stretches, one at each end of the season, during which he failed to get double digit points. It doesn’t seem that he lacks an NBA motor; instead he just doesn’t keep it in a high enough gear consistently. For reasons like this he’s just a little too feast or famine to be worth taking early. The fit matters even more for players like him whose engagement and effort are fleeting. Landing on a team with good culture that genuinely cares about player development is going to be key for Williams to get off to a positive start and could determine how long and how successful his pro career turns out to be.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Bug):

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a rare blend of height and length for a point guard at 6’6” with a huge seven-foot wingspan. Gilgeous-Alexander uses his wiry 180-pound frame to slither to the rim, finishing well with either hand. Despite his slender build, he’s a solid finisher in traffic and doesn’t get bumped off his spots very often. He shot a very respectable 40% from 3, but only took 57 attempts, so the sample size is small. Shooting 40% from deep at least shows he can be a threat from that distance. On the defensive end, he uses those long arms to bait opponents to throw passes that are well within his reach. That length also causes a lot of disruption for smaller point guards getting into the offense. The most noticeable flaw in his game is his lack of burst and explosiveness. He plays with a slow pace, and for someone with his length, he doesn’t seem to finish above the rim very often. Gilgeous-Alexander will need to add strength at the next level as well, but that is typically the case for most freshmen jumping to the pros, so it isn’t a huge concern. He seems destined for the late lottery where the point guard-needy Clippers have two picks at 12 and 13. He would be a good fit with undersized shooting guard Lou Williams to build a new core in Clipperland.

Lonnie Walker IV (Fenrich):

I’m uncertain why I’m somewhat enamored with Lonnie Walker IV, but since I saw him donning the orange and green of the Miami Hurricanes, I’ve been fond of him. He’s just under 6’5”, but sports a “pineapple” hairstyle which he describes as “its own person this point…people have been calling it a pineapple” that pushes his peak height up around seven feet. Imagine this kid, 6’4” or 6’5”, pineapple do’ bouncing atop his head, arms stretching out like a bald eagle (over 6’10” wingspan), sprinting, reading the arc of the ball, crouching and coiling in mid-step, and ba ba ba BOOM exploding into tip dunk motion with those long arms reaching and powerful legs propelling (40” max vertical) him into the rim. This is just part of Lonnie Walker allure. I’m not too big on coachspeak, but his Miami coach, Jim Larranaga, described him on a broadcast that he, “might be the nicest person I’ve ever coached.” Watching his NBA combine interview, I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying he’s the “nicest,” but that’s not really the purpose of the interview. He’s not quite Mo Bamba polished, but he was engaging and thoughtful, referring to himself as a “knowledge freak” and oddly suggesting “earth is an illusion.” A questionable statement, but not one that takes away from a jumper that looked good at Miami (31% from three on 3.5 attempts/game in his first 15 games at Miami coming off of a meniscus tear suffered in July versus 36% on 6.5 attempts in his final 17 games), but looked great at his agency’s pro day in late May. In the limited, non-competitive setting of the pro day, Walker’s form was refined and his range easily extended to NBA distance. But I’m not convinced what type of player he’ll be at the pro level. His handle was sufficient for the college, but he seems to struggle to shift speeds on dribble drives. His passing (1.2 assists to 1.2 turnovers in first 15 games versus 2.5 assists to 1.1 turnovers in his second) is similar to his ball handling in that it was fine for Miami where they had two other competent ball handlers, but will need work to be a secondary NBA ball handler. Physically, the foundation is there for a strong pro, but it’s the outside shot that already looks to be NBA-ready that lifts his ceiling so much higher. I put his ceiling comparison as Bradley Beal, but I’m not convinced Walker has the same instincts as a scorer. In high school, he averaged just 18-points as a senior and during his best stretch at Miami (an eight-game swing in the winter), he averaged 18 which was better than his 11.5 during the season, but still not indicative of high level scoring. I was probably over-ambitious in seeing Beal or even Eric Gordon (his mid-level comp) in his game, but given the league’s shift towards the three-ball, it’s not inconceivable that Walker is a better scorer in the pros than he was in either high school or college. That he’s engaging and appears willing to work at his craft only increase the likelihood that he can near his potential and are probably part of the attraction to the kid with the pineapple hair.

Troy Brown (Bug):

Troy Brown Jr. didn’t dominate the competition his freshman year like some of his colleagues near the top of the draft, but he still put in a solid campaign at Oregon with averages of 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Prior to his time with the Ducks, Brown had a decorated amateur career that earned him a spot on the 2017 McDonald’s All-American squad. He’s one of the few players in this draft with the size of a small forward that can also run point for his team if needed. Standing just under 6’7” with a 6’11” wingspan, Brown was blessed with a late growth spurt in high school after playing point guard his entire life. That’s a huge advantage from a fundamental/basketball IQ standpoint, and you can tell that he has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor. Some of the passes he finds his teammates with while he is attacking off the dribble are reminiscent of LeBron’s precise skip passes to wide open shooters. I’m not comparing Troy Brown Jr. to LeBron James, but he has an awareness of where all his teammates are on the floor that is similar to King James. The only glaring weakness Brown has is his outside shot, where he struggled at just 29% from three on 110 attempts. That lack of a consistent outside shot reminds me a lot of Evan Turner when he was coming out of Ohio State.  Brown is expected to go somewhere in the 12-20 range in the draft, and still has a ton of untapped potential as one of the youngest players in this class (turns 19 in July). His NBA development is going to hinge on that outside shot progressing. He still has a high floor as a solid rotational player, with the chance to become a solid starter if the three-point attempts fall at a higher rate.

This spot will remain empty for 2018 and hopefully be filled by its rightful owner in 2019, Jontay Porter, an American teenager who strangely plays like a seasoned European and absolutely nothing like his older, and more highly-touted brother, Michael Porter.

