Monday, December 22, 2014

The Kentucky Tag Team

There were two reasons why Kentucky was able to run UCLA off the floor on Saturday and there are two reasons why they have a legitimate chance to go undefeated - Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns. You just don't expect to see two 7'0 with that type of size, skill and athleticism on the same college team. You don't even really expect to see that on an NBA team. When you have two 7'0 who are as good at those two on both sides of the ball, everyone else is essentially along for the ride. All the guards have to do is hit open 3's and take care of the ball. When they do that, like they did against UCLA, they are essentially unbeatable. 

The first thing you have to understand about Cauley-Stein and Towns is they shouldn't really be playing in college in the first place. If Cauley-Stein had declared for the draft in either of the last two years, he would have been a lottery pick. It seems probable that if he had not injured his shoulder in the NCAA Tournament, which prevented him from helping Kentucky win a national title and necessitated surgery in the off-season, he would have been in the draft last year. John Calipari even said that he didn't expect to have him back. 

Towns is a little more complicated, in that the rules say he can't play in the NBA until after one year in school, so he technically shouldn't be in the league. However, if you look at his size and the sophistication in which he plays, I don't think there's any question he would be able to hang at the next level if he got "called up" next week. I remember the first time I saw him - in the 2013 Hoop Summit, when he was playing against guys like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle - and thinking this guy could play in the NBA right now. And that was a year and a half ago. 

That might seem like a ridiculous thing to say, given that Towns was 17 at the time, but you have to understand the reason that most teenagers would struggle in the NBA is the size and physicality of the grown men they would be going up against. Karl Towns is 7'0 250 with a 7'3 wingspan and he plays the PF position - he is significantly bigger, faster and longer than most of the grown men he would be going up against. Force = mass x acceleration is why it's so hard for most NCAA players, even stars, to transition to the next level. If you look at scouting reports for big men, almost all of them will say "needs to add 10-15 pounds of muscle". Not with Towns. He has more mass and more acceleration than 95% of the league.

For great big men, the rules are different. Does anyone think Anthony Davis would have struggled if he had played in the NBA at age 18? In terms of when he was ready to be an NBA-caliber player and be a rotation player on a good team, it was probably as soon as his growth spurt happened. DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond were the same way - they were so physically developed at such an early age that the best competition for them would have been able to play against grown men. Over in Europe, this practice is commonplace. Jonas Valanciunas, Tiago Splitter, Pau Gasol - they were all pro's by the time they were 15-16. The reality of the age limit is there's a small number of guys who could have went pro as soon as they got a driver's license and the NBA doesn't want to deal with the rest.

To be sure, there would still be people giving Towns welcome to the NBA moments at the next level. When he plays Anthony Davis, it will be the first time in his life he will be going up against someone who is longer and faster than him. At the same time, Towns and Cauley-Stein are giving out welcome to the NBA moments while they are still in college. That's one of the other reasons that Kentucky games so often resemble AAU games - the other team is facing something they have never seen before and their timing is totally off. I remember the first time I played a 6'10+ guy in AAU basketball - it was legitimately shocking. You have to re-calibrate the release point on your shot. Shots that were open your entire life playing basketball are no longer open.

That's what happened to UCLA on Saturday. The Bruins aren't a great team by any teams, but they have a ton of talent. Kevon Looney is going to be a lottery pick whenever he declares for the draft. Norman Powell, even if he's not drafted, will still be in someone's training camp next season. Isaac Hamilton, one of Jordan Hamilton's younger brothers, has a chance to become a great college player and possibly play in the NBA one day. Their other starters are a McDonald's All-American (Tony Parker) and a guy averaging 18 points a game (Bryce Alford). They can out-talent 95% of the teams in college basketball. What they found out in Chicago was that there's always a bigger man in a prison, shout out to Lionel Hollins.

My theory as to why teams like UCLA and Kansas struggled against Kentucky, even in comparison to a team like Columbia, is that the former two can play sloppy and win most of their games. Columbia has to play against most teams like they play against Kentucky - perfect team ball which makes up for their individual limitations. All the bad habits that UCLA and Kansas had were exposed by Kentucky. Kentucky plays team basketball, so if a less talented team tries to play 1-on-1 against them, they are going to straight up embarrass them. None of that means that a really good team with enough size who can play team basketball - like Texas - can't give Kentucky a game. Even the Anthony Davis team lost twice. 

