Sunday, January 31, 2016


1) Devin Booker looks like a star

In a season where pretty much everything has gone wrong, the play of Devin Booker has been the lone bright spot for the Suns. The No. 14 pick in the 2015 draft already looks like a major steal - he has had a great rookie season and he put on an impressive performance in Dallas tonight. Booker had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists on 15 shots and he was their best player on Sunday. He can do a little bit of everything on a basketball court and he was absolutely crucial in the Suns being able to stick in to the very end in this one - Booker was -6 in 41 minutes while every other starter was at least -14.

Maybe the most impressive part about the way he plays is how under control he is out there. The game doesn't look too fast for him and he already looks like he belongs even though he's the youngest player in the league - he turned 19 at the end of October. The comparison between him and fellow Kentucky one-and-done Archie Goodwin is telling. Goodwin is 21 years old and has been in the league 3 seasons and he still looks like he doesn't know what's going on half the time. Speed and athleticism isn't the end-all be-all on the perimeter, even at the NBA level. Booker gets to places going 70 that Goodwin doesn't get to going 100 because he knows where he's going and he's not driving blind.

That's not to say that he doesn't make a lot of rookie mistakes. Booker was a shooting specialist at Kentucky and the rash of injuries at PG has him running point and initiating the offense for large stretches of the game for Phoenix, which is inevitably going to create growing pains. Booker had 4 turnovers on Sunday and a lot of them were of the rookie variety - throwing the ball over guy's heads and forcing passes in traffic. Goodwin had a bunch of young player mistakes too (3 TO's) but the difference is that he didn't have any assists to make up for them.

Playing Booker at PG is really a win-win for Phoenix. He gets a lot of valuable reps as a primary ball-handler and gains experience as a playmaker and an offensive initiator while also helping them rack up more lottery balls. It's a lot like what happened with Zach LaVine in Minnesota last season. Booker and LaVine are fairly dissimilar players but there are more than a few similarities in the early part of their careers - they were both freshmen who came off the bench in their only season in college and declared for the draft despite not putting up the type of per-game numbers that you would normally expect out of a one-and-done guy. They were both late lottery picks and they both look like value picks already, which shows the importance of scouting even in our stats-heavy age. Minnesota under Flip Saunders and Phoenix under Ryan McDonough have been two of the sharpest scouting FO's in the league over the last few seasons.

What you have to do is look beyond a prospect's stats and look at their skill-set and the context in which they played at the NCAA level. LaVine was backing up another first-round pick (Jordan Adams) at UCLA while Booker was the 4rth guard behind 3 primary ball-handlers at Kentucky (The Harrisons and Tyler Ulis). You can't blame Steve Alford for not benching Adams, who was a monster at the NCAA level, but it's hard to watch Booker ball out like this in the NBA and not wonder what would have happened if Cal had played him and Ulis in the 2nd half of their loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That Kentucky team had the talent to be an all-time great NCAA team and Cal left a 40-0 season on the table thanks to his loyalty to the Harrisons. I get the feeling that people are going to look back in 5 years and wonder how an NCAA team with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker ever lost a game.

2) The returns on Archie Goodwin aren't as promising

This is a do-or-die season for Goodwin, whose getting his first real playing time of his NBA career, and he's kind of dying on the vine right now. You never want to take too much away from one game because Goodwin might have had the worst game of his career on Sunday - 3 points on 1-11 shooting, 0 assists on 3 turnovers, 1 steal and 4 rebounds and -16 in 36 minutes - but it's still an open question whether his game can translate to the this level and what would be his best role on an NBA team.

He came into the league with the question of whether he could distribute the ball enough to be a PG or shoot the ball well enough to be a SG. Three years later, it's the same problem. He's shooting 25.7% from 3 and his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6:1.4) is barely in the positive. He doesn't shoot the ball well enough to play off the ball and he doesn't make good enough decisions to where you want him playing with the ball in his hands. He also doesn't appear to have put much weight on his body in 3 seasons as a pro - he still looks incredibly slight in comparison to NBA guards and it makes it difficult for him to fully utilize his athleticism. Goodwin missed a ton of shots at the rim on Sunday and it seemed like he was afraid of making contact. The bottom line about a guy with his skill-set is that he needs to be an overwhelming athlete that can dominate the area around the rim - think a starter version of Will Barton - and that isn't happening right now.

The one thing you have to keep in mind with Goodwin is how incredibly young he still is. He's a lot like Booker in that he was crazy young for his draft class and he came into the league as an 18-year old. He's still only 21 and he's younger than a lot of the top prospects (guys like Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield) in this year's draft. The question I have is whether he would have been better off staying in school and playing 35+ minutes a night on one of the best teams in the country over the last 3 seasons. It's hard to believe he wouldn't be farther along than he is today.