2018 NBA Draft Big Board | Players 19 – 24

Welcome back to the second installment of the 2018 Dancing with Noah NBA draft big board where we’ll dive into players 19 through 24: Aaron Holiday, Khyri Thomas, Mitchell Robinson, De’Anthony Melton, Anfernee Simons, and Melvin Frazier. There’s a weird glut of tough defensive guys (Thomas, Holiday in a way, Frazier though I’m suspicious of his shooting, Melton who’s more like a non-scoring young Dwyane Wade) and mysterious kids in Simons and Robinson who didn’t play college ball this past season. As a group of scouts (I use that extremely loosely), we had the greatest variation on Melton who had a standard deviation of 6.3 and the least on Simons at 2.3. In some ways, the lack of footage and up-to-date scouting makes it more difficult to develop strong perspectives on Robinson and Simons who both look like world beaters in their YouTube clips. The college guys, by contrast, have reams of tape which leave them vulnerable to having their weaknesses picked at until a narrative feedback loop develops. Try as we might to avoid these feedback loops, the truth is that they likely infiltrate in ways we’re not even aware.

Enough of our foibles, let’s get on with the future:

All artwork by Andrew Maahs; http://www.basemintdesign.com

Hamilton: Aaron Holiday put up consistently solid numbers in his three years at UCLA proving himself a reliable shooter and scorer. He made over 40% of his threes in each season and wasn’t afraid to put them up there. He had an interesting tenure in Westwood, starting all 32 games as a freshman, then zero as a sophomore (behind Lonzo), and then all 33 his junior year. That’s a unique career arc and one that a lot of college players don’t follow. Holiday could have left the program when Lonzo and Big Baller Brand came in, but he stayed and proved he could still produce off the bench. Getting back into the starting lineup in his junior season helped propel him to the first 20ppg season at UCLA since Ed O’Bannon in 1995. He has a pro pedigree and a quick shot with plenty of range. He doesn’t elevate much on his threes but releases shots quickly – like a slightly smoother-looking Eric Gordon.  He plays sort of like his older brother, Jrue, but he’s much smaller. And that’s probably going to be most limiting factor for Aaron Holiday. He’s only 6’1” and 185 pounds. On offense, he makes up for this with a good hesitation move and the ability to split defenders and knife through tight spaces with his dribble. He navigates pick and rolls situations pretty well and is comfortable pulling up from well beyond 22-feet. Defensively is where he could be in real trouble as teams go after players with physical limitations and hunt for switches. He’s likely a backup PG for the foreseeable future, and more likely, for his entire career. His sophomore year at UCLA provides evidence he’s comfortable in that role.

 

Bug: From the moment Khyri Thomas stepped on campus at Creighton, he was already a problem for opposing teams on the defensive end. Tazz, as he is affectionately known by friends and family, is the reigning two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year and one of the premier perimeter defenders in this draft class. He’s a bit undersized for an NBA two-guard at 6’3”, but he more than makes up for his height with a 6’10” wingspan that will allow him to contest shots against bigger guards in the league. Although he doesn’t have the high steal numbers that you would expect from a DPOY, he plays a lockdown style of defense without gambling for steals and putting his teammates in a bad spot. Tazz is capable of guarding both backcourt positions and may be able to matchup with some small forwards in small ball lineups. His defensive accolades are well known, but it’s his steady improvement on the offensive side that has NBA circles buzzing. Khyri jumped his scoring up to 15ppg his junior season on only ten attempts-per-contest, while also shooting a 41% clip from three on 4.6 attempts-per-game (40% career from deep). Much like on the defensive end, Thomas is poised and smooth on offense, taking what the defense gives him. From a style of play and size standpoint, he compares favorably to Avery Bradley.  He’s going to give everything he has on defense, while also being capable of knocking down the open shot or getting to the rim and finishing if he’s run off the three-point line. The thing impacting Khyri’s draft slot the most is his age. Already 22, Thomas spent a year in prep school before his three seasons at Creighton, making him the age of a college senior. That will raise questions about his ceiling, but he’s somewhat of a late bloomer who still has some room to grow. Creighton coach Greg McDermott refers to him as a “zero maintenance player” and overall, he’s one of the safest players in this draft. He’s ready to play immediately as a 3-and-D wing and has the potential to work his way into a starting role down the road if he finds the right fit on the right team. I’m projecting Thomas will go in the 20s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team falls in love with him in the late teens.

 

Bug: Almost every college basketball recruiting site in the country had Mitchell Robinson pegged as a five-star, top-10 recruit in the spring of 2017. Everything was going great for Robinson, who not only destroyed overmatched high school competition (25.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, and six blocked shots per contest), but he also shredded the Nike EYBL circuit as well. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that Mitchell Robinson had the highest Nike EYBL player efficiency ranking (40.5) in the history of their database. Robinson was being mentioned in the same breath as Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, and Deandre Ayton as future NBA lottery picks, as well as being selected as a 2017 McDonald’s All-American. Everything took a turn when Robinson reported to campus at Western Kentucky the summer before his freshman year of college. Former UNC star Shammond Williams, who is also Robinson’s godfather, resigned from the Western Kentucky staff. Coach Williams was probably the sole reason Robinson went to WKU, so there was immediate tension that eventually led to Robinson asking for and being granted his release to transfer. Robinson decided to return to Western Kentucky, only to abandon his team a second time shortly after. Although Robinson has immense talent and potential, the way he handled the situation at WKU has really put a rain cloud over his draft stock and raised maturity concerns. Just when NBA execs thought they were going to get a look at how hard Robinson had been working while sitting out the entire season, he threw everyone another curveball by withdrawing from all NBA Combine activities the day the combine started. One thing NBA scouts do not like when investing millions of dollars into a player is flying blind on their evaluation. I’m assuming Robinson will hold his own private pro day, but the red flags have already been planted.

