Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Looking For The Modern PF

When I'm looking at the PF position in the draft, the first thing I'm looking at is whether guys can play on the perimeter. That's the way the league is going. The modern game is all about speed and spacing and that starts with having big men who can make plays with the ball in their hands on the perimeter and who can move their feet on defense and guard the pick-and-roll. Over the last generation, PF has gone from a position where you play your shortest big men to one where you play your tallest wing.

Take a look at the PF's from the last few championship teams:

- San Antonio (Diaw)
- Miami (LeBron)
- Miami (LeBron)
- Dallas (Dirk)
- LA (Odom)
- LA (Odom)

None of those guys are traditional post-up players. It's hard to leverage a size advantage at the PF position in the modern NBA. You want a PF who can score the ball from the perimeter and make plays off the dribble and who can switch screens and defend multiple positions. The key is finding a guy whose as comfortable playing at 25+ feet from the basket on both sides of the ball as he is playing at 5+ feet.

It's too easy to defend a team that plays two traditional big men, You can pack the paint on them on defense and you can spread them out on offense and attack them in the pick-and-roll. Your big men have to be able to get out and defend and they have to able to force a team to respect them from the perimeter. The way the league is going, you can sacrifice size for shooting and athletic ability and get away with it. The Atlanta Hawks are a good example of that - they are playing one of the smallest 5's and the smallest 4's in the league.

If a big man can't play that style of basketball, they are always vulnerable to being run off the floor. That's what the Golden State Warriors have been able to do all season. They started Draymond Green (6'6 240) at the 4 and then they moved him to the 5 in the NBA Finals. There's still room in the game for a big man who scores with his back to the basket and who can hold position in the low post but you don't need to play two of them at the same time. The rise of 4-out basketball means there's only room for one interior position on the floor and that's going to go to the biggest guy on the roster - The Warriors need Andrew Bogut a lot more than they need David Lee.

That puts the traditional PF in a bind. If you doesn't have the size to play as a C or the skill-set to play on the perimeter, you can only be so useful to an NBA team. The game is changing and big men have to either adapt or die.

The key for PF's survival in the modern NBA is versatility. They have to be like Al Horford - capable of sliding between multiple positions on defense, shooting the ball from the perimeter and scoring in the post. The tricky part is finding two-way players. There are a lot of skilled 6'9+ guys who can't play defense and a lot of athletic 6'9+ guys who can't shoot the ball. Growing up, there's no need for a guy that size to learn a lot of perimeter ball-handling and shooting. He can dominate the game based purely on athleticism. It's only when they get to the NBA and find out they are no longer the biggest guy in the paint that they are forced to deal with their lack of perimeter skills. Thomas Robinson is a good example of that.

It's all about finding guys with the right combination of size, skill and athletic ability. In looking at the current crop of PF's in this draft, three guys stand out to me as checking all the boxes that you want for a modern big man. All three of those guys played in the SEC - Jarrell Martin (LSU), Bobby Portis (Arkansas) and Trey Lyles (Kentucky).

It's not too complicated - they are plenty big and really fast and they know how to play basketball.

- Lyles (6'10 240 with a 7'2 wingspan) played as a SF as a freshman.

What really intrigued me about Lyles was watching him guard Kelly Oubre in the first or second game of the season. The same thing happened with Karl Towns vs. Cliff Alexander - Kentucky had a guy who was just as fast as the Kansas guy, except much bigger and more skilled. 6'10 guys like Lyles should not be able to fly around the court with a 6'7 guy like Oubre. Watching that game was like something out of "Jaws".

- Portis (6'11 245 with a 7'2 wingspan) was the C for a 40 Minutes of Hell style full-court press.

- Martin (6'9 240 with a 6'10 wingspan) played as a SF as a freshman before a dominant season as a PF as a sophomore.

I got to see Portis and Martin up close and personal when LSU and Arkansas played at SMU over the last two seasons and they were impressive. They were just playing the game on a whole different level. They were bigger and faster than all of the other big men on the floor and they were far more skilled as perimeter players. They looked like NBA big men.

- Portis was playing all over the floor at Arkansas. They played a super-aggressive style of basketball and he was the perfect fit at the 5 position. He can sprint the floor, move his feet on the pick and roll and play above the rim. On offense, he's shooting the ball from 3, putting the ball on the floor and scoring with his back to the basket.

- Martin moves like a perimeter player. He likes to run off screens, drive at the rim and take shots off the dribble. He knows how to space the floor and how to play off more traditional big men. That's what he was doing as a freshman - he had Mickey at PF and Johnny O'Bryant III (a 2nd round pick of the Bucks) at C. He's 6'9 240 and he's spacing the floor and defending on the perimeter like a guard. Plus he can catch lobs at the rim. Take a look at this dunk he pulled off against Florida - it is absolutely senseless for a guy with his size.

There are reasons why all 3 guys didn't have huge national profiles:

1) Lyles was the fifth option on an undefeated team. He was playing out of position as a SF next to two lottery picks at PF and C and he was playing with four guards who needed the ball in their hands.  (I don't know how much the Harrisons needed the ball but that's a story for another day) There was just no way any guy in his situation was going to put up big stats.