3) Jordan McRae could be a player

The Suns signed McRae to a 10-day contract earlier this week and it looks like he's well on his way to earning a guaranteed contract. He actually has a fairly similar skill-set to Goodwin - at 6'5 180 with a 7'0 wingspan, McRae is a plus athlete with long arms and a spindly frame who can slide between either guard position on defense but doesn't have a defined role on the offensive end of the floor. The questions about McRae are whether he can be a consistent 3-point shooter and a good decision-maker at the NBA level and whether he can be a good defensive player despite giving up a lot of weight to the guys he will be guarding. It's the exact same profile as Goodwin except McRae is older, more mature and has longer arms.

This is something I was wondering watching this game. McRae was a 21-year old junior at Tennessee during Goodwin's freshman season at Kentucky and he was clearly the better player of the two at the time. Is there any reason to believe that Goodwin has overtaken him at any point in the last 3 years? Here's a look at their D-League stats this season:

McRae: 23.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists on 4,0 turnovers, 1.7 steals on 45/31/78 shooting
Goodwin: 22.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists on 2,5 turnovers, 1.8 steals on 44/27/67 shooting

They are basically the same player except Goodwin is 3 years younger so he should theoretically have a higher ceiling. The problem is that McRae has always been a better shooter and that's not something that just magically develops over time. It does happen every once in a while but Goodwin has shown no indication that it's going to happen for him.

The point is that McRae has a chance to be a good NBA player and he's exactly the type of player that a team going nowhere like the Suns should try out. The Nets came into Dallas on Friday and I'm wondering why they don't have 2-3 promising D-League guys like McRae in their rotation. What are they waiting for exactly? I think we all have a pretty good idea of what Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson are about at this point.

4) Alex Len should be getting Tyson Chandler's minutes

Alex Len looked pretty good in the limited amount of minutes that he got on Sunday - 6 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks on 2-2 shooting and +4 (the second highest on the team behind McRae at +8) in 15 minutes. He bullied Salah Mejri at the rim and he got around JaVale McGee in the post. He's long, he's skilled, he's reasonably athletic for a guy with his size (7'1 260 with a 7'3 wingspan) and he's versatile - he can beat you in the post, rolling to the rim or stepping out for a mid-range jumper. The Suns need to find out what exactly he can be and this is as a good a time as any to run him out there for an extended look.

The problem is that they just gave a max contract to a 33-year old C in the midst of the decline stage of his career who doesn't have any PG's who can throw him lobs or enough floor spacing to really be active around the rim. I love Tyson but the Tyson Chandler to Phoenix experiment was pretty much dead on arrival and now they are caught in a terrible position where he is blocking a Top 5 pick and turning him into a 15 minute a guy (since the two can't play together) and it's pretty much impossible for him to be effective given the constraints of the rest of the roster so there's no way to trade him considering how big his contract is. I don't know what they are going to do with Tyson but it almost doesn't even matter. The next time they are going to be a good team, it's going to be with Alex Len at C. They can't buy out Tyson, they can't trade him and they can't play him. It's tough.

5) There's a similar dynamic brewing with Booker and the Suns 2 PG's

Booker is a 19-year old whose good enough to be a starter in the NBA so he needs to be starting on a team as bad as the Suns. The problem is what are they going to do next season? You don't want to start Booker at the 3 because he would be undersized for the position, he has pretty short arms and he's not a plus athlete. He would be killed on defense and it would be a lot to ask of such a young player. The problem is that you can't play Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe at the SF spot either and they have committed over $150 million plus to that backcourt.

It's the same thing with Tyson. Knight just got a max contract and Bledsoe is coming off a serious knee injury so how can you trade either guy? Essentially, the Suns have committed to max contracts to two guys (Tyson and Knight) who don't really help them win now in order that they block the two most promising young players on the roster. It's a tire fire of the highest order. In the 3 years that Ryan McDonough has been in charge in Phoenix, they have been really good at drafting players. Everything else has been pretty questionable. That's what makes the Knight trade so tough - they gave up a potential Top 5 pick and Isaiah Thomas on a great contract in order to give Knight a max deal. This is not a great draft but I'm pretty sure McDonough still would have been able to turn two Top 5 picks into something interesting. At least a lot more interesting than this current roster.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Memphis Tigers

1) Memphis can't shoot well enough to play with the big boys

The story of this game wasn't all that complicated. SMU spread the floor, moved the ball and knocked down open shots and Memphis did not. There's just no way a basketball team that does the latter is going to beat one that does the former at any level of the game. SMU shot 40.4% from the floor and 46.2% from 3 while Memphis shot 32.8% from the floor and 25% from 3. The Tigers were getting a lot of wide open shots and it's not like their misses were all that close. There were a lot of wounded ducks being thrown up at Moody tonight and it was not pretty.