That said, I’ve had to resort to pouring over every YouTube highlight reel I could find to get a good read on Robinson’s game. After a few clips, it’s easy to see why college coaches and NBA scouts were salivating over him only a year ago. There are two things that really stand out as elite talents that Robinson possesses: 1) he can finish with authority on everything around the rim, and 2) he is an elite shot blocker. Robinson’s dunk and block radius around the rim are insane. Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson are ranked at the top of the draft based on their defensive prowess, but this kid might be better than both of them on the defensive end. We see him step out and hit the occasional three, but that isn’t going to be his thing in the NBA. Robinson appears to be extremely raw when it comes to post moves and footwork, but there’s a role for him in today’s NBA as a defensive-minded rim-runner in the mold of Clint Capela or DeAndre Jordan. The dilemma for NBA execs is whether or not the talent outweighs the red flags. Robinson has the talent to be a lottery pick, but you can’t help but question whether he is playing the game because he is good at basketball or because he loves the game. I think there will be a team in the late lottery or just outside the lottery that is willing to take that gamble.

 

Hamilton: Good players normally develop a lot between freshman and sophomore years. So De’Anthony Melton’s draft stock might very well be higher if he had played for USC this season. Unfortunately, Melton missed his potential breakout year after his name came up in the FBI’s investigation into NCAA basketball. The offensive numbers in his freshman year were average. Indeed, 28% from three and 70% FT is nothing to write home about. Eight-ppg is pedestrian too. It’s reasonable those numbers would have been better this year. How much better, we’ll never know. What you know for sure watching Melton is that he is all over the court and puts an imprint on games. On defense, he reads and reacts quickly as the ball moves getting his hands all over passes, loose balls, and rebounds.  A 6’3”ish player getting seven rebounds and 2.8 steals per-40-minutes isn’t messing around. College players tend to gamble on defense and Melton isn’t an exception. But he is instinctual in his gambles and quick enough to recover when he guesses wrong. He loves to push the ball on steals or rebounds, and keeps his head and eyes up looking to attack the basket or pass ahead. He has good feet and balance which helps him attack on both ends. His shot itself doesn’t look bad and if he can become an average three-point shooter and better than 75% from FT, there’s a path to becoming a top guard in this class. Markelle Fultz had a disappointing rookie year, but during his lone NCAA season when he proved himself to be the top pick, Melton got 16 points, six rebounds, six assists, and six steals in a head-to-head matchup. If he can’t realize his full potential, some team picking in the mid-late first round is going to get good value and be really happy about it.

 

Fenrich: Anfernee Simons of the great state of Florida, home of the mighty Seminole and infamous stand your ground laws, will turn 19 in a couple weeks and he’ll be drafted into the NBA in about a month. He’s a 6’3” two-guard and pretty much every clip I’ve seen of him is scoring-related: he’s shooting deep threes with his feet wide apart, pulling up for jumpers off the dribble with a comfort and calm that makes you forget he can legally buy cigarettes, but not wine coolers. He dunks with ease off two feet or one foot, capable of gathering and going straight up through the rim which was supported by his 32” standing vertical and 41.5” max vertical at the Chicago combine. His handle is summer breeze cool even if he’s been a little right-hand heavy. At almost-19, he looks like a professional scorer, but he still looks 19 with a soft babyish face, high cheekbones, and a lean frame. The knock on Simons, and you don’t see this in his high school clips, is that he’s lacking strength and you can see it on that still-developing body. I’m a little less-concerned about his strength and probably more about his tweener size and the lack of playmaking I’ve seen from him. Simons spent the 2017-18 season at IMG Academy where he trained as a prep year without actually playing for the IMG team. This blind spot of an entire, development-heavy age-18 season is a big one. If and how he’s been able to develop any playmaking skills as an undersized off guard is going to impact his ability to see the court as a young player. Measurement-wise, he’s like a leaner Victor Oladipo or a shorter, more explosive D’Angelo Russell, but I don’t get the sense he has the playmaking skill of either of those guys which isn’t to say it can’t be developed. Oladipo’s made strides in his creation, so it can definitely be done. Malik Monk comes to mind as an undersized scoring guard who compares well, at least physically, to Simons though Simons has a bit more Brandon Roy whereas Monk had a bit more Monta Ellis or Kevin Johnson punch to his game. With his still-developing physique and youthful face, it seems like it’s easy to forget that Simons is in the same peer set age-wise as DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Wendell Carter. What he’s lacking in stature though, he accounts for in skill and it’s not like he’s a Kyle Anderson-level athlete – his vertical is 41.5”! There’s a player here with a mega upside; one that only intensifies if he realizes the finer arts of defense and playmaking. Patience, as is often the case with our precocious savants (there I go again painting him as younger than he is), is the key and his landing spot is critical to his evolution and success.

 

It feels a little dehumanizing to refer to athletes as “freaks,” but in basketball parlance, Melvin Frazier is a freak. He’s a Jordanesque 6’6,” but has the wings of a predatory creature of flight at nearly 7’2”. At the combine, he registered a max vertical over 40”. Defense is Frazier’s meal ticket as his offense has been a work-in-progress since Tulane hired former NBA player and coach and the father of Mike Dunleavy Jr, Mike Dunleavy Sr, before Frazier’s sophomore season. Guarding the ball, he covers a ton of ground with his defensive slides and strong lateral movement. Even if his opponent is able to get a step, he’s long and quick enough with enough explosiveness to recover and at least harass the opposition. He reminds me a bit of Andre Iguodala in that he often keeps his hands down while playing defense. With the arms down, Frazier is frequently out of position on box outs. In Frazier’s case, this feels like a bad habit he’s been able to get away with in the American Athletic Conference. Despite his defensive impact (2.2 steals and nearly a block-per-game as a junior), he seems prone to defensive lapses. In limited tape I reviewed, he was beat off the dribble by a lesser attacker, gave up on a play after making an initial stop, and was beat backdoor because he wasn’t paying full attention. Multiple times he broke on a pass like he was playing defensive back, only to mistime the ball and leave his team at a disadvantage. Maybe more disconcerting, for me at least, was his critiquing a teammate on a miscommunication a switch. It’s minor, but his body language sometimes leaves a little to be desired (slumped shoulders and the teammate critique).

