Monday, March 14, 2016

The Ringer

I am moving to a full-time position at The Ringer, which means I won't be able to blog anymore. I will definitely keep the site up, though, for anyone who wants to poke around. It somehow feels appropriate that the last post will be a bunch of Bill Walton quotes. Thanks again to everyone who read, shared and commented. I wouldn't be where I am without your support and I really do appreciate it. Feel free to drop me a line at jonathantjarks@gmail.com.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Bill Walton

I've been catching up on a lot of Pac-12 Conference of Champions basketball over the last week, which means I've been listening to a lot of Bill Walton. When you are exposed to such a highly concentrated a dose of Walton in a short amount of time, you start to pick up on the patterns of what he's saying. There's actually a method to the madness.

Or maybe I'm just crazy. You can decide for yourself. It's Dave, right?

  • I love analytics. Its called math and science. It's called the use of numbers to predict, to help you formulate a plan.
  • You're of the generation where you have to rank everything. Don't rank, rate or compare. Just enjoy.
  • Players make plays. Plays don't make players.
  • You keep giving me this nonsense about these power teams from the East. C'mon. Are you old enough to remember last year's Tournament? When they just gave Villanova and Virgina No. 1 seeds?
  • You have to feed the post better than that. If you can't get the ball to the biggest guy on the court, you just don't want too.
  • You have not taught until they have learned.
  • Chemistry is more important than talent because you have to assume that talent will equalize at the highest levels. When the ball moves and you know you are going to get it, than better things happen.
  • Wednesday, February 24, 2016

    Michigan State

    At RealGM, a look at why this could be the year Tom Izzo gets his 2nd national title.

    Kansas

    1) The Kansas big men are decidedly average and that's a problem for a Bill Self team

    If you look at the best teams that Bill Self has had in his 13 years in Lawrence, they have all been built around multiple NBA-caliber big men who control the paint on both sides of the ball. Self likes to play a very traditional offense built around throwing the ball inside to two big men and playing high-low and inside-out basketball. His system has been very good at developing big men and the result is that he has sent an incredibly long line of 6'9+ players to the NBA - Wayne Simien, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Cole Aldrich, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Sasha Kaun and Cliff Alexander.

    The problem with this year's team is they don't really have any players like that. Their best NBA prospects upfront are two freshman (Cheikh Diallo and Carlton Bragg) who barely get to play. The Jayhawks have a bunch of decent NCAA big men in their rotation, none of whom have much of a chance to play at the next level. They don't have anyone who protects the rim at a high level or stretches the floor or cleans the glass or creates shots for himself and his teammates. They have a bunch of guys and they don't strike fear in other teams. That's an issue when the identity of your program is built around the two guys at the PF and the C positions.

    Their best frontcourt player is Perry Ellis, he of the million memes about his hair-line and the length of his career at Kansas. Ellis is a really good NCAA combo forward whose put up huge numbers in his time in Lawrence, but there's a reason why such an accomplished senior is barely on NBA draft boards. He's a classic tweener forward - he has average size (6'8 225) and average athleticism and he doesn't have a go to move when he's asked to create against bigger and more athletic defenders. He's good at a lot of things but he's not great at any one thing. He's a jack of all trades and that works when he's going up against less talented NCAA big men, but when he's asked to go up against NBA-caliber combo forwards and big men there isn't a ton he can do about it. Just remember what happened when he had to go up against Kentucky last season.
    The options aren't much more appealing from there. Landen Lucas can't score to save his life - he airballed two wide open 8+ foot jumpers against Baylor. Jamari Traylor is both undersized and not all that skilled. Diallo looks like he barely knows what's going on out there half the time. Carlton Bragg might be the most well-rounded of their big men but he's a freshman whom Self clearly doesn't trust. Put it all together and you can attack Kansas right at the front of the rim, which is what Baylor did all night on Tuesday. Achilles heel doesn't really do justice to their problems upfront. It is a glaring flaw that is waiting to be exploited by the right team in the NCAA Tournament.

    2) Cheick Diallo has no business declaring for the draft

    Coming into the season, Diallo was widely seen as the best NBA prospect on the Kansas roster following a strong showing on the high school All-Star circuit. His ability to play above the rim on both sides of the ball would be the missing piece for a frontline that had been lacking in high-level players ever since Joel Embiid went down with a back injury two years ago. Instead, he got caught up in an NCAA eligibility hullabaloo, fell behind the 8-ball, never garnered any trust from Self and has found himself glued to the end of the bench in the Big 12 season. He barely plays and when he does play he doesn't make a huge impact on the game.

    In and of itself, none of that means he couldn't be a relatively high first-round draft pick, which is kind of crazy. The problem is that while he has shown flashes of inspired play, Diallo doesn't have the foundation to be a big-time prospect, at least not if he's not going to show more than this. Teams that draft an NCAA bench player in the lottery usually do so because they fall in love with his skill-set and what he could potentially do if given more playing time ala the nuclear athleticism that Zach LaVine showed at UCLA. Diallo could be a decent small-ball 5 but his floor isn't much higher than a lot of other similar prospects in this year's draft and he hasn't shown enough to have much confidence that his ceiling is super high.

    There's still plenty to like about his long-term potential. At 6'9 220 with a 7'4 wingspan, he has a well put together big man with a great combination of size and athleticism. He can protect the rim and he could conceivably slide his feet on the perimeter and switch pick-and-rolls from time to time. He's more than capable of catching and finishing when playing in space and he's shown flashes of a face-up game and the ability to shoot out to 15+ feet. The concern is that he doesn't really know what he's doing on either side of the ball and he hasn't shown much ability to create his own shot. He's the definition of a raw young big men who probably needs several seasons at the NCAA level to play through his mistakes and learn the game.



    There's a ton of guys who fit his profile in this year's draft - big men who don't have the bulk to bang with giants like DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez and Andre Drummond and who don't have the perimeter game to be 4's in the modern NBA.

    - Devonta Davis (Michigan State)
    - Skal Labissiere (Kansas)
    - Ivan Rabb (Cal)
    - Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga)
    - Brice Johnson (UNC)

    Diallo's floor isn't higher than any of those guys and all of them (except for Skal) are much further along than him on offense. So why would an NBA team draft him all that high? He's nowhere near ready to play right away, he's going to end up spending a lot of time in the D-League and it's really easy for raw big men drafted in the 25-40+ range to slip out of the league entirely. There's some Clint Capela in his game but all he has to do is look at Cliff Alexander sitting at the end of the bench in Portland to see that there should be no rush for him to declare. Lucas, Ellis and Traylor are all gone after this season so there will be plenty of minutes for him if he returns to school, which is exactly what he needs.

    3) Selden, Svi and what could have been

    In terms of NBA potential, the most intriguing part about the Jayhawks this season was what they could do on the wings, where they featured two 6'6+ prospects - Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Myhailiuk. However, with the stretch run of the season well underway, it's pretty clear that Selden is who he is at the NCAA level while Svi is still way more promise than reality at this point in his career. They are OK and they aren't going to kill you out there but they aren't going to carry you very far in the Tourney either.

    Selden has turned himself into a great 3-point shooter (42.1% on 5.2 3PA's) and he has a good combination of size and athleticism at 6'5 230. At the same time, he's not a great shot creator or playmaker and he can easily disappear for stretches of the game. I'm also not sure he has the lateral quickness to be a great perimeter defender at the next level - there's a reason that Frank Mason tends to get the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter. If Selden's going to play in the NBA, it's probably by leveraging his size (he has the broad shoulders and physique of an NFL LB) to guard bigger 3's and 4's and stretch the floor the other way.

    Svi is kind of like Diallo in that it's hard to get a great feel for his NBA potential because he doesn't have elite physical tools, he barely plays and he doesn't make much of an impact when he is in the game. He's a really tall shooter (6'8 195) with some ball skills so the potential is there but it's mostly unrealized at this point. It's hard to see why he would declare for the draft either though crazier things have happened, especially in a year where there aren't a lot of guys that NBA teams are in love with.

    4) The strength of their team is in the backcourt

    "You can make the case that Wayne [Selden] is our best player or Perry [Ellis] is our best player but there's no question that no one is more valuable than Frank [Mason]." - Bill Self

    Frank Mason (5'11 185) and Devonte Graham (6'2 175) are two undersized PG's who play with the ball in their hands for most of the game and who create offense for themselves and everyone else on the team. They are fast and quick and they are smart basketball players who do a good job of pressuring the opposing team's guards and getting them out of their rhythm. They suffocated Baylor's guards in the second half of Kansas 66-60 win on Tuesday, a win that may have all but clinched a Big 12 championship for the upteenth consecutive time.

