Friday, February 13, 2015

Jarrell Martin

Everyone wants to talk about all the talent on Kentucky but the reason they have a chance to go 40-0 really comes down to two guys - Willie-Cauley Stein and Karl Towns. They are a two-headed 7'0 monster with elite athleticism who can play off each other on offense and defense. Very few teams have the big men to even run with Kentucky so they play a quasi-zone all game and pray that the Kentucky guards miss their shots. The Harrison Twins, the nominal starters, aren't very good so everyone waits for Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker to get in the game, but that doesn't mean they are the reason Kentucky is winning. They are living off their big men because why wouldn't they? Life is easy when you got two monsters like Cauley-Stein and Towns upfront.

They have basically been pulling guys cards all season. If you are a big man, you can't go into a game against Kentucky bull-shitting. You had better be able to play basketball if you are going to be able to do anything against Cauley-Stein and Towns. A lot of these big men in college, their game is based around being bigger than the other guy and bullying them around the rim. That's all well and good until they face a team with Kentucky's size and they find out there's always a bigger man in a prison. 

1) Kansas

- Jamari Traylor: 2 points on 6 shots
- Cliff Alexander: 8 points on 7 shots

2) Texas

- Cam Ridley: 1 point on 2 shots
- Myles Turner: 5 points on 6 shots

3) UNC

- Kennedy Meeks: 10 points on 8 shots
- Brice Johnson: 15 points on 12 shots


- Tony Parker: 2 points on 10 shots
- Kevon Looney: 9 points on 14 shots

5) Louisville

- Montrezl Harrell: 9 points on 9 shots

When you look at those guys, the one thing they all have in common is they have games based around being bigger and more athletic than the guys guarding them. That's why only Cliff Alexander and the UNC guys were able to average more than 1 point a shot and even then just barely. You can't bully Kentucky. You have to be able to play basketball. When you are a big man, that's the real difference between the NCAA and the NBA. There are ways to score against guys who are bigger and faster than you, but they all entail the player being really good at basketball. Guys who can do that can generally play in the NBA.

When you are watching Kentucky, you are basically walking an exhibition where the NBA has loaned out a pair of young 7'0 and told them to roam the country in search of worthy foes. Which brings us to Tuesday night in Baton Rouge.

When you look at Jarrell Martin's recruiting pedigree, it's a little strange he is so widely unknown in his sophomore season of college. For one thing, guys like Martin aren't necessarily guaranteed to even stay in school for a 2nd season. Martin was the No. 11 recruit in the class of 2013, a five-star guy rated two spots ahead of Noah Vonleh. 

However, instead of going to a basketball powerhouse like Indiana desperately in need of a freshman who could carry a huge load on offense, Martin wound up staying close to home at LSU, playing for an on the rise program lead by Johnny Jones. Last season, Martin joined a front-court which featured two other NBA prospects in Johnny O'Bryant III (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and Jordan Mickey. As a result, he was forced to play out of position as as SF without ever getting the chance to dominate the ball on a team with a lot of driving lanes like Jabari Parker at Duke. When he got injured in their first game of the season, it kind of knocked him down the pecking order of the team and eliminated his name from national discussion. He returned to have a very solid season as a 3rd option - 10 points and 4.5 boards on 47% shooting - but that obviously didn't move the needle much.

As a sophomore, Martin has moved to a more natural position as a small-ball PF and thrived, averaging 16 points, 9 boards, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block a game on 49% shooting. Martin and Mickey are one of the best frontcourt tandems in the country but they aren't surrounded by great guard play, so LSU has gone under the radar for most of the season. While they are currently projected as an NCAA Tournament team, the program is still seen as a year away until a monster recruiting class headlined by Ben Simmons comes in. A win against Kentucky on Tuesday would have put them on the map.

Put yourself in Martin's shoes. He's looking at Kentucky's players like I'm just as good as you guys, I was just as publicized coming out of high school, everyone thought I would be a superstar too. I just haven't been in a situation where I could show people what I could do. Now you are coming into my building on national TV. This was a Lose Yourself moment - a chance for Jarrell Martin to make a name for himself, to put himself on the map for a spot in this year's NBA draft. This was a chance to make himself a whole bunch of money. 