It's about what you would expect would happen considering that Memphis came into the game shooting 31.6% from 3 (8th in the American) while SMU was shooting 40.6% (1rst). Memphis doesn't have one plus shooter in their starting five and the only guy in their rotation who has to be guarded beyond the 3-point line is reserve guard Avery Woodson (41.1% on 5.6 3PA's). I'm not really sure what Josh Pastner is trying to do with this team because it's basically impossible to be a good NCAA team if you can't at least force the defense to respect you on the perimeter.

What Memphis tries to do is take advantage of their athleticism by blocking a lot of shots (1rst in the American) and forcing a lot of turnovers (2nd in steals) and getting out in transition, where their lack of shooting isn't as big a negative. That works when you are playing inferior teams but when you are playing good teams like SMU that have the horses to run with you, you had better be really good at the press or they are going to take care of the ball, keep you in the half-court and then run your misses back at you the other way.

That's been the storyline of the Josh Pastner era in Memphis - for all the gaudy regular-season win totals, they are 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament and they have consistently struggled against Top 25 teams. When Pastner doesn't have an overwhelming talent advantage coming into the game, he tends to lose. This loss to SMU wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated (80-68). To give you an idea of how the game went, I was Googling "Josh Pastner job security" about 5 minutes into the 2nd half.

2) Shaq Goodwin would have been an NBA player 10 years ago

Goodwin is a great NCAA player, a 4-year senior whose one of the best big men in the country. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.2 blocks a game on 50.3% shooting this season. He does a little bit of everything - he's the main option in the half-court and he can score with his back to the basket, initiate the offense out of the high post and the low post, step out and knock down a 20+ foot jumper, clean the glass and protect the rim. At 6'9 230 with a 7'2 wingspan, he's everything you are looking for in a traditional 4. The problem for Goodwin is that NBA teams aren't really looking for traditional 4's anymore.

Goodwin knocked down a 3 on Saturday but he's not a three-point shooter and he's not really comfortable as a dribble-drive guy from the perimeter. There's a difference between a big man who can step out and play on the perimeter and a guard with the size of a big man and modern NBA teams want the latter and not the former at the 4. Goodwin isn't quick or agile enough to defend 25+ feet from the basket and he doesn't provide the type of floor spacing that the 4 position requires these days. That means moving down a position and playing as a 5 and he's not thick enough or big enough to really handle that. He struggled with the size and activity of Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy for SMU (he fouled out in 27 minutes) and all three of those guys should have long careers battling in the trenches overseas.

3) Dedric Lawson is an interesting long-term prospect 

There's a lot to like about the Memphis super-freshman. At 6'8 215 with a 7'1 wingspan, he's a combo forward with an NBA-body and an NBA-game. He's comfortable playing on the perimeter and  in the post and Memphis even had him running some point forward at various stages of the game. The major problem with Lawson is that he is really slow. He's an average NBA athlete at best and he  isn't very light on his feet at all. He kind of plods around the floor and struggles to get off the ground. He reminds me a lot of Georges Niang.

The good news is that a player like that is going to have to stay all 4 seasons and perfect his game before he even thinks about declaring for the draft. Lawson is bigger and longer than Niang and he has the foundations of an NBA game but he will probably need the next 3 years to refine it to the point where he would have a chance at the next level. You can see it in the numbers - he's shooting 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from 3 and 67.3% from the free-throw line and averaging 2.6 assists a game on 3.1 turnovers. Niang, in contrast, is averaging 52.5% from the field, 37.2% from 3, 85.1% from the free-throw line and 3.0 assists on 2.3 turnovers. Lawson has a lot of work to do - the question is whether Pastner is really the coach whose going to get the most out of him.

Maybe the most interesting part about Dedric Lawson is his family situation. His older brother KJ is a freshman on the team (Dedric re-classified and skipped his senior season of high school) and his father is an assistant coach, which raised a lot of questions about a possible quid-pro-quo between the family and Pastner. There are also two younger brothers - Chandler and Johnathan - whom the family thinks will actually be better than their older brothers, both of whom were Top 50 recruits. Here's a nice story about the family that the beating SMU delivered gave me time to find.

4) The ghosts in the box score

The real story of the Memphis program is all the dogs that aren't barking this season. Pastner had one of the best recruiting classes in the country in 2013 and they should be juniors who are the heart of the team. He brought in five Top 100 guys and here's what happened to them:

- Austin Nichols (transferred to Virginia)
- Kuran Iverson (transferred to Rhode Island)
- Nick King (transferred to Alabama)
- Dominic Woodson (transferred to Tennessee)
- RaShawn Powell (transferred to LaSalle)

That has been a recurring problem for Pastner in his time at Memphis. He brings in talented players but they don't seem to stick around for very long and it's not because they are all getting drafted in the NBA. The common denominator in all your failed relationships is you.