    5) If Kansas is the best team in the Big 12, the conference may not be that good

    Here's a hot take for you. I'm a Texas guy and I have gone to a lot of the Baylor and TCU games this season and I can't say I'm terribly impressed by the strength of this conference. It reminds me a lot of last season's bunch, a group which went into the NCAA Tournament behind a ton of hype and than face-planted in the first few rounds. Maybe they will do better because the level of play around the country is weaker but I wouldn't be all that surprised if they didn't.

    Just look at this Kansas team from a personnel perspective. Their best two players are a pair of underiszed guards, their wings don't really create much offense and their big men are undersized and can't dominate the game on either side of the ball. That's not the profile of a team that's going to dominate teams from smaller conferences in the first weekend of the Tourney or match up with the best teams in the country in the second.

    If you look around the conference as a whole, there just aren't a lot of teams who can expose the Jayhawks weaknesses because there's not a lot of high-level talent in the Big 12. OU has Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins but their big men are pretty average. Baylor has Johnathan Motley and Taurean Prince but their guards are pretty average. Iowa State still doesn't play any defense. Texas is probably a year away. West Virginia presses constantly and ups the number of possessions even though they are going to be at a talent disadvantage in comparison to the top teams in the country.

    Long story short, I'm not going to have a lot of Big 12 teams going far in my bracket and I'm not convinced that winning this conference is any type of guarantee that you have the type of team that is definitely going to play deep into March. It's entirely possible that I'm too close to them to be objective because I tend to become a pessimist the more I watch a team unless they are really good. I might just be focusing too much on the flaws of the NCAA teams that I have seen the most and not enough on the ones that I don't watch as much. We'll see.

    Monday, February 22, 2016

    Jalen Jones

    Coming into the season, Danuel House was getting most of the draft buzz out of Texas A&M. While House is a good player and I think he has a chance to play at the next level, I'm starting to think that his fellow fifth-year senior transfer Jalen Jones is really the key to their team and the guy with the best chance to be an impact NBA player.

    At 6'7 225, Jones is a prototype combo forward and his versatility on both sides of the ball is what has allowed A&M to take a big step forward this season. A&M plays him as a small-ball 4 and he presents a huge mismatch for most traditional 4's who can't punish him inside on defense and who can't stick with him on the perimeter on offense. The key for Jones is that he has improved as a 3-point shooter, which has opened up the floor for freshman big man Tyler Davis and made Jones almost impossible for bigger players to guard.

    Jones has improved as a shooter

    The biggest positive for Jones when projecting him to the next level is how his shooting percentages have steadily increased in his four seasons in college:

    Freshman: 27.5% on 1.3 3PA, 59.9% on 4.5 FTA
    Sophomore: 34.8% on 0.7 3PA, 74% on 4.8 FTA
    *Transferred from SMU to A&M*
    Junior: 30% on 1.8 3PA, 72.8% on 5.2 FTA
    Senior: 37% on 3.2 3PA, 74.4% on 5.5 FTA

    There's still not a huge sample size of him being a good long-range shooter but the way that his free-throw shot has improved is a pretty good sign that his shooting mechanics are getting better and he's becoming more reliable from deep as he has gotten older. The way the game is going, there's really no point in any non 5's to declare for the draft until they have become consistent 3-point shooters at the NCAA level. That's become a must to play professional basketball at its highest level and that's exactly why you should be in college - to work on your game and develop your skills.


    He's not afraid to let it fly from really deep too:


    Traditional big men have a very hard time guarding Jones

    Kentucky really missed Alex Poythress in their loss to A&M because none of the rest of their big men could deal with Jones on defense and they couldn't punish him on the other end of the floor either. There's just not much a shot-blocker like Skal is going to be able to do to stop a 6'7 wing taking a pull-up J:


    And there's no way a stretch 4 like Derek Willis has any chance of staying in front of Jones when he faces him up in the mid-post:


    Jones plays bigger than his size:

    The key to being a wing who guards a big man is having a strong and sturdy frame and the toughness and athleticism to bang with bigger players in the paint. Watch how high he gets up to snatch this defensive rebound out of the air:


    Jones can jump with bigger players and win balls in traffic. It does you no good to go small upfront, make a stop and then be unable to clear the defensive glass:


    Jones can stay in front of smaller guards on the switch

    This is where the rubber meets the road when you are evaluating small-ball 4's. Kentucky has been absolutely roasting teams over the last month by moving a stretch 4 in Derek Willis into the starting line-up, opening up the floor and repeatedly putting Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis in ball screens. A&M was able to keep them relatively in check because they just switched every screen with Jones in them. He's long and fast enough to at least stay with NBA guards like that and that's a super big deal.


    Tyler Ulis is one of the fastest and most skilled guards in the country and Jones can still stay in front of him in 1-on-1 situations:


    The future is wings who can guard 4's, switch on 1's and shoot 3's

    The Golden State Warriors have a lot of guys like that and if you are going to defeat the Warriors you have to have guys like that. Given how much space they play in the NBA and how skilled guards have become, I don't see any real way to guard modern offenses unless you have multiple guys with the versatility to switch pick-and-rolls on defense. It's more important that your 4's can move their feet on the perimeter than it is that they bang in the post - in the modern NBA, 3's are the new 4's. That's the type of player Jalen Jones can be.

    I keep coming back to this quote from Ron Adams in SI's profile of Harrison Barnes from last season's playoffs:
    “He likes guarding people in the post,” says Adams, who foresees a league full of Harrison Barnes' in the future. [Emphasis mine] “I think the way our game is progressing it’s going to be demanded of a lot of people,” he says.
    Jones isn't super skilled and he's never going to be a primary option on the next level. If he was playing primarily as a 3, he would just be a guy and he would have a tough road to make the league considering that he's a fifth-year senior who has been pretty far off draft boards for most of his career. His ability to guard bigger players, though, gives him a chance. Every team in the NBA needs a guy with his skill-set and there aren't many guys with his skill-set in this year's draft.

    Sunday, February 21, 2016

    76ers

    1) The ups and downs of the Jahlil Okafor Experience

    Everything people loved and hated about Jahlil Okafor coming out of Duke and all of his strengths and his weaknesses were on full display on Sunday. On one side of the ledger, he had 31 points and 8 rebounds on 19 shots. On the other side, he had the worst plus/minus (-28) of anyone on the team. When Jahlil is holding the ball in the mid to high post, he's not looking to pass and there's no room for anyone else to cut to the rim. The odd thing is that he was a pretty good passer at Duke - has he decided to go full YOLO and just put up as many numbers as possible? As far as his defense goes, the less said about it the better. The basic problem is that he's slow and he's checked out on that side of the ball. You can be one or the other and survive in the NBA. You can't be both.



    None of this is to say that he can't be a good defensive player eventually. He's not completely immobile and I don't think he's any slower than someone like Marc Gasol. The problem is that playing good interior defense is one of the hardest skills to pick up at the NBA level and that's when a guy is totally bought in and is trying his hardest to call out the opposing team's sets and anticipate what they are going to do before they do it. Jahlil still has to decide he wants to play defense before he can even worry about that learning curve.

    It's not a real surprise and it's not really a knock on him that he hasn't bought in on that side of the ball. Not a lot of elite scorers come into the league trying to play defense - the problem is that you can somewhat hide a poor defender at any of the other positions on the floor. There's nowhere you can hide a 5 who can't defend. The whole point of playing a 5 in the modern NBA is because of the value they bring as a rim protector and a second line of defense. It's a defensive position before it's an offensive position.

    A good way to look at it is that the center in basketball is like the catcher in baseball - the position has so many defensive requirements that it almost doesn't matter how good they are on offense as long as they can stay out of the way. The temptation to play an offensive-minded player at that position is super high because it's such a value add in comparison to the rest of the league, but the problem is that sacrificing defense at that position for a big bat can really hamstring a team in a lot of subtle ways.


    That's the problem with building a team around an offensive-minded 5 - you are going to be waiting a long time for their defense to catch up. The Sacramento Kings have this problem with DeMarcus Cousins and the Orlando Magic have this problem with Nik Vucevic. DeMarcus has only begun to figure it out on defense in the last 2 years and that's still pretty hit or miss. Vucevic hasn't figured it out at all and my suspicion is that his presence at the 5 is one of the reasons why all the talent in Orlando hasn't coalesced into a winning basketball team. There's just a ceiling on how good your team can be when you are playing a sieve at the front of the rim - especially when there are a lot of young players in front of him who are making mental mistakes and giving up penetration - and it doesn't matter how many points he's scoring on offense if he's giving up just as many on defense.