So how is a player with all these little defensive warts and an offensive game that, while showing flashes of feel (particularly on his court vision), has a long way to go being considered as a first round talent? His measurements, reflexes, and defensive instincts are pro level. With just a little discretion and accountability on the defensive side, Frazier could give quality minutes to an NBA team today. His shooting has significantly improved each year at Tulane with his true shooting going from 47% to 53% to 63% as a junior. This is all well and good, but the mechanics, both on his catch and shoot, and even more so on his pull up jumper, have a ways to go. Given that he has just 91 three-point attempts at the 38% clip versus 169 attempts (soph and frosh) as a 27% shooter, I’m not convinced that he’s fully turned the corner as a shooter, particularly as the range extends in the NBA. My issues with Frazier are primarily things you can teach: defensive habits, jump shot mechanics, interpersonal communication. The things you can’t teach like length and athleticism are already prevalent. If Frazier is willing to work and learn, he has the tools to be a long-time NBA player. But for every Kelly Oubre or Josh Howard (players who have comparable measurements to Frazier), there’s a lot more of the Lenny Cooke, Adonis Thomas, or Renaldo Balkmans; players who had the tools, but not the wherewithal to use them to the best of their ability.

2018 Dancing with Noah NBA Draft Big Board; alternately: We are all Avery Bradley

236 basketball players are testing the NBA waters this spring. This doesn’t include seniors like Keita Bates-Diop, Grayson Allen, Jevon Carter, Devonte Graham, Kenrich Williams, or Kevin Hervey. There are just 60 picks in the draft, but during the 2016-17 season, 88 players made rookie appearances. In 2017-18, that number jumped up to 120, thanks, in part, to two-way contracts between the G-League and NBA. Through the G-League and global scouting, the league has created a talent pool that is deeper and wider than ever. As more players present themselves as NBA-caliber, the basketball world gets both bigger and smaller. Bigger in the sense that not being drafted is no longer a death knell to a player’s NBA aspirations. Smaller in the sense that the league continues to evolve in how it keeps tabs on players – from teenagers entering the USA Basketball system to a G-League that’s on its way to every NBA team having its own minor league affiliate. There are very few Neon Boudeaux’s these days.

Despite this growing population of NBA newcomers, the most impactful players are still being found in the draft. Of those 120 rookies that appeared in NBA games this season, just 26 of them appeared in at least 1,000 minutes. Of those, just three (12%) players were second-round picks (Sindarius Thornwell, Semi Ojeleye, and Wesley Iwundu), and three (12%) were undrafted (Max Kleber, Royce O’Neal, and Milos Teodosic). Among starters of the four conference finalists, three (15%) were second-round picks (Draymond Green, Trevor Ariza, and PJ Tucker) while one part-time starter wasn’t drafted (Aron Baynes).

Of course, 1,000 minutes and starters on conference finalists are completely arbitrary in terms of their selection and statistical significance, but directionally they help to remind us that the top 80-some-odd-percent of the league’s primary contributors still come from the first round.* I expect that this percentage gets smaller over time, but at present, Draymond Green (35th overall, not big enough), Isaiah Thomas (60th overall, too small), Paul Millsap (47th overall, small school, too small), Manu Ginobili (57th overall, too European/Argentine), Kyle Korver (51st overall, can he get his shot at this level?) are still outliers, players who serve as reminders to guard against physical, racial, or geographic bias or conventional stubbornness. *(This was sticking in my craw or something so I looked at the total minutes played by drafted players beginning with the 2003 draft and ending with the 2017 draft. Among all drafted players in that sample, lottery picks make up 44.8% of total minutes (2,270,126 out of 5,069,530), rest of first round makes up 32.7%, and second rounders make up 22.6%. First rounders (lottery included) make up 77.4% of total minutes. This doesn’t include any undrafted players.)

It is under this guise of an ever-expanding universe of potential draftees that my friends joined me to pull together a 55-player big board for the 2018 draft cycle. I’ll caveat and hopefully not lose you by admitting we haven’t seen or scouted all 236 of the players who put their name in the draft. Most concerning for me is probably Elie Okobo; a favorite among some draftniks whose perspectives I respect. I didn’t see Tyus Battle either, but that’s maybe because I have a semi-conscious bias towards Syracuse. It’s hard to say. I would’ve liked to see and understand Jarred Vanderbilt better, but sometimes the universe, injuries, and the loss of Draft Express’s Youtube clips conspires against us.

Leading up to the draft, we’ll post deeper scouting profiles and projections on the top 30 players appearing on our big board. And if time and inspiration allow for it, we may go deeper on guys who felt outside of the top-30, but who one of us may be high on.

In the big board below, you’ll see a few basic values such as the rankings from me and my Dancing with Noah (DWN) friends and colleagues: Bug, Hamilton, and Maahs. You’ll see our DWN average ranking and the DWN standard deviation. The standard deviation is maybe more intriguing to me than the rankings on their own as the greater the deviation, the greater the difference in what our eyes see. There’s the Season-long aggregate rank (YR AVG) which includes big boards from Draft Express, NBADraft.net, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, and The Stepien which offer up a longer, consensus view. And finally, there’s a comparison of the DWN average versus the consensus (DIFF). Again, I’m a lot less interested in players like Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton who have a difference in aggregate of less than one. The differences are where learning lies.