There's a running joke among the guys I play basketball with about a guy we call "Angry Tre". Even though we are just playing pick-up, he takes it so seriously so that every game is a matter of life and death. If you beat him, he takes it personally. One time, in the midst of one particularly intense game, he began every possession by saying "Check Ball. You Scared. Let's Go." I'm not sure if he was just trying to psych out his opponent or get himself going or some combination of both, but either way the point stands. Dick Vitale was in the building in Baton Rouge. There were dozens of NBA scouts scattered throughout the arena. DraftExpress was watching this game. Check Ball. You Scared. Let's Go!!!

On the second basket of the game, Martin let the Kentucky guys know it was serious. LSU ran a pick-and-roll, the second 7'0 didn't rotate quickly enough on help-side and Martin slammed the ball through the net. I can jump with you. You better be ready to play basketball tonight.

A few minutes later, with Kentucky picking up full-court, Martin took the ball to the front of the rim and threw a lob to his running buddy Mickey. The camera panned around to the crowd and their teammates who all had this face like OK. You don't throw down two lobs on Kentucky's head in the first five minutes if you aren't here to play some basketball. That was when everyone in the arena knew this was going to be a game.

Most college big men don't know what to do against a guy with Marcus Lee's combination of length and athleticism - 6'10 220 with a 7'3 wingspan and a 38.5 max vertical. You can't just power through this guy and dunk on him like he was a 6'6 power forward from Texas Tech or Boston College. Martin put him on his back, got to the front of the rim and then threw a few pump fakes at him. Get him in the air, draw the contact and go to the line.

If you are playing against Kentucky, you can't be scared to go to the rim, but you have to know what you are doing. You have to be able to catch and finish in one motion and get a shot up before the shot-blockers can respond. When you get to the NBA, that's how it's going to be. You aren't going to have a very big window to get your shots off. You better be ready to score and score quickly.

John Calipari went to his ultimate trump card towards the end of the first half, putting Cauley-Stein on Martin. Most college big men shrink in terror at this possibility, as there isn't a player in the country with the size to finish over the top of Cauley-Stein or the quickness to get around him. What did Martin do? He didn't waste any time with fruitless attempts at shot-creation. He ran the 7'0 off screens and got himself an open shot.

By the second half, Martin was just playing with his opponents. It don't matter who you are or what you can do on defense. When a 6'9 240 guy can put the ball between his legs and dribble into a step-back jumper, there isn't much you can do. Don't think I'm just confined to attacking you guys at the rim. I can take you out to the three-point line and do work as well.

For Martin, the final piece on the offensive side of the ball is creating shots for his teammates. As a big man, he primarily relies on his guards to create offense for him. At the next level, big men have to be able to create shots for their guards. When the defense collapses on you, which they will, you have to be able to read the extra floor, make the extra pass and trust in your teammates.

Martin finished the game with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists on 11 shots, but LSU wouldn't have had a chance if he hadn't been willing to battle against Towns and Cauley-Stein on defense and on the glass. When an NBA team goes small against a team like Kentucky, they aren't expecting to win the match-up around the rim, they are just trying to survive. Take a look at this sequence and tell me this doesn't look like Draymond Green trying to guard Zach Randolph.

The difference between Karl Towns and the rest of the great PF's in this year's draft is that Towns literally towers over them. He can shoot from distance and play on the perimeter, but when the game is on the line, he can play mouse in the house and take them to the block. Everyone else better have a Plan B because they aren't going to be able to post up guys like Towns, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tiago Splitter and Nene.

Where Martin comes up short in comparison to guys like Montrezl and Cliff Alexander is that he has more of a finesse game, which is better suited to scoring against guys who are bigger than you. He doesn't have the type of brutish post game you can use to devastate smaller guys. That's why he had more points against Kentucky than against the rest of his opponents while Montrezl and Cliff had fewer. From an NBA draft perspective, the real question isn't who is the better NCAA player but whose game will have a better chance of transitioning to the next level.

None of this is to say that he's a perfect prospect. His three-point shooting has gone down from last season and he needs to improve as a defensive player if he's going to have any chance of surviving in the paint in the NBA. Some teams will likely try to move him back to the SF position, as he has the quickness, ball-handling and shooting touch to possibly survive. Either way, guys with Martin's size, athletic ability and skill-set don't usually last until the middle of the second round.

LSU doesn't play Kentucky again in the regular season, but they could end up facing them on a "neutral" floor in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta. If Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey face off against Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein circle that on your calendar because that's 4 NBA big men who are going to be lacing up their shoes and going at each other. The bottom line is that if you can drop 21 points and 11 rebounds on Towns and Cauley-Stein, you can do that against anyone.

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