    In terms of his overall skill-set, Jahlil is basically a 6'11 Carmelo Anthony. He's as good a pure scorer as has come in the league in a long time and he can roll out of bed and get you 20-10 without breaking a sweat. He's going to score a ton of points over his career - the question is whether they are going to be meaningful numbers or empty stats on a bad team. Like Carmelo, how good Jahlil's team is going to be is going to depend on how good he is as a passer and a defender. The better he is, the better his team is going to be. If Jahlil becomes a plus passer and a plus defender, he'll be on one of the best teams in the league because he'll be making everyone better on both sides of the ball. If he's a minus passer and minus defender, he'll be on one of the worst because he'll be making everyone worse. There's a good chance that he puts it all together and is on one of the best teams in the league when he's 28. The problem is that he's 20.

    2) Nerlens Noel aka The Human Eraser

    There's no better example of the effect that Jahlil has on his teammates than Nerlens. When Jahlil is in, Nerlens is floating around the perimeter on offense, not doing anything all that useful and trying to take guys off the dribble and aimlessly firing bullet passes through traffic. On defense, he's chasing perimeter 4's around the 3-point line and he's way out of position to grab rebounds. When Jahlil is out, Nerlens is a rim-rolling menace on offense and a high-level rim protector on defense. Just take a look at the stats:

    Nerlens w/o Jahlil:

    PPS - 1.16
    Usage rating - 20.5
    True shooting - 58.0

    Nerlens w/Jahlil

    PPS - 1.03
    Usage rating - 17.5
    True shooting - 51.4

    The numbers re-inforce what common sense tells you about playing two non-shooting big man together in the modern NBA - it's not going to work and they need to break up this pairing sooner rather than later. The real concern with Jahlil is that it's not just Nerlens either. Pretty much every player on their roster plays worse with Jahlil. You can't blame him for how bad they are but he's making a bad situation much worse than it has to be. One thing I like to do with basketball-reference is go to their line-up section and look at the net ratings of their top 2 man combinations in terms of minutes played. When you go to the 76ers page, what jumps out is that pretty much all of their worst 2 man combinations have Jahlil in them. He's in 6 of their bottom 7.

    Jahlil + Jerami Grant: -20.4
    Jahlil + Nerlens Noel: -19.1
    Jahlil + TJ McConnell: -19.0
    Jahlil + Nik Stauskas: -18.6
    Jahlil + Robert Covington: -14.9
    Jahlil + Isaiah Canaan: -13.3

    It's not just that the 76ers are terrible because the average net rating of their top 20 most used two-man combinations is -10.6. Jahlil is a weight whose literally dragging the rest of his team down. The closest to a positive with Jahlil is Ish Smith (-9.8). There are four guys - Ish, Grant, McConnell and Covington - who have better net ratings with Nerlens.

    The thing people don't get about the draft is that it's not just about finding the best players and maximizing the WARP you can select from your draft position. You have to draft players with an idea of what they are good at and what type of role they can have on a good team and then put them in a position to succeed. Nerlens could be a starter on an elite team if he's the roll man in a spread pick-and-roll outfit surrounded by shooters and playing with a high-level PG. Asking him to be the 4-man in a two-post offense that wants to play in the half-court is a recipe for disaster. I'm not sure he fits with Joel Embiid and I know for a fact that he's not going to fit with Okafor. Philly's going to have to do something and there's not exactly a huge market out there to make a big for wings trade.

    Also he should be called The Human Eraser because he blocks shots and his haircut and thin frame make him look like a No. 2 pencil.


    3) Team building vs. asset acquisition

    Coincidentally enough, I watched the 76ers play on Sunday right after reading this article from red94 on the Rockets in the wake of the Motiejunas trade and the similarities between Daryl Morey and his protege Sam Hinkie really jumped off the page. Going all-in on acquiring superstars is great but even superstars need to be put in positions to succeed and not looking at how a player is going to fit holistically into a system means you are going to build a team that's less than the sum of its parts. It's hustling backwards basically.

    In a vacuum, it makes sense to flip Motiejunas for a late lottery pick when he's set to be an RFA in a few months and it makes sense to not pay Chandler Parsons $15 million a year. In terms of ROI, the Rockets got the best value that anyone is ever going to get on Motiejunas and Parsons. The problem is that they ended up developing Motiejunas and Parsons for someone else and they missed out on the prime of their careers because they were more concerned with saving cap space to chase a superstar who probably isn't going to want to come to Houston anyway. Even when they do, there's no real plan to build a team around them except gather as many assets as possible and there's no way to develop continuity when so much of the supporting cast is changing every season.

    It's the same thing to a more limited extent in Philly. They've had Nerlens for 3 years and they are no closer to fitting him into a role that makes sense for his skill-set. They are just trying to draft the player with the most upside at every spot in the draft and hoping they will be able to figure it out later. The problem is they aren't figuring anything out and the guys they are drafting are making each other worse and not better. You can't draft players in a vacuum - if they have 4 first-round picks in this year's draft, who they draft with their first pick should have a huge impact on who they draft with their 2nd and their 3rd and their 4rth. That's also why there's a diminishing return for having too many draft picks because you can only commit to building around so many young players at a time. Whose their core and who are they trying to build around right now? Who knows?

    4) Nik Stauskas and the Tools Problem

    If you want to know why most scouts value physical tools over college numbers, take a look at these numbers:

    Player A: 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists on 47/44/84 shooting
    Player B: 16.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists on 46/42/81 shooting

    Player A was Nik Stauskas. Player B was Rodney Hood. Stauskas was the No. 8 overall pick and Hood fell all the way to No. 23. Two years later, Hood is drawing comparisons to James Harden and Stauskas is barely hanging onto a spot in the league. There's nothing in the NCAA stats that's going to tell you that Player B is going to be a vastly better NBA player than Player A. You have to look beyond the numbers and see that Hood is a smooth athlete at 6'8 215 while Stauskas was going to struggle with size and physicality at the next level at 6'6 205. No matter what sport it is, there's nothing people love bringing up more than college players who outperform their physical measurements at the next level. The reason those are interesting stories, though, is because they are the exception that proves the rule.

    More often than not it ends up with guys like Stauskas getting drafted way too high because they put up inflated stats in an NCAA system designed to maximize their numbers. It's a lot like what happened with Trey Burke - Nik Stauskas is a Texas Tech QB. He'll stick in the league because he's a shooter with size, some ball skills and a quick release but he's not big like Klay and he can't shoot like Steph. That was an illusion and that's the reason you have scouts because they are paid to see through stuff like that. Imagine where the Kings would be right now if they had Rodney Hood penciled in as their starting SG.

    5) Lightning round asset evaluation

    As someone who follows the college game and the draft so closely, the 76ers are one of the most interesting teams in the league for me because they have so many guys I've been tracking for years and am trying to figure out what they are going to be in the NBA.

    TJ McConnell - The big difference between him at Arizona and in the NBA is that he's shooting 3's. He has to be a plus shooter because he's not big or athletic enough to be anything more than a guy at the next level. His ceiling is as a pretty average backup PG and I'm not sure a player with such a limited skill-set is going to survive all the purges that the 76ers are going to have to do over the next few years to get all their picks on their roster.
    Hollis Thompson - He's tall (6'8 205) and he shoots 3 so that should be enough for him to stick in the league for awhile. He doesn't really do anything else too well but he's functional enough to not kill you on either side of the ball. The 76ers should probably be bringing in more guys like Thompson who can shoot instead of athletes with no range.

    Jerami Grant - Grant is a prototype small-ball 4 defensively - he can guard in the post, switch on the pick-and-roll and protect the rim. The problem is that he can't shoot and I'm almost at the point where I'm like who cares with guys like that. If he can't shoot, you might could slot him as a small-ball 5 but there's going to be a ton of competition for the non-shooting slot in the line-up in the modern NBA.

    Richaun Holmes - Case in point. Like Grant, he's a super athlete. The difference is that he has more meat on his bones so it's easier for him to play at the 5 despite giving up height. I'm a little behind on him because I can't front like I watched much Bowling Green when he was in college but I'm definitely intrigued.

    Robert Covington - The crown jewel of their developmental model. He's bigger, more athletic and more fluid with the ball than Thompson. He might be a starting small-ball 4 on a good team but he's probably going to be best as a bench shooter. That's a problem when the crown jewel is a 7th or an 8th man on a good team.

    Isaiah Canaan - He can shoot 3's off the dribble but he's undersized, he's not a playmaker and he isn't even shooting all that well in Philly. The competition to be a combo guard off the bench is even more fierce than to be a small-ball 5 and I'm not sure Canaan has enough to beat all those guys out. Just to pick a name out of a hat, I'd probably rather have Joe Young than him.