The other piece of context that’s worth including is that, between me and the other guys ranking players, we haven’t discussed our criteria for ranking. There isn’t any component of the following posts that has to do with mock drafting, but that doesn’t discount the role of team and scheme in how we discuss these players, scout them, or how I’ve ranked them. I encountered a bit of the Allen Iverson conundrum while ranking some of these players in that I believe Collin Sexton and Michael Porter to be players with higher ceilings than Mikal Bridges, but consider Bridges to be a more adaptable player who may offer a greater contribution to winning. But none of these concepts (ceiling, adaptability, or winning contribution) are absolutes. It’s not that Bridges has reached his ceiling or that Sexton or Porter must be lead dogs in order produce. If we dealt in these absolutes, then perhaps player rankings would be easier. We don’t deal in absolutes though and perhaps, in the right role, with the right coaching, Sexton could become a perfect fourth man on a contending team. Another example is the role evolution of Andre Iguodala who’s found his greatest success as a role player. With a highly adaptable game and the mindset of accepting a diminished role, Iguodala has achieved wild success, but few will suggest he was better than Iverson who required massive usage to achieve optimal effectiveness and who struggled in less usage-heavy roles. Did my colleagues think about this the same way? I doubt it, but do all 30 teams use the same criteria when ranking their players? I have my doubts. (Looking at you David Kahn.)

nba draft, deandre ayton, big board, luka doncic

Artwork by Andrew Maahs. His portfolio can be found here: basemintdesign.com

Random Stats before the Home Stretch (75% of the way there); Alternately: Straddling the Nine with James Harden

Having a child and moving across the country has pushed basketball writing down on my list of priorities, but in these pockets of corporate and domestic living, I’m trying to scratch and claw my way into the word documents and share with you the weird, the strange, the awesome, the historical. We’re some odd three fourths of the way into the season, and as is always the case, the world’s greatest basketball players are venturing into unchartered places where no men (or very few men) have walked, run, jumped or dunked before. And in honor of the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who led the league in scoring and assists 50 years ago, and wore number 14, I have 14* random ass stats for you to consume at your own leisure. As always, shouts to Basketball Reference, a site and group of humans truly doing the lord’s work.

Note: all stats are as of 2/28/18. By the time you click a link, a player’s average or percentages may have moved by a tenth of a point and thus negated the achievement. Such is the fickle nature of records.

*Some of the list items have more than one stat included.

  • Steven Adams, 5.1 offensive rebounds, 17% offensive rebound percentage: Steven Adams isn’t the GOAT offensive rebounder (that’s probably Moses Malone), and he’s not even the best right now (probably Andre Drummond), but he is one of just six players in league history (Malone, Drummond, Dennis Rodman, Larry Smith, Jayson Williams) to average as many o-rebs and as high of an o-reb percentage as he is this season. Beyond his devil-may-care attitude to crashing the glass, no player on this list has a greater percentage of his total rebounds come on the offensive end. 56% of Adams’s total rebounds are occurring on the offensive end. That’s 5.1 offensive boards/game to 3.9 defensive. A portion of the reading audience will point to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as the sole reason for Adams’s lack of defensive rebounds, but regardless of snarling causes and effects, Adams’s inverted rebounding ratio is rare and probably historical.

  • James Harden 31-8.9: When I first pulled these stats together a few days ago, Harden was sitting at 31 points and nine assists-per-game. Since then, he’s dropped down to 8.9 and will likely straddle the nine (not a term I ever expected to write) for the rest of the season. As it stands, his 31-8.9 places him in cahoots with former Thunder teammate and Steven Adams rebound stealer, Westbrook, Tiny Archibald, and the Big O. I’ve never considered parallels between Robertson’s and Harden’s games, but the physical characteristics and positions are somewhat applicable. Robertson was a physically overpowering guard, much like Harden is; a pair of players who physically defy the flying Jordan paradigm in exchange for blunt force delivered with equal grace.
  • Joel Embiid’s turnovers: 12 times in NBA history has a player 6’10” or taller averaged 3.8 turnovers or higher. Embiid is threatening to make it 13 times and join the ranks of Boogie Cousins (a three-timer), Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Mickey Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Jeff Ruland and Ralph Sampson. But let’s not stop at just single seasons. In his short, injury-ravaged career, Embiid has played just 78 games and averaged over six turnovers-per-100 possessions which puts him in much more dubious company. Of the five other players included on this list, I’ve only ever heard of one of them: Mark Radford, Dean Tolson, Ernie DiGregorio (he’s the one I heard of), Steve Kuberski, and Dale Schlueter. Who are these people, these friends of Joel’s?

Note that the back of the card tells us that “Steve trades elbows with opposing forwards.” Card found here: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_665119

  • Ben Simmons 16-7-7: Counting this season, Ben Simmons makes the 36th occurrence of the well-rounded 16-7-7 line. He’s also joining fellow big guards, Magic Johnson and the Big O, as the only rookies to post the line. As we’ll see with the next few stats, the league as a whole is becoming more skilled and that includes our taller players who benefit from copious amounts of shooters, spread floors, and an advanced understanding of how to pick out open teammates. They also just happen to be have more broadly developed games than many of their back-to-the-basket predecessors. If Simmons came along in 1977, I have my doubts that he would’ve wound up as a point guard.
  • 6’7” and taller, +7 assists/game, +5 assists/game: Assists are a somewhat arbitrary stat. If you’ve ever done any assist tracking, what score keepers constitute an assist can vary massively. Additionally, being surrounded by better shooters can rack up high assist counts for an otherwise average passer. Nitpicking aside, tall players are tallying assists in ways we’ve never seen. Three players at least 6’7” (LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Simmons) are averaging over seven assists/game which was last done 31 years ago by Magic, Larry, and Reggie Theus. If we expand our assist thresholds to five-per-game, the current season has eight guys qualifying; the aforementioned Bron/Draymo/Simmons trio in addition to Nic Batum, Boogie, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are both sitting at 4.9. The previous record for players of this height picking up this many assists was six in 1986-87. No popping champagne this year, guys.
  • 6’10” and taller, over one 3pa/gm: If we continue exploring the intersection of height and skill, we presently have 21 players at least 6’10” averaging over one three made/game. The list I linked to doesn’t even include the giant, Kevin Durant, who could be as tall as 7’2” after a good stretch but is insultingly listed as 6’9”. We know the game is spacing out further and further. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson bombing from the hash marks or the massive Embiid (a 7’2”, nearly 300lb mountain of a human flesh, bones, polysynthetic fibers, and rubber bands developed in labs) with his almost-set shot, we’re seeing the boundaries pushed out further by our biggest and tallest players which is fundamentally altering the style of play and rewriting the record books.
  • Stephen Curry, efficient shooter: Curry’s the best shooter to play in NBA history. It’s hard to dispute this and somehow, at age 29, he’s having his best season yet in terms of true shooting percentage. At a ridiculous 67.2%, better than his 2016 second MVP season (66.9%), he’s entered into a domain occupied by only big men – and Cedric Maxwell. Not to discount what Maxwell, Artis Gilmore, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, James Donaldson, and Wilt Chamberlain achieved, but none of these ultra-efficient big men attempted more than 11 shots per-game. Curry’s crossed the 67% TS threshold on over 17 attempts/game; the bulk of which come outside the paint. If we push outside of the single season, Curry becomes one of just five players (all bigs and again, Maxwell), to have appeared in over 600 games with a TS 62% or higher. This is a somewhat inverse of the previous stats where we’ve seen big men encroaching on the turf of wings and guards. Curry, with his Predator-like accuracy (47-43-90 for his career), deep shooting, and scorer’s volume, has barged his way into efficiency conversations previously limited to dunking big men.