2) Arkansas didn't make the NCAA Tournament during Portis freshman season and they weren't on national TV too often. People weren't talking about him much but his college production compares pretty favorably to Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle, two of his teammates at the Nike Hoop Summit.

Per-40 minutes as freshmen:

Portis - 18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 2.5 blocks on 51% shooting
Vonleh - 19 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block on 51% shooting
Randle - 17 points, 13 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 blocks on 52% shooting

Vonleh and Randle took redshirt years in the NBA while Portis came back as a sophomore and won SEC POY. This is a guy with all the tools who put up big numbers and accomplished about all you could expect from him in college. He was just at a low-profile program without a lot of high-level talent around him.

3) Like Lyles, Martin was a 4 playing as a 3 as a freshman who he didn't have enough room or responsibility on offense. As a sophomore, he put up big-time scoring and rebounding numbers but he was asked to play closer to the basket and didn't take nearly as many 3's. If you combine the three-point shooting of Martin's freshman season with the production of his sophomore season, you would have one of the most intriguing offensive PF's in the draft.

All three of these guys pass the Atlanta Hawks test. They can play on the perimeter full-time.

Lyles and Martin have an outrageous feel for the game for guys with their size. There are questions about both their 3-point shots but they are 6'9 guys who can handle and move like a guard. Watch the way Lyles feels out the defense, spins in the lane and controls his body to get the easy basket on the move. That is much, much harder than it looks. 

Portis is capable of putting up some resistance at the rim as a small-ball 5 and he's got the skill to play as a stretch 4. He added a three-point shot to his game as a sophomore and he has always had the ability to attack a close-out and make plays off the dribble. He's a super big guy whose game is built around his shooting ability - he should be able to play in the NBA right away. The question is how you want to utilize him and it seems like an edge in speed and shooting ability is becoming more important than an edge in size.

It's a lot like the Miami Hurricanes under Jimmy Johnson aka The U. Jimmy's blueprint was all about speed. He moved DE's to DT's, LB's to DE's, DB's to LB's. The Warriors are playing 3's as 4's and 4's as 5's and they are running the biggest teams in the NBA off the floor. If you want big men who can play in a series against a team like the Warriors, you need really athletic big men who can move their feet and who have the versatility to be as dangerous from the perimeter as they are in the paint. That's guys like Lyles, Martin and Portis.

It makes sense that the SEC would have some of the most athletic big men in the country. SEC football is widely seen as the best conference in the country because they keep most of their best athletes at home. Bobby Portis is from Little Rock and Jarrell Martin is from Baton Rouge. Those guys were 5-star recruits, McDonald's All-Americans who could have gone to any school in the country.

In terms of how I'd rank the 3 guys in comparison to each other, I'd go 1) Lyles 2) Portis and 3) Martin.

1) Lyles has Martin's skill on the perimeter with Portis' wingspan. He's a 6'10+ guy with an almost complete game - he can handle, shoot, pass, rebound and defend. Portis isn't much bigger than Lyles and he's not nearly as fluid a perimeter player. That's where you see what an absolute freak Lyles is. Lyles is a guy with the size to be a small-ball 5 in the modern NBA who was playing as a full-time 3 in college. He's a good free-throw shooter with a solid 18+ foot jumper - if he can extend that range out to the 3-point line, he could be a special player.

2) At the next level, Portis is a good athlete not a great athlete and he's a good shooter but not a great one. He's more of a jack-of-all-trades guy. The question for him is whether he can become great at any one thing - shooting or perimeter D would be ideal.

3) Martin is the gamble because the three-point shooting numbers have slipped as a sophomore, he has never been a consistent free-throw shooter and he's got a short wingspan. He's going to have to be really, really good on offense to carve out a starting role. He has a lot of boom - bust potential but I think he has the athleticism, the overall game and the scorer's mentality to get buckets in the NBA. He scored the way NBA guys score in college.

This is Martin hitting Cauley-Stein with a step-back J:

This is Martin dunking on Karl Towns:

This is Martin running Cauley-Stein off a screen:

It's crazy to me that Martin is going to go way behind a guy like Montrezl Harrell, who may or may not even have a place in the modern NBA. Martin is a perimeter guy with the size of a post player - Montrezl is a post player trying to play on the perimeter. The transition to the NBA is going to be so much easier for Martin and he didn't play with the same type of guards or floor spacing that Montrez got at Louisville. There are people putting Jonathan Holmes above Martin which I don't see at all. Holmes as a senior at UT was stuck in a situation to Martin as a freshman - he was a small-ball PF being asked to play as a SF on offense. Except he was nowhere near as capable of handling it, as the stats bear out. They are similar players except Martin is younger, more athletic and more skilled.

DraftExpress currently has Lyles at 13 to the Suns, Portis at 17 to the Bucks and Martin at 36. If that's where these guys end up, I think they'll be some of the biggest steals in the draft.


  1. Hi, nice post :-)

    Quick question: would you rank Kaminsky and Turner ahead of them? Are they full time fives, or do you see them playing as stretch 4 at the next level?


  2. I've got Turner as a full-time 5 due to his size and shot-blocking ability and I'm not sure he has the lateral quickness to be defending on the perimeter. Kaminsky is probably a 4 because of his inability to protect the rim - I'd take him below all three of these guys because I'm not sure how he'll be able to hold up on defense.