    Friday, February 19, 2016

    NBA Trade Deadline

    At RealGM, a look at the 10 most pressing questions from a relatively uneventful day.

    UL-Lafayette vs. UT Arlington

    1) Shawn Long has a chance as a small-ball 5 at the next level

    Long has been on the NBA radar for a few years, ever since a dominant sophomore season when h and Elfrid Payton took UL-L to the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. Long put up the type of numbers - 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 52.2% shooting and 42.3% from 3 on 2.3 3PA's - that will get you noticed by scouts no matter where you play. He has stagnated the last two seasons playing without Payton but he has still shown enough to where he will at least get a shot at the next level, even if he isn't drafted.

    At 6'9 250 with a 7'1 wingspan, Long is the type of big man who would have been a prototype 4 a generation ago but is now better off as a small-ball 5. In that sense, he reminds me a lot of Robert Carter Jr. of Maryland. The difference is that Long isn't quite as athletic as RCJ - he struggles to finish in traffic and he needs to cut some weight and get into better shape in order to do a better job of sliding his feet and dealing with NBA-caliber athletes at the next level.

    It's hard for him to show what he can fully do at ULL, where he sees constant double and triple teams whenever he catches the ball. There just aren't many big men in the Sun Belt who have any chance of handling him 1-on-1, though really there aren't many big men in the country who can handle him period. Long is averaging 18 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks on 53% shooting and he would be an All-Conference caliber player no matter the level of the competition.



    He is averaging 18.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game on 51.6% shooting and he can score from all over the floor. He's probably at his best when he's facing up at the high post and using his quickness to get around slower big men, but he's also capable of establishing position in the low block and scoring from a variety of angles. The most impressive part of his game is how comfortable he is with the ball in his hands and his ability to zip passes through traffic - all those games in the Sun Belt have made him very comfortable dealing with help and he's just on a whole different level than most of his teammates.

    The biggest thing he will need to work on if he's going to play at the next level is getting into tip-top shape, which would help with his athleticism and his ability to finish in traffic, as well as refining his shot and proving he can be a consistent 3-point shooter. He's shooting 22% on 2.2 3PA's this season and if he can shoot like he did as a sophomore (when he was playing with a guard who demanded defensive attention and could consistently create open looks for him) it will open up the rest of his game and all but assure him of a roster spot in the NBA.

    As is, Long will probably have to earn his way through the D-League. ULL probably isn't good enough to make a run in the NCAA Tourney and there won't be that much excitement about an older prospect from a low-major conference whose numbers have gone in the wrong direction over the last two seasons. The odds are always against a player in the D-League, but Long has the skill-set and the body to where NBA teams will be keeping a close eye on him.

    2) The Ragin' Cajuns supporting cast isn't quite good enough

    Any team with a big man of Long's caliber has to be taken seriously but there isn't quite enough around him to where they are going to scare any high-major teams. They lost all theri showcase games in the non-conference by double digits (Miami, Alabama, UCLA) and they would be the 3rd best team in the Sun Belt behind Arkansas Little-Rock and UT-Arlington, if UTA had Kevin  Hervey healthy. They have a 14-10 record and a 10-5 mark in conference play and they will face a tough challenge in upsetting UALR (22-3, 13-2 in conference) if they are going to make the field of 68.


    They have a lot of experience and athleticism around Long, as they start two juniors and a senior around him. The problem is that no one else on the roster is a real difference maker. They don't have a high-level playmaker, another quality big man or a legit secondary option and they don't have enough three-point shooting to kill teams if they pack the paint to stop Long. They are a decent low-major team whom Long might be able to carry through the Sun Belt Tourney, but they probably don't have enough to pull an upset in the Tourney.

    3) Kevin Hervey is a legit prospect

    The real shame about UT Arlington's season is that they lost their best player (sophomore big man Kevin Hervey) to an ACL injury at the beginning of conference play. They had made a huge splash by upsettig Memphie and Ohio State and taking Texas to OT (all on their home courts) but without Hervey they go from a special team to merely decent. Hervey is legit - he's an athletic 6'9 210 stretch 4 who was putting up monstrous numbers before the injury - 18.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 0.8 blocks a game on 45.3% shooting and 32.3% from 3 on 5.8 3PA's. He could play for just about any team in the country and I'm not sure how all the bigger problems in the Metroplex missed out on him.



    4) UT Arlington is a program on the rise

    The good news for UT Arlington is they don't have any seniors in their rotation so they will be getting everyone back next season when Hervey is hopefully recovered from the injury.  The other real notable player is sophomore PG Erick Neal, a 5'11 160 jitterbug whose absolutely dynamite with the ball in his hands. Neal jumps off the screen when you watch him - he's a young guy whose still prone to making the flashy play instead of the simple play but he's almost impossible to stay in front of on the dribble and he's a dynamic playmaker who can shoot off the dribble and make every pass in the book. The core of Hervey and Neal has a chance to take UTA to the next level and they could be the best two players on a high-major team by the time they are seniors.

    Combine those two with a bunch of athletic guards who can shoot 3's - UTA has three perimeter players who shoot at least 37% from deep - as well as a 6'8 stretch big man from Europe (junior Jorge Bilbao) and they have a group who will be a serious threat next season. The level of play in the Sun Belt conference is reasonably high (Georgia State famously knocked off Baylor in last year's Tourney thanks to RJ Hunter's buzzer beater) and UTA has the pieces to where they could win as many as two games in the Tourney if they get the right draw. This is a team to keep an eye on.

    5) Scott Cross is a rising star in the coaching ranks

    Cross, a former UTA player, has painstakingly built up the program over the last decade and he has everything a bigger school should be looking for in a coach. If I was TCU, I'd think long and hard about Cross to replace Trent Johnson, who hasn't been able to get much positive going in his first three seasons in Fort Worth. Hervey and Neal would be the two best players on TCU's roster and UT Arlington's program is in better shape than TCU's at the moment, which kind of says it all. Cross has the three qualities I'd want for that job:

    1 - A young coach whose proven he can build a program.

    TCU is a job for a young guy looking to make a name for himself, not an older retreat looking to hold on to relevance. You need a lot of energy to undertake that type of rebuilding job country and you need someone whose going to fire up the fan base and bring some energy back into the program. I'm not a huge fan of hiring assistant coaches who have never had a head coaching job and I'm of the opinion that high major programs should focus less on winning the press conference and more on digging through the mid major and low major ranks for guys who have proven they can win. Of course, if Cross goes on a deep Tourney run at UTA, he becomes a guy who could win a press conference too.

    2 - Recruiting ties to the Metroplex.

    DFW is one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the country and any coach whose going to win at TCU is going to have to be able to find local talent and convince them to stay at home. That's the most impressive part of what Cross is doing - these are all local kids. Neal is from Lincoln (the school which produced Chris Bosh and LeBryan Nash) while Hervey is from Arlington Mansfield. Other than Bilbao,the other four starters as well as most of their bench are from the North Texas area.

    3 - Runs a modern offense

    You can't afford to leave any points on the board if you are going to win at a school like TCU and Cross does a good job of maximizing the talent he has by playing a lot of shooters and running a lot of pick-and-rolls. With Hervey out, he has gone small and put three shooters around Bilbao and Neal and they play a very fast and entertaining brand of basketball that allows them to play up to their competition, including  a 75-74 OT victory over UL-L on Thursday. The way UT Arlington plays is a refreshing change of pace compared to some of the brutal slogs that Johnson's teams have made TCU fans suffer through, and that brand of basketball would help to re-invigorate a fairly moribund program in Fort Worth.

    Cross has been a head coach for 10 seasons with a record of 171-135 and has made one apperance in the NCAA, one in the NIT and one in the CIT. Maybe even more impressive, he only has three losing seasons in that span despite being a school with zero tradition (they had never made the Tourney before Cross in 30+ years at the D1 level) or fan support. And he has done all that while still being only 41 years old. The jump from the Sun Belt to the Big 12 would be a big one, but if it's not TCU he's going to be at a bigger job soon. File his name away for later because he's a rising star in the coaching profession.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016

    Pistons

    At RealGM, a look at the glitch in the system they have exploited to build their team.

    Iowa State

    1) Iowa State has the same team as last year

    In this era of college basketball, it's pretty incredible to see the type of continuity Iowa State has this season. Fred Hoiberg is gone and Steve Prohm is in his place but just about the entire band - Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, Abdel Nader, Matt Thomas - is back. The only significant player (other than Naz Long who had season-ending surgery) they lost from last season's team that won the Big 12 Tournament before being shocked in a 3/14 upset in the first round of the NCAA Tourney is Bryce Dejean Jones, whose gotten a few cups of coffee in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans.