  • Anthony Davis, 28-10-2: If we’re rounding up, this is Davis’s second 28-10-2 season as he was a 27.9ppg scorer last season. If we’re not rounding up, Davis is the first player since Shaq in 2000-01 to have this impact on the game in terms of points, blocks, and rebounds, and just the sixth to achieve it (David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Kareem, Bob McAdoo thrice, and Shaq). He’s also doing it in less minutes-per-game than anyone on the list except 97-98 Shaq. With the rise of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis, and Embiid, combined with Davis’s constant missed games and injuries, it has seemed, at times, like his star has dimmed. Since Boogie went down, the Brow has elevated his everything and reminded us of his place in the present and historic lens of the Association. Pray to the new gods and the old that his health continues.
  • Andre Drummond, rebounder: Are rebounds valuable? Are they an indicator of team success? Should anyone crash offensive boards? Is this a new market inefficiency? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you that Drummy gets more rebounds than anyone in today’s NBA. Looking all the way back through Basketball Reference’s database, only three times has a player appeared in at least 30 minutes per-game and grabbed at least 26% of the available rebounds: Dennis “the Worm” Rodman did it in 91-92 and 95-96. And now, after having surgery to repair a deviated septum in the off-season, Drummond is doing it. Detroit’s not winning as much as they should, but who cares when their big man is rebounding at Rodmanesque levels? Someone cares, it’s just not me.
  • 42% assists in 700+ games, Russell Westbrook: As stated above, assists are not necessarily indicative of great passing, playmaking, or even of unselfishness. In some cases, maybe they’re just indicative of control. Three players in NBA history have assisted on over 42% of their team’s scored field goals: John Stockton (did it on 19% usage), Chris Paul (24% usage), and now Westbrook on a whopping 33% usage. For context, for players who have appeared in over 700 games, Westbrook is second all-time on usage rate (Michael Jordan is first). I made an assumption that as players get older, their usage would decrease, but looking across Kobe, Jordan, and Wade (all close to Russ on career usage), they each had big usage numbers late in their careers so I have no idea where Westbrook’s goes from here. None of this is to say that Westbrook isn’t an excellent passer, but rather to articulate that his gaudy assist rates are a by-product of a ball-dominant style combined with high level passing.
  • >36 minutes, <1.8 assists, >23% usage, Andrew Wiggins: What an oddball stat I dug up here. Counting Wiggins this season, it’s been achieved 34 times; most recently by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. I don’t know what to make of this list. It includes guys like Moses Malone (an eight-time inductee), Dwight, Antawn Jamison, Elvin Hayes, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Keith Van Horn (all twice), Rudy Gay, Dominique Wilkins, and Rashard Lewis (all once). And then there are a bunch of oddballs. The combination of high volume minutes and usage with virtually nil playmaking is something I want to attribute to low basketball IQ or perhaps a myopic perspective on the attacking side of the ball; but it’s not that simple as Jamison, Malone, Zo, Nique, Rashard were all dynamic players who were maybe just less-than-average passers. The player has opportunity, but it’s either outside of their skillset or not something the player is willing to do.

If so much of these outlier stats serve as examples of an expanding skill set in the modern player, Wiggins, and Westbrook to a different degree, serve as sore thumbs of stagnation, of stasis. What is interesting in both players is their overwhelming athleticism and the potential opportunity to speculate how dependence on a certain skill can impede development of other skills. The need to evolve or die isn’t applicable because, in these scenarios, the player is already so developed physically, that other weaknesses can be hidden or overlooked. This isn’t to imply that Westbrook or Wiggins are not very good or even great at what they do. Rather, to differentiate their styles through statistical outliers.

Spring is in the air which means the playoffs will be here soon … soon

 

Melo & Bron: A Diverging Examination of Player Decisions & Player Power

Maybe it all started back in 2006, 11 years ago when Barack Obama hadn’t even taken office and the future was about as clear as Phil Jackson in room with sage, incense, and other clouds of organic nature. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James signed extensions with their teams: Bron three years with a player option for the Cavs. Melo, four years with a player option for Denver, and thus began a gradual resetting of courses that at one time appeared maybe, kinda parallel. The ensuing years have revealed not just a gap in on-court skill sets, but a gap in decision making and how these megawatt star players leverage their power to achieve both on and off-court goals.

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

 

Fast forward to 2010 when James (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) declined his player option and infamously took his talents to South Beach. In that fell swoop, the Miami super friends seized power from teams, owners, and front offices. (It’s fair to question how much power was seized as each player took less money to join forces.)