UCLA, for all their individual talent, wasn't the type of team that was going to challenge Calipari's platoons. They just wasn't prepared for that Kentucky life. They shot 27% from the floor and none of their starters was even near 50%. Parker went 1-10 and Looney went 4-14. When you are going up against two long, mobile and active 7'0 roaming around the floor, both of whom are capable of protecting the rim, defending the post and switching on the pick-and-roll, there just isn't much room to operate in the half-court. And you definitely don't want to play those guys in transition. There was one sequence in the second half where Cauley-Stein and Towns were the two defenders on a pick-and-roll. UCLA turned it over because WTF.

What makes those two unique - and what gives them a chance to be a historically dominant duo at the college level - is all the different ways they can beat you over the course of a game. They can beat you like the Wallace boys in Detroit, covering up the entire court on defense. They can beat you like Dirk and Tyson Chandler, with a versatile offensive-minded 7'0 and a versatile defensive-minded 7'0. They can beat you like Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, picking apart a team with their passing from the post. And they can beat you like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, playing volleyball on the offensive glass. They are a two-headed 7'0 hydra and they make it very, very difficult for opposing teams to stay in the game against Kentucky.

Everyone wants to talk about the platoons, but Kentucky is really two elite prospects carrying a bunch of guys who could play in the NBA. Trey Lyles could eventually be in that category, but the rest of the guys on the team are closer to Daniel Orton, Marquis Teague and DeAndre Liggins than future lottery picks. I wouldn't be surprised if Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson, Trey Ulis and Devin Bookert made it in the NBA, but I wouldn't really be surprised if they didn't make it either. The holes in all those guys games are being hidden by some of the uber-talented guys they play with.

It's really easy to play with Cauley-Stein and Towns - they defend all over the floor, they clear the defensive glass, they can get out and run in the open court, they can score with their back to the basket, they can run offense through the post, they can catch alley oops above the rim and they can step out and knock down a 20-foot jumper. Cauley-Stein can do some of those things better than Towns and vice versa, but both those guys are more than capable of doing those things at a high level in college.

And when you have two 7'0 who can play like that, it's very, very difficult to beat your team. There are only three teams in the NBA who start two 7'0 at the same damn time - Dallas, Portland and New Orleans. What's even crazier is none of those teams have two guys with the versatility of Towns and Cauley-Stein. Those are two 7'0 who are plus defensive players and plus offensive players. Dirk is a minus defender, Asik is a minus offensive player and Robin Lopez is an average at best offensive player. To understand the impact that Cauley-Stein and Towns are having at the college level, imagine if Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge were on the same NBA team. 

Of course, that isn't to say that they will be Davis and Aldridge in the NBA. The point is that's how dominant they are at the college level. In projecting them to the next level, I'm more comfortable putting Towns in that category, given the feel he shows on the offensive end of the floor and the more all-around skill-set he possesses. That said, WCS keeps getting better and better every time I watch him play. He was ball-hawking Norman Powell all over the floor on Saturday, which is an absolutely foolish thing for a 7'0 to be able to do, as Powell is one of THE best athletes in the country. Cauley-Stein's offense is still a little rough from the outside, but he knocked down a 18+ foot jumper on the pick-and-pop and looked pretty smooth doing it. If he keeps getting better, I don't want to put any ceilings on what he might be able to do.

DraftExpress currently has Towns at No. 3 and WCS at No. 4 in their mock draft and that might be the floor for where those two guys go. Towns, to me, is the best overall prospect in the country, although I can accept arguments for Jahlil Okafor. It gets a little trickier when you compare Cauley-Stein to Okafor and Emmanuel Mudiay, since they are both so much younger than him, but neither is close to capable of making an immediate two-way impact on the game at the next level like Cauley-Stein, who can essentially switch between the 1-5 at the college level. The only guys I've ever seen defend with that type of versatility are LeBron James and Kevin Garnett.

I've been saying that if you want to know how a front-court guy will do in the NBA, check what they do against Kentucky, but I'm beginning to wonder if that's a little unfair, as you are rarely going to see that type of overall length and athleticism in the NBA. Is that enough for them to beat the 76ers? I don't know - let's make sure it's enough for them to beat Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin first. Either way, if I could have Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein on the same NBA team and I had three NBA perimeter players around them, I'd like my chances to win NOW and I'd really like my chances in a few years.

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