    The problem is that BDJ was a pretty significant loss. He was a 6'5+ super athlete with 3-and-D potential at the next level and he injected a badly needed dose of length and athleticism on this roster, particularly on the perimeter. Hoiberg was able to get a lot of really skilled players but when you are recruiting to Ames you have to give up something and the team he assembled isn't exactly a 4x100 relay. You really saw that in their loss to UAB in the Tourney - they got absolutely smashed on the offensive boards by a bigger and more athletic team and it's hard to see it playing out any differently this season. Iowa State has plenty of talent and they are a very fun team to watch, but this is a team that's going to be at the mercy of the selection committee. They had better be praying for a draw with a bunch of teams that have guys going pro in something other than sports.

    What makes the situation worse is that McKay, their only real athlete upfront, has wound up in Prohm's doghouse. McKay is coming off a suspension and he isn't starting and that's a serious problem. They desperately need his ability to protect the paint, compete on the boards and roll to the rim and when he's not in the game they play a line-up of five guys smaller than 6'7, none of whom is a plus athlete. Even with McKay, it's still not enough. He's only 215 pounds and he seriously needs to hit the weight room if he's going to able to bang with guys like Johnathan Motley (6'9 235), who finished with 27 points and 10 boards on 14 shots in Baylor's win on Tuesday.

    The one new guy who gets major minutes is Deonte Burton, a 6'4 250 bowling ball who transferred from Marquette. Burton plays hard and has an interesting football type body that can present match-up problems for a lot of teams, but he made several silly plays in the final few minutes of the loss to Baylor and he can have just as much trouble with match-ups on the other end - he's an undersized big man and there's just not much he can do when a 6'9+ guy like Motley has him pinned at the front of the rim. This play kind of summed Iowa State's problems in the paint on defense.


    2) Monte Morris has maxed out his game

    Morris is one of the most impressive NCAA PG's that I've seen in a long time. He has everything you want in a floor general - he can shoot 3's, score off the dribble and run the offense. He always plays at his own pace, he never gets sped up and he rarely ever makes the wrong decision with the ball in his hands. I've long thought assist-to-turnover ratio is the most important stat for a PG so this kind of says it all about what type of player he is.

    The question when it comes to projecting him to the next level is just how good he can be with average size (6'2 170 with a 6'5 wingspan) and average (at best) athleticism. Forget about guarding Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry because those guys are just aliens anyway. PG is the deepest position in the league and you have to be able to at least match up physically if you are going to have any chance of slowing them down. Could Morris stay in front of guys like Reggie Jackson and Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight? If not, he's probably going to have to come off the bench.

    Here's where it gets tricky for Morris. How many NBA teams even need a traditional backup PG and how many are better off running offense through a wing player and putting more athletes or more shooters around him? I've always liked what the Spurs do with their 2nd unit - running everything through Manu and putting a more explosive scorer (Patty Mills) at the point. It's not just teams with future Hall of Famers coming off the bench either, as the Celtics do something similar with Evan Turner. I think the key for Morris at the next level is going to be looking for his shot more. If you are a guard whose going to give up points on defense, you have to be aggressive in looking to get them back the other way or you aren't going to be all that helpful.

    Long story short, I love Morris game and he's a great player to watch but I'm not sure how high I'd take a traditional PG with only average athleticism whose going to come off the bench. I talked to an NBA scout tonight who compared him to Trey Burke and Tyus Jones so make of that what you will.

    3) It's the same thing with Georges Niang

    Niang is like a 6'8 230 version of Morris. He's a wondrously gifted offensive basketball player who has seemingly been around Ames forever (he was an AAU teammate of Nerlens Noel) and who can take over a game anytime he wants at the NCAA level, but he's also a remarkably limited athlete whose going to struggle to stay in front of anyone at the next level. The first thing you have to ask with any NBA prospect is who can he guard and I'm not sure there's an answer to that question for Niang beyond the guys in the video room. He's kind of like if Draymond Green had no athletic ability.
    While he's a pretty great small-ball 4 at the NCAA level, he got absolutely pummeled by the Baylor big men upfront and it's not like he's going to have much more success getting down in a stance and guarding 6'7+ combo forwards 25+ feet from the basket. This feels like a guy whose going to have a long career overseas before getting into coaching. One thing that is cool about the NCAA game is that the level of talent is so spread out that it allows guys like Niang to thrive. There's just a lot more room for variety and diversity in style of play than there is at the NBA level, where the tyranny of uber-athleticism and hyper-specific game-planning leads to the monotony of waves upon waves of similar players with similar builds and similar skill-sets.

    There's not going to be any team in the NBA that plays or looks anything like Iowa State because a team as gloriously non-conformist just wouldn't be able to work. Iowa State kind of reminds me of the best players from the pick-up game at the local gym - a bunch of guys without great athleticism but with a great feel for the game who can move the ball and play interchangeably. For as much trash as I have been talking about them in this article, they are a great NCAA team and they are one of the main reasons that the Big 12 has been so much fun to watch over the last few seasons.

    4) The training wheels come off for Steve Prohm next season

    Year 1 in Ames for Prohm, who came over from Murray State, has been easy enough, as Hoiberg left behind a smoothly-running machine that can pretty much coach itself. When you have two coaches on the floor in Morris and Niang and a whole host of role playing 3-shooters with a ton of experience around them, you don't exactly have to be an X's and O's genius to get the most out of them. It's a group that was ready to win from Day 1 of the Prohm era and it gave him a nice set of training wheels to get himself comfortable coaching in one of the toughest conferences in the country. With only 10 schools and a home-and-home with each one, there aren't many nights off in the Big 12.


    Year 2 is when the degree of difficulty gets ratcheted up a notch. Niang, McKay and Nader will all have used up their eligibility and Morris will probably be gone too - it's a weak draft so this is probably as high as he will go given that he's not going to get any bigger or faster if he returns for his senior season and his stock would likely be impacted negatively if the team takes a step back following the loss of so many important players. There's only going to be a few holdovers from the Hoiberg era - Thomas and Long, both of whom will be seniors - and it will be all on Prohm to continue bringing high-level players into Ames, which won't be easy.

    He has a good recruiting class coming, including two four-star recruits, but it's going to be tough for him to maintain the level of consistency the program has achieved under Hoiberg. It's entirely possible that the Niang and Morris era represents a high water mark in the recent history of the Iowa State program. The key will probably be for Prohm to maintain the transfer pipeline into Ames (and much more importantly) be able to continue Hoiberg's success at integrating so many different pieces into the team on annual basis and getting guys with checkered histories and track records to play for something bigger than themselves. Hoiberg is the only coach to ever get anything out of Royce White, which shows you the type of challenge that Prohm has taken on for himself in replacing him.

    5) The Problems with The Narrative

    "At some point it's not about scoring. It's about can we get stops." - Steve Prohm

    It was interesting sitting in on the Iowa State press conference and listening to the questions that the beat writers were asking Prohm and the players. Everyone was focused on the late game execution and whether the Cyclones were getting the best possible shots and what they could do differently in the final few minutes of the game. It's not to say that that stuff wasn't important to the outcome but it's easy to see how people who have to write about this team on a daily basis can start to miss the forest through the trees. Tactics are great but they take a backseat to strategy and focusing on tactics at the expense of strategy ends up obscuring what's really going on and the dynamics that are ultimately driving the success and failure of a team.

    The bottom line is that it doesn't really matter how well Iowa State plays in the final few minutes of a game - there are underlying reasons why they continually lose close games to good teams and it's not going to change no matter how well they execute their offense at the end of games. They aren't very big, they aren't very athletic and they don't play much defense. They have an offensive rating of 30th and a defensive rating of 150th and a team with that profile has very little margin for error and they are almost set up to cause heartbreak to their fans.

    You can look at it this way. Iowa State is playing on an uneven playing field with the table slanted against them. They can run perfect offense, they can do everything right and they can make every difficult shot and the odds are still going to slowly move against them because they can't keep guys in front of them and they can't keep them off the offensive boards. They are going to get into the NCAA Tournament and they are eventually going to run into a team that can score with them and if they can do even a slightly better job of stopping them they are going to knock them out. The sad part about is that there's not much they can do about it. They are constrained by the limitations of the personnel on their roster.


    That's why I have so much respect for beat writers - there's only so many ways you write the same story in an interesting way without boring you and your readers half to death. But it's also why I hardly ever read game articles because what's the point. Focusing myopically on one game at the expense of the broader picture of the season is more likely to mislead than to inform your audience while sticking mainly to the big picture elements quickly becomes repetitious over the course of the season. There's just not all that much you can say about any one basketball team and I don't expect I'll be saying all that much about Iowa State going forward.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2016

    Sliding Down a Position

    At RealGM, a look at the best way to maximize the games of Henry Ellenson and Jaylen Brown at the next level.