By contrast, Melo was stuck in his remaining year in Denver where the core of the roster was set to enter free agency and watching his friends and fellow 2003 draftees must’ve felt like missing out on the biggest basketball party in the world. That Nuggets core included Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups who had a team option remaining. Combine roster uncertainty with what was an almost guaranteed lockout in the following season and Melo had motivating factors for leaving that went beyond New York and his wife’s (La La Anthony) professional ambitions.

Where Bron and friends went for the off-season, long-term approach, Melo took a new tact and forced a trade in-season. Because he was set to become a free agent, he held the power as prospective buyers were rightly reluctant to give up assets in exchange for a player who wouldn’t commit to re-signing. This has become a blueprint of sorts which we’ve seen most recently with the Paul George-to-Lakers posturing and if George ends up staying in Oklahoma City, there will no doubt be second guessing in Lakerland over their decision to not pay up for the multi-time all-star when they had the chance.

The Lakers differ from the Knicks trading for Melo in that they weren’t willing to give up certain assets (Brandon Ingram, the second pick) for a player they have a chance at signing in 2018. The Celtics took a similar tact in their George conversations. The Knicks gave up a handful of low spades (h/t Bomani Jones) to acquire Melo including three picks; one of which turned into Dario Saric in 2014 and a pick-swap in 2016 that turned into Jamal Murray.

Let’s pause here and look at where James’ and Anthony’s decisions had landed them heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season:

  • The 2006 decision to re-sign for an extra fourth season pushed Melo closer to financial uncertainty heading into the 2011 lockout whereas James had signed for a highly-flexible six-year deal with Miami in 2010 with years five and six as player options.
  • The 2010 decision by James to join Miami landed him with a proven-winner in Pat Riley, an NBA champ in Wade, and a third all-star in Bosh. It was the ultimate in player agency and self-determination.
  • Melo’s 2011 forced trade didn’t leave the cupboard bare in New York, but placed him alongside a 25-point-scoring Amare Stoudemire, an aging Billups, and a Marcus Camby-type figure in Tyson Chandler. In addition, he agreed to a three-year extension.
  • At this point, neither player had won a title.

While it’s fair to look at how the Knicks have devolved since 2011, at the time, it wasn’t the worst assortment of talent. In December of 2011, using the playbook Melo put together, Chris Paul was reportedly trying to force his way to New York to join Melo and Stoudemire. As NBA players and agents quickly learned from each other how to gain and use leverage, the attempts of Melo, Stoudemire, and Paul to converge in New York was a combination of the Melo leverage play and the Bron/Heat super friends approach. I don’t know if it was quite unprecedented, but it did signal what the future of player movement and team building would look like.

The Paul deal never panned out, Stoudemire was crushed by injuries, Billups fell off and the Knicks didn’t take up his option. Competent executive Donnie Walsh left prior to the 2011-12 season as well, stripping the team of probably its sanest and smartest decision maker.

Melo isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Knicks front office any more than he’s responsible for Stoudemire’s injuries. But positioning yourself as a power player creates a natural, fair or not, over-analysis of your decisions. And the Knicks with James Dolan as owner had a long history of bumbling. That they teased fans with a successful 2012-13 season before spiraling into sub-optimal mediocrity under Phil Jackson is hardly a surprise.

Heading into the summer of 2014, the chasm between James and Melo, which had once been moderate back in 2010, had grown massively and not just because James was the better player, but because he played the decision-making game better. By aligning himself with healthy, in-prime all-stars, and a stable front office, he was fully empowered to excel on-the-court.

In June of 2014, Melo declined his player option with the Knicks and went on a free agency tour that included visits with the Bulls, Lakers, Mavs, and Rockets. Except for the Lakers, the other teams Melo met with offered a combination of proven stars and teams flirting with 50-win seasons – so of course two of the final three teams on Melo’s list were non-playoff teams: the Lakers and Knicks.

In hindsight, bypassing the soon-to-be-ravaged-by-injury Bulls was a stroke of luck and besides, Melo would get his chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York a couple seasons later. But at the time, opting back in to New York was interesting if unsurprising. In what should have foreshadowed future acrimony, there was strain between Jackson and Melo even during the free agency process as Jackson publicly needled Melo to take less money. For Jackson, the notion of courting a star has always run counter to convention or common sense, but when you have two hands worth of rings as your resumé, leeway is granted.

Meanwhile, after getting smoked in the 2014 finals by the Spurs, James returned to the Cavs, but not without assurances; namely Kevin Love. At the same time, Melo either bought into Jackson’s vision of the future or he went with the creature comforts of home. It’s funny to read immediate reactions from Melo’s signing and see where the focus was so heavily directed at title contention – not in 2014-15, but sometime during the Phil/Melo regime. Sweet hindsight provides a clarity inaccessible to the intoxication of a $122M reunion and a future envisioned by a man referred as the Zen Master. Not everyone was on board with Melo’s choice though as GQ’s Bethlehem Shoals was scraping away at the same Melo issues that have reared their head three years later.

By gaining assurances on landing Love and pairing him with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs didn’t offer James a glimpse of the future. They offered him a concrete present where the path to the finals was visible for the most nearsighted of eyes. Owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to competing, regardless of cost, made it possible to build a complementary team of shooters and cheap veteran talent to land a championship roster. (This looks a little different three years into the James return as Gilbert has fired championship GM, David Griffin and as of this writing, the front office remains somewhat in limbo and the Kyrie Irving trade demands cast a shadow on the whole of the Cavs [including Bron’s] management.)

By contrast, Jackson continued to insist on the triangle in New York; continued to insist on the team playing his way, not tapping into the skills of its $122M superstar. It’s not that Griffin’s or Jackson’s approaches to team building are right or wrong. They’re different philosophies with different degrees of flexibility and rigidity depending on personnel. That James chose the more complementary team or managed to gain influence over that team is a testament to either his foresight or power or a combination of both. Melo re-upping with New York without an obvious road to future success speaks either what was most important to him (financial security, New York family) or an inability to assess the NBA’s competitive landscape and how that Knicks team fit into it. Ten to 14 years into the Melo/Bron journey, we’ve seen James continually make decisions that align with his off-court interests and his on-court aspirations while Melo awkwardly fights with his GM and soaks in life as one of the most popular athletes in New York.