    Malcolm Brogdon vs. Grayson Allen

    The big story from an NBA draft perspective from the Duke vs. Virginia game was Brandon Ingram's offensive explosion against one of the top defenses in the country, but one interesting subplot was the match-up between Grayson Allen (No. 45 in DX Top 100) and Malcolm Brogdon (No. 95) at the SG position. Neither Allen nor Brogdon is considered a big-time prospect but they have both been putting big-time numbers this season:

    Allen (sophomore): 20.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists on 1.8 turnovers on 48.9% shooting, 42.5% from 3 (on 5.1 3PA's)

    Brogdon (junior): 17.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists on 1.5 turnovers on 46.5% shooting, 40% from 3 (on 5.2 3PA's)

    Those numbers are nice but when it comes to evaluating NBA prospects, the biggest thing to me is how they perform against each other. I can get more out of 1 game between two top players who play the same position than 10 games when they go up against guys who are going pro in something other than sports. How would Allen and Brogdon fare against each other on both sides of the ball? That would tell us a lot about how ready each guy is to play at the next level.

    Allen is a killer in transition

    Allen has what is commonly called "sneaky" or "deceptive" athleticism in that people don't expect a white guy to be able to fly around the court and play above the rim. The JJ Redick comparisons are obvious but Allen is a much better athlete. Watch how well he moves in the open court when he can pick up a head of steam:


    Allen does a great job of controlling his body and taking advantage when the defender is giving up ground. He lives at the free-throw line (84.6% on 6.5 FTA's) which is a fabulous number for a guy who has been billed as a shooting specialist.


    Allen's D needs a lot of work

    Allen's athleticism doesn't always translate in the half-court, though, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That's not a huge surprise given that he's a young guy who has focused mostly on scoring early in his career, but I wonder how much of it is his small wingspan (6'5 205 with a 6'6 wingspan) and that's where the Redick comparisons come into play. He has to play so tight when he's playing pressure D that it's relatively easy for even average NCAA players like Virginia senior Marial Shayok to get around him:


    Duke eventually had to move Allen off Brogdon and hide him as much as possible because of plays like this. It's too easy for Allen to get beat off the dribble at this point in his career and it's going to be hard for him to declare for the draft until he can improve that part of his game because he's not going to be a primary option in the NBA.


    Allen depends on the refs when getting pressed on D

    Allen is a really smart player and he knows how to take advantage of cracks in the defense to get into the lane. He's a really good off the ball player and he doesn't force the issue too much when he doesn't have the advantage. This play is a good example of how Allen can initiate contact and create something out of nothing on offense:


    Of course, the other side of that is whether the refs are bailing him out on the drive. Duke players tend to get Duke calls and Allen can end up taking a lot of difficult shots when the refs swallow their whistle late in games:


    Conversely, they could just let him travel to win games. It's easy to get an open look when you can take 3 steps in the lane:

    Brogdon struggles to create 1-on-1 offense

    The biggest knock on Brogdon is whether he can pass what I like to call "the Aaron Harrison test" - does he have enough of a baseline of ahtleticism to where he can compete at the NBA level? He's never going to be a plus athlete - he just has to be good enough to where he can use his NBA body (6'5 205 with a 6'10 wingspan), his bball IQ and his well-rounded skill-set. You can see the issue when he tries to create 1-on-1 against NBA-caliber defenders like Matt Jones:


    He doesn't really have the athleticism to where he can finish in the lane in traffic:


    Brogdon uses smarts to get his offense

    The biggest thing about him is that he knows who he is. He's a very crafty player - he's able to walk the fine line between always looking to attack and not forcing the issue. When he has nothing, he'll keep the ball moving. When the defender gambles and creates an opening, though, he's quick to exploit it:


    He has the prototype SG game in that he knows how to set up defenders, run off screens and get off shots from 3 quickly. A guy with his athleticism can't afford to not be a knock down 3-point shooter at the next level and that's one area of his game that will definitely translate:


    Brogdon is a fantastic defender

    If Brogdon is going to get into the league, it's because of his play on the defensive side of the ball. Even though he's not a great athlete, he's big and long (6'5 215 with a 6'10 wingspan) and he's a very tough player who knows how to play positional defense and force his man into a tough shot. Tony Bennett does a great job of coaching up D at UVa and Brogdon is a prime example of a guy who has maximized all of his athletic ability to become a high-level two way player at the NCAA level. Watch how he moves his feet on this Allen drive and doesn't fall for any of his pump fakes. He's not giving you anything easy:


    The reason that UVa was able to make this game close was Brogdon's defense on Ingram late in the games. He's giving up a ton of size, a ton of length and a ton of quickness in this match-up yet he's still able to force Ingram into taking a really tough shot in an iso situation:


    Plays like this are why NBA scouts are going to come around on Brogdon. Even if he's not drafted, he will get a chance to play his way into the NBA in summer league and as a training camp invite:


    Allen and Brogdon have fairly similar skill-sets

    Neither guy is going to be a primary option at the next level but they are both knockdown 3-point shooters who know how to attack a close-out and can create offense for their teammates. They are both excellent passers with assist-to-turnover ratios of at least 2:1 - they are shooting specialists who can do more than just shoot and can attack a defense in multiple ways. Brogdon would be a great guy or Allen to model himself on over the next few seasons at college. He has gotten the most out of athletic ability and he has turned himself into an excellent defender, which is what Allen is going to need to become if he's going to stick at the next level.

    Could Brogdon be the next Wesley Matthews?

    There's definitely some Matthews in Brogdon's game - he's a very solid two-way wing player at the NCAA level without elite athleticism or shot-creating ability who has been somewhat overshadowed playing on a great team. Brogdon is a great shooter with size, length and toughness who can do multiple things on offense and he has been really coached up on the defensive end of the floor. There are a ton of guys with 3-and-D potential in every draft and it will be easy to overlook Brogdon for flashier players with more athleticism. The odds are against Brogdon but Matthews is proof that 3-and-D wings can carve out a career for themselves at the next level without being drafted.

    Saturday, February 13, 2016

    Gonzaga

    1) A different kind of Gonzaga team

    The first thing that jumps out about Gonzaga this season is how much bigger they are on the perimeter. For the last four years, they started two 6'2 guards - Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. - which put a ceiling on their program because Pangos wasn't a high-level athlete and Bell couldn't create his own shot and neither guy had the size to match up with bigger backcourts. This season's team goes 6'3 185 (Josh Perkins), 6'4 195 (Eric McClellan) and 6'5 200 (Kyle Dranginis), which gives them the size to play with the vast majority of NCAA teams on the perimeter.

    While Bell and Pangos were great NCAA players, the holes in their game were exposed when they went up against elite competition. Their loss to Duke in the Elite Eight last season was the perfect example - Pangos and Bell combined to play 76 of 80 minutes in the backcourt and they scored a grand total of 9 points on 14 shots and handed out 2 assists on 5 turnovers. There just wasn't much they could do against future NBA guards like Tyus Jones on either side of the ball. This year's guards are far from perfect but they at least give the Zags the chance to match up physically with elite competition.

    Gonzaga has a pretty short bench this season and they only played 7 guys against SMU on Saturday but all the pieces fit together pretty well. The only guy in their rotation who doesn't shoot 3's is Domantas (son of Arvydas) Sabonis - he dominates the interior of the lane and everyone else spreads the floor around him. They play a pretty reasonable facsimile of an NBA offense, with Kyle Wiltjer opening up the floor for Sabonis to roll to the rim and the other three guards spread out around the 3-point line. They can almost always get a good shot when they throw the ball in to Sabonis and he has such a high basketball IQ that he can read the floor and make the right decision almost every time, whether it's to face up and take it to the rim, put a guy on his back and play bully ball or dissect the defense and find the open man if they double down on him.

    The other big difference from last season's team is the absence of Przemek Karnowski, their 7'1 300 mountain man of a C whose career ended following back surgery earlier in the season. Karnowski was an elite defensive anchor and a guy who could facilitate the offense from the high post or the low post, but you could make the argument they are actually a more dangerous team without him. Not only has his absence allowed Sabonis to come into his own as a featured player, having a more athletic and more mobile big man at the 5 position is huge considering that they don't have a ton of elite athletes on the perimeter either.

    2) Domantas Sabonis is special 

    Sabonis is a guy who really stands out when you see him in person. The biggest thing is how well he moves for 6'11 240. He's not a guy whose going to play at 11-12+ feet in the air, but he's an elite athlete for a guy with his size. He has the whole package - he's very quick, he's well put together, he has a great first step, he has a high motor and he plays with an edge. He actually picked up a flagrant foul against SMU when he cleared out one of the Mustangs guards with an elbow while fighting for a rebound. He's a tenacious rebounder whose not afraid of contact and he wasn't intimidated at all by the raucous home crowd at Moody. I mention that because the contrast with Wiltjer in the way that he handled the environment couldn't have been more telling.

    Combine his size and athleticism with his skill-set and feel for the game and you have a guy with the chance to be a very special player. SMU couldn't really handle him on Saturday - he finished with 20 points, 16 rebounds and 3 assists on 14 shots. The interesting part about this match-up for Sabonis is while SMU didn't have anyone taller than 6'8, they had three 6'7+ combo forwards who have been dominating bigger frontlines all season. Given the way the league is going, the name of the game for bigger frontcourt players is that they need the athleticism to defend smaller players on the perimeter as well as the finishing ability to put them on their back and score over the top of them. Wiltjer doesn't have either of those things, which is why he finished with 4 points on 17 (!!) shots.

    The strength of Sabonis game is his ability to make plays in the lane, whether it's bullying smaller players in the low post or facing up slower players in the high post. A 6'11+ player with touch, size and athleticism is going to be able to score a lot of points in the paint and there's only so much a defense can do to stop him. When he can pick apart a double team too, they are in an impossible bind. Sabonis made a couple of incredible plays on Saturday when he swooped across the lane, drew multiple defenders and kicked the ball out to an open shooter. Guys his size are not supposed to be on the passing end of a drive-and-kick.

    All that said, there are two things holding him back from being an elite player at the next level:

    1) Alligator arms. Sabonis only has a 6'10 wingspan, which makes him the rare frontcourt player with arms that aren't longer than his body. He only has an average reach and that absolutely kills him when it comes to protecting the rim. The shame of it is that he would be an absolutely ideal small-ball 5 with a 7'0+ wingspan because he has the quickness to defend smaller guards on the perimeter and the toughness to battle with bigger guys in the post and on the boards. The problem is that when your 5 has very little ability to alter shots it puts a ton of pressure on your other 4 defenders because you basically don't have a 2nd line of defense. If Sabonis is going to be a starter at the next level, he has to be paired with a rim protector, which brings us to problem #2.

    2) He doesn't have great range on his jumper. Almost all the damage that Sabonis did on Saturday was in the paint and he didn't really look to shoot at all beyond 15+ feet. That's fine when paired with a guy like Wiltjer but Wiltjer's defense makes him practically unplayable at the next level and you can count the number of shot-blocking + 3-point shooting big men on one hand, which is why people have been calling them "unicorns". The good news is that Sabonis shoots 81.1% from the free-throw line (on 5.7 FTA's) so it shouldn't be inconceivable for him to be a good outside shooter. If he can become a consistent shooter, it would open up the rest of his game and make him practically indefensible. The lack of a jumper puts a real ceiling on his potential at the next level, which is why it probably makes sense for him to come back to school for his junior season.

    Here's another way to look at it. If he can make that jumper (or maybe even knock down 3's), he could be an All-Star. Without it, he's coming off the bench as an energy 4/5 big man. That's how big a deal shooting ability has become at the highest levels of the game.



    3) Kyle Wiltjer was born 5 years too late to play in the NBA

    Wiltjer is a Wooden Award Candidate who has put up montrous numbers since transferring from Kentucky. (Here's how old he is - he was in the same recruiting class with Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague. Teague's entire NBA career has played out while Wiltjer has been in college). As a 5th-year senior, Wiltjer is averaging 22 points and 6.5 rebounds a game on 50.5% shooting and he's almost a prototype stretch 4 at the next level. At 6'11 240, he's big enough to stand behind guys in the post, he has the shooting ability to where he has to be guarded 25+ feet from the basket and he has enough versatility in his offensive game - whether it's attacking a close-out or playing with his back to the basket - to where he's not just a shooting specialist.

    Here's the problem. What the league has figured out is that smaller players can shoot 3's just as well as stretch 4's while bringing a lot more to the table in terms of being able to defend on the perimeter and play with the ball in their hands. Conversely, the ability to stand behind guys in the post isn't nearly as important given the way that the league has moved away from throwing the ball inside to putting guards in ball screens as the primary way to generate offense in the half-court. Who cares about whether a 6'10 guy can win wrestling matches around the rim better than a 6'7 guy - the real question is whether he can get down in a stance and defend 25+ feet from the basket as well as the 6'7 guy.

    Kyle Wiltjer has a lot of strengths in his game but sliding his feet from side to side certainly isn't one of them. He is literally as slow as molasses and you could time his 40-yard dash or his lane agility drill with a sundial. SMU was determined to not give him any space on offense and they went right at him on defense and there wasn't much he could do about it. And it's not like Jordan Tolbert, Markus Kennedy and Ben Moore are guaranteed to play at the next level. The types of 6'7+ guys that Wiltjer would have to face in the NBA are so much worse. Imagine Wiltjer trying to post up Harry Barnes or defend him on the 3-point line and you can see why he's probably destined for a long and successful career in Europe. That's the question you have to ask about pretty much any stretch 4 these days and it's not going to be a pretty answer for the vast majority of them.


    A good way to think about it is that a stretch 4 needs Sabonis type athleticism to really thrive at the next level these days. The difference between Wiltjer and Sabonis in athleticism is about as wide as the difference between Sabonis and Aaron Gordon. We're talking about guys who are barely the same species.

    4) Gonzaga is Transfer U

    This year's team features two guys who started their careers at high-major schools - Wiltjer (Kentucky) and McClellan (Vanderbilt) - and Gonzaga has a long line of guys who have come to Spokane and given their careers new life under Mark Few. No matter what happens this season or even if they lose Sabonis to the NBA, the program won't fall off much next season, not with these two guys in the pipeline - Nigel Williams Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri).

    Here's the numbers those guys put up at their previous stops:

    NWG: 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists on 2.8 turnovers on 44.2% shooting, 25.6% from 3

    JW3: 11.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.6 blocks on 41.2% shooting, 34.4% from 3

    At 6'3 185, NWG is a fairly complete PG who was recruited by just about every school in the country. At 6'9 230, JW3 is the type of super bouncy big man that Gonzaga hasn't had too often in recent years. The really intriguing thing about those numbers is that NWG shot much better from 3 as a freshman and JW3 blocked a lot more shots. If the Gonzaga coaching staff can harness their games during this redshirt season, the rest of the WCC isn't going to know what hit them. Williams even said that one of the primary reasons why he chose Gonzaga was the way they developed Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk during their redshirt seasons with the program. If Sabonis stays and gets to play with those 2 guys and a ton of shooters, they would have by far the highest ceiling of any team that Gonzaga has had under Mark Few.



    5) Gonzaga is on the bubble

    Gonzaga is 20-6 with a 12-2 record in the WCC but they haven't done all that much to impress the selection committee. Their best wins - Washington and UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis - are over fellow bubble teams while they have come up just short to teams who could have punched their ticket with a win - Arizona, Texas A&M, UCLA and SMU. On the plus side, they don't have any bad losses as their two WCC losses came to the other traditional powers in the conference - BYU and St. Mary's - by a combined total of 4 points. Add it all up and a lot of the pundits have Gonzaga sweating if they lose in the WCC Tournament.

    The funny part about it is that all their losses are pretty explainable and don't really say all that much about the overall quality of the team. This is a team with one of the best frontcourts in the country and they can play with just about anyone. Very few teams are going to run the table in conference play while Gonzaga was right there with some of the best teams in the country. They lost to A&M by 1, Arizona and UCLA by 5 and the loss to SMU was closer than the 9-point margin indicated. In a normal season, wins over Washington and UConn would be enough in and of themselves to get a mid-major program in the field of 68. It's just Gonzaga's bad luck that they came in relative down years for those programs.

    6) How far could Gonzaga go in the Tourney?

    The ironic thing is that Gonzaga actually has a team that's better equipped to make a Tourney run than many of their predecessors, even if they haven't been able to match their regular season results. The key is to look at their personnel. Gonzaga has as much size and athleticism as they have ever had on the perimeter (which isn't saying a ton), they have as good a shooting big man as they have ever had in Wiltjer and they have never had a player with a skill-set like Sabonis. They've had 13 guys who have at least had a cup of coffee in the NBA under Few and Sabonis should end up as the best of them. The only guy on his level is Olynyk and I like Sabonis a lot more as a two-way player, even if he never adds a consistent jumper.