The big wrinkle in Melo’s 2014 contract was the inclusion of the no-trade clause which gave him the power to veto a deal to any team in the association. For all of Anthony’s questionable decision making over the years, this was one of his shrewder and smarter demands and is the kind that only a few players can make. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest tool in his belt to fend off Jackson’s repeated attempts to banish him from the Knicks forever.

Alas, even Melo’s better decisions create potential stumbling blocks. Reportedly, Melo refused Phil’s attempts to move him out of New York. For much of the 2016-17 season, an updated Melodrama (Melodrama III if we’re counting, but there’s a minimum amount of relevance required to have your foibles named and Melo’s relevance is nowhere near its peak of 2011) played out across the headlines of New York publications with Jackson doing everything in his power to sink his star’s value while simultaneously trying to trade him. Throughout it all, Melo steadfastly refused to be dealt until Jackson was finally fired in late June. Less than a week after Jackson was dumped, it was reported that Anthony was now willing to waive the no-trade if he was dealt to Houston or Cleveland. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Given that Anthony largely controls the process, it will be difficult for New York to demand significant assets in any trade.” Which makes one wonder what Melo’s true motivations are or were. Did he just want to outlast Phil or did he truly want to remain a Knick? Does winning matter or does it just matter once Melo has everything else Melo wants?

There’s no small amount of irony comparing James to Melo in terms of decision making. After all, Bron is the player who set up an entire televised special to announce he was leaving his hometown Cavs to play for the Miami Heat. His decision and the manner he delivered it exhibited tone deafness and a lack foresight. He’s exhibited passive aggressive behavior towards teammates and front offices, sub-tweeted teammates on social media, taken a shit on fans after losing to the Mavs in 2011. In short, the follies of maturation and shortcomings in interpersonal communication styles have been on loop for all of us to watch for the past 15 years. While his platforms and message have sometimes lacked a broad view, his choices in terms of teams and teammates have been masterful. If you believe him to be a shadow GM, well, his player personnel decisions are much more impeachable.

So we land here in July of 2017 and Melo, after long stating he wants to stick it out in New York hasn’t just lifted the no-trade clause for a couple of teams. Rather, according to Woj, “he’s made it clear to them (the Knicks) that I want to go to Houston. I’m not interested in talking to you about being reincorporated back into this New York roster.” He may have outlasted Phil and resumed his role as controller of his own destiny, dictating his next destination to Steve Mills and Scott Perry. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that he’s managed to land in three separate times in his career. It’s no small thing for a worker to seize the reins of power from management and ownership, but Melo’s done it. And for once, his desire to join a pre-made roster instead of sitting at the center of a future-facing plan looks to be real. Was it all as simple as a power struggle with the ancient Phil Jackson? Or is Melo’s basketball biological clock ticking as sneaks glimpses of pro basketball mortality? We’ll never know. Assuming Melo lands in Houston, without the weight of a franchise on his New York-born shoulders, one only can hope he finds a peace and satisfaction that was always out of grasp at home.

2017 Pro Basketball MVP: Russell Westbrook

Art from Matt Hollister http://www.matthewhollister.com

Russell has a bad beard, barely a beard
So Harden Schmarden
Russell is broad-shouldered, jumps high, runs fast, shoots imaginary pistols, snarls, is the latest embodiment of a made-up mentality called mamba
Man-made of bones and flesh though sometimes it doesn’t seem so like when he’ll
Snatch a board and explode like the Flash or Usain Bolt with basketball
Passing Steven and Enes, and Victor and Billy, and Steve McQueen and Dutch McQueen
It’s impossible though to keep up the high forever
Acid wears off, paint runs dry, the sun grows cold and dim, and Russell, unlike Wilt,
Can’t play 48.5 minutes a game
Sit, rest, sweat, replenish with electric koolaid Gatorade
And witness and watch a wannabe empire crumble on a
Kevin Durant departure, like a
Prairie twister flinging Clay-B into snarling jaws of PNW throngs
Plus, minus, net, zero
 

Russell has knuckles that bulge, big hands I see during press conferences gripping thin-necked mics
Those same big hands the tools of a furious craftsman shaping a world of leather and wood and glass and steel and nylon
Big heart pumping, big heart probably three times the size of a normal human heart like he’s the human Secretariat
Chasing down Big O, Big Oscar, Big grouchy pants, while the pitched screams of the chorus clash in some unholy demonic din
Love, hate, sober, drunk, we can’t agree on anything
Even numbers lie these days
Over-contextualized
Down to the subdermal layers to the atoms of Russell’s being, scrutinizing
Every
Fucking
Rebound
 

Stack up all the stats like petty biscuits of achievement and gobble it up without milk
Choke on the numbers
Critical and confused in a day where we know everything and yet still believe in what we can’t see
Everything ends and every ending starts with some sprouting in spring or something
 

A car crash in Houston on a
Late night in April
Careening into Patrick
(“Your mom!”)
Beverley Schmeverley
Russell MVP rising so far so fast
Commercialized, commodified to sell product
In funny clothes, clownsuits
Prisoner of a musecage of his own design
(Oh, give it a rest, Kobe)
How though?
Head to head, I mean rim to rim nuclear-propelled missile bullet rocket projectile thundering sonic boom
Bukkake acid rain all over the NBA
 

But fizzle fizzle fizzle
No cupcake, no sadness, no victory
Those big hands crinkling, those knuckles crunching
Pupils big like frisbees
A multi-hued splatter on hardwood canvas
Bill Walton Jackson Pollock basketball
Drunk on a tappable fury reserve,
Futuristic basketball player in Joanie Mitchell hats
Validated in losing, but still
Validated, but still
Losing, but still
Validated …

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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