    Here's the basic formula for Gonzaga. Pound the ball into Sabonis, whether it's rolling to the rim or playing in the post, and use the threat of his offense to open up shots for Wiltjer and their guards. From there, control tempo and use your size to your advantage on offense and limit the number of possessions for the other team. They are going to want to avoid two things - a team with a 6'6+ athlete on the perimeter whose too big for Dranginis and teams with multiple 6'9+ frontcourt players who can match up with Wiltjer and Sabonis. What you saw in the loss to SMU is that there's no Plan C - none of the guards can really step up if either of their big men has an off night.

    They would probably run into a team with the pieces to give them trouble in the 2nd week of the Tourney, if not the 1rst, but there's no guarantee given the overall weakness of the field this season. Sabonis is one of the most talented players in the country and they have the shooting to allow him to play 1-on-1 so they have a pretty high ceiling in a one-and-done scenario. Let's hope they can make the Tourney because they could make things real interesting if they get the right draw.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2016

    Tulsa

    1) Tulsa is a big man away from being an NCAA Tournament team

    Tulsa has the guards to play with anyone. The problem is upfront, where they only have two big men - Brandon Swannegan, a 6'9 210 shot-blocker, and D'Andre Wright, a 6'9 245 warm body. They hardly ever play them together, which means Tulsa is giving up size against just about every team they face. SMU killed them on the offensive boards on Wednesday (19 to 8) and made hay all night by playing inside-out, collapsing the defense and kicking the ball out for open 3's. Tulsa was able to pull off the upset because they forced 14 turnovers and won the fast break battle 10-0, but the lack of size has killed them all season and it's the Achilles heel that's probably going to keep them out of the Tournament.

    Once you get outside the Power 5 conferences, what really separates programs is the amount of skilled and athletic size they have on their roster. Most mid-level programs either have the choice of playing stiffs with size or undersized guys with game - there just isn't enough skilled size to go around. Tulsa makes the best of it by playing a 3 at the 4 (6'7 205 senior wing Rashad Smith) and spreading out the other team and even going to five-out sets with Smith at the 5 at times, but those Golden State Warriors tactics really only work when you have guards who can defend big men. And there aren't many 6'7+ guys with the size, physicality and athleticism to do that floating around outside the Power 5.

    Because they are so undersized, Tulsa can't A) match up with bigger teams and B) can't blow smaller teams off the floor. So while they have the talent to beat good teams like SMU, they also keep lesser teams like Oral Roberts (who beat them in non-conference) in the game because they don't have the talent at the frontcourt positions which would separate them from the great unwashed masses of the sport. They should be able to give teams like UConn, Cincy and Temple a run in the AAC Tourney, but it's hard to see them beating all of them to get the automatic bid and they will probably end up in the NIT, where they could go pretty far as long as they avoid a team with a big frontline.

    2) Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard are two halves of a great NBA prospect

    Tulsa has one of the best back-courts in the country in Harrison and Woodard, two seniors who have spent most of the last four seasons starting together. They are a less high profile version of OU's prolific senior backcourt of Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins. Coincidentally enough, James Woodard is the older brother of Jordan Woodard, the third banana in OU's backcourt. At 6'4 190 (Harrison) and 6'3 190 (Woodard) they are big, physical and athletic and they would give just about any team in the country trouble on the perimeter. There's a lot to like about their games, but they each have one glaring flaw that's going to prevent them from playing at the next level, at least at this point in their careers. While they might be able to grind it out in the D-League for a few years and fight their way into a roster spot, the odds are definitely against them, especially coming from a lower profile school.

    Harrison - 15.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists on 2.0 turnovers, 2.0 steals on 47/21/64 shooting
    Woodard - 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists on 1.8 turnovers, 1.2 steals on 53/38/77 shooting

    Harrison is a big PG with exceptional athleticism and great body control who can get to the rim pretty easily, but he can't shoot 3's to save his life. Woodard is a well-rounded scorer who can shoot from distance and attack off the dribble, but he's a score-first guard who doesn't look to distribute the ball much. You can count the number of guards who can't shoot 3's in the NBA on one hand and they are all transcendent passers who struggle to make a positive impact on a good team while guards who are Woodard's size at the next level and aren't pure PG's tend to be transcendent scorers who can take over games against the best players in the world. It's no knock on either to say they aren't transcendent at any one thing. If Harrison had Woodard's shot, he'd be a first rounder and it would be the same if Woodard had Harrison's floor game.

    As is, they complement each other really well at the NCAA level and make up for each other's weaknesses. The holes in their games mean they are exactly the type of players who can slip through the cracks and wind up at a mid-level program like Tulsa, where they have been lucky enough to be part of a duo that's better than the sum of its parts. It was just a fantastic job of scouting and recruiting by Danny Manning's staff at Tulsa and that backcourt has given Frank Haith a huge leg up in his first two seasons on the job.



    3) Tulsa is too experienced for its own good

    There are nine players in the Tulsa rotation. Seven of them are seniors, one is a junior and one is a freshman. What that means is that Haith has only two guys whom he has recruited who are getting any playing time - he has spent the last two seasons eating off the seed corn that Manning had sown into the program before departing for Wake Forest. Of the 200 total minutes they played against SMU, 160 of them came to players who won't be with the program next season and of the fifteen players on their roster, there are only two underclassmen. It's a grossly irresponsible way to manage a program and it's almost certainly going to come back to bite Haith in the coming seasons.


    On one hand, you can understand him not wanting to run off any players and honoring everyone's scholarships, especially considering in what great shape the program was in when he took over. On the other, a college coach always has to have one eye on the future when he's building his roster and Haith has backed himself into a pretty deep corner once he loses all of Manning's players.

    4) Is Haith up to his old tricks?

    If you've followed Haith's coaching career over the last few seasons, this is all going to sound very familiar. After seven middling seasons at Miami (FL), Haith took over for Mike Anderson at Missouri in 2011. Anderson had built up Missouri before returning to his old stomping grounds at Arkansas, leaving behind a ready made roster with several NBA prospects that would put the coach who took over for him in a perfect situation to hit the ground running.

    In Haith's first season at Columbia, Missouri went 30-5 and was a Top 5 team for most of the season before getting knocked out in a 15-2 upset in the first round. That was the high point of his tenure there - they got steadily worse every season as the recruiting fell off and Haith eventually decamped for Tulsa, a fairly stunning decision since coaches never leave the SEC to go to a conference like the AAC. It felt like a guy getting out one step ahead of the pitchforks and that was confirmed when the NCAA came down on Missouri for various improprieties during Haith's tenure. Considering that he left Miami under a similar cloud because of NCAA violations, the entire sequence of events hasn't exactly done wonders for Haith's reputation.

    Here's what should really concern Tulsa fans. Check out his win-loss records over the last five seasons:

    2012 - Missouri - 30-5
    2013 - Missouri - 23-11
    2014 - Missouri - 23-12
    2015 - Tulsa - 23-11
    2016 - Tulsa - 15-8

    In the three years before Haith took over at Mizzou, they were 31-7, 23-11 and 23-11. In the two years after he left, they are 9-23 and 8-15. He's a coach who was given the keys to a program that was running at a high level, kept things going while the old regime's players were still there before promptly running it into the ground and leaving the scene of the crime while the car was still smoldering. Long story short, Haith's trajectory at Tulsa is not looking good.

    5) Haith's next recruiting class will make or break his tenure

    With only one starter (junior Pat Birt) and one other rotation player (freshman Sterling Taplin) coming back, Tulsa is basically starting from ground zero next season, which means this next recruiting class will have to be the foundation for the program that Haith is trying to build. The good news is that he at least bothered to bring in enough players to fill out a roster. They are bringing in six guys, two of whom are JUCO's who should be able to play right away, and two of whom are three-star recruits, who should have plenty of chances to gain experience over the next few seasons. The biggest concern is that Haith has left himself with almost no margin for error. If any of those guys flame out, there just isn't a lot of depth in the program to make up for it.

    The other issue is that the American isn't a conference where you want to be undergoing a wholesale rebuilding job. This isn't the C-USA or the WAC, their last two conferences where Tulsa had more resources than most of their competitors. The AAC has got big-budget programs with a ton of tradition in primo recruiting areas like UConn, Cincinnati and Memphis and they've got extremely accomplished coaches like Larry Brown at SMU, Fran Dunphy at Temple and Kelvin Sampson at UH. There are a lot of good programs and almost everyone has a roster full of high-caliber athletes. The level of play in this conference is pretty high and it's not going to be easy for Haith to keep the program above water.

    To return to an earlier metaphor, you have to rotate your fields and plant crops every season to make sure you always have a harvest to bring to the market and Haith spent two years basically doing nothing to maintain the program's forward momentum.