5) Damon Stoudemire is an assistant coach at Memphis

I was sitting pretty close to the Memphis bench and Stoudemire seemed pretty agitated for most of the night. I can't say I blame him considering the way his team was playing.

6) Is the bell tolling for Josh Pastner?

Pastner has been on the hot seat seemingly since he took over for John Calipari in 2009. He has racked up a lot of regular season wins but his teams have never been able to play up to their competition and it seemed like the program reached a ceiling with him in charge even before the recent slump that has them stuck in the middle of pack in the American. There's just no reason that a program with as much tradition and fan support as Memphis as well as access to some of the best recruiting areas in the country should be fighting to stay above the UH's and UCF's of the world. I mention those programs because I got to see them at Moody and they both have more talent coming back next season than Memphis.

Pastner was clearly blindsided by the transfer of Austin Nichols and all of the attrition that his program has experienced in the last year and a half but at the end of the day that's on the coach too. Even if Nichols had stayed, it's hard to see Memphis being much better since they still would have had zero floor spacing, a situation which would have once again wasted the best frontcourt in the conference. For a team with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols to have an 18-14 record and go 10-8 in a non Power 5 conference is downright criminal. I can't say I blame Nichols for trying to go somewhere where his game can be maximized.

Maybe the biggest concern for Memphis going forward is the way their pipeline to the NBA has dried up under Pastner. He wasn't recruiting at Calipari's level but he has brought in a lot of talent and managed to do very, very little with it. Let's take a look at the 3 most prominent NBA prospects of the Pastner regime:

Will Barton - Barton needed 3+ years to dig himself out of the hole that playing for Pastner put him in. He was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school who was rated way above guys like Jeremy Lamb and Victor Oladipo but after two seasons under Pastner he wound up going in the middle of the 2nd round while they were taken in the lottery. As a result, Barton was given nothing at the next level and he had to fight and claw his way into the rotation in Portland and Denver before finally establishing himself this season as one of the top contenders for 6MOY. Looking back on it, this was a guy who always had crazy talent. If he had played for Kentucky, he probably would have been a Top 15 pick.

Adonis Thomas - Another guy with all the talent in the world, Thomas was a five-star recruit who had 2 decent seasons at Memphis before jumping to the NBA at the first chance. He went undrafted, bounced around the league and has had a few cups of coffee with different teams but it appears that he has slipped through the cracks. You can blame him for leaving before he was ready or you can ask why so many of Pastner's players bolt as soon as they have the chance. Either way, this is the kind of thing that other coaches are going to bring up when they are recruiting against Pastner.

Tarik Black - Maybe the saddest situation of the 3 in terms of what it says about the Memphis program. Black was a solid contributor who was getting zero draft buzz before he graduated early, transferred to Kansas and spent one season backing up Joel Embiid. All of a sudden, he was a legit NBA prospect and although he wasn't drafted he has shown enough in his first 2 seasons that there's a good chance that he will stick in the league. You could give Pastner credit for developing Black or you could wonder why Black had to leave to get noticed and how much he could have helped the program as a senior if he had been confident in Pastner's ability to get him to the league.

Pastner has never been known as a great X's and O's coach and his momentum on the recruiting trail (outside of the Lawson family) has dried up. The way things are going now, it doesn't appear that he can hang with SMU, UConn and Cincy at the top of the conference and there are a lot of programs in the middle - Temple, UCF, UH, Tulsa - nipping at his heels. Memphis would have to come up with $10 million to fire him but they are going to have to do something. At the very least, if he's not going anywhere, Pastner might want to think about starting multiple players who can shoot 3 pointers. It kind of helps.

Texas vs. Vanderbilt

At Barking Carnival, a look at a Texas team that is trending in the right direction.

Friday, January 29, 2016


1) Everything about the Nets is sad and miserable to watch

The AAC isn't exactly the most raucous arena in the NBA, but it's hard to overemphasize how dead it was tonight. There isn't much about the Nets that is exciting on or off the court and there's no reason for fans to get into a game they are apart of. At least the 76ers have some interesting young players and they play an fun, uptempo game based on athleticism. You can be old and good or young and bad but you never want to be old and bad. The way the Nets play sucks the life out of the arena and there's nothing entertaining about it.

The Nets three best players are all back to the basket scorers who want to isolate in the mid-post, dribble the ball into the ground and try to create space for a below the rim shot. The way they play would be tolerable if it were a good team and they were winning games - when a bad team plays like that, it's just miserable for everyone. This might have been the worst played NBA game I've watched in a long time and it's one of the games that everyone would have been better off simming. Now that the All-Star break is in view, this is the dead time of the NBA season and you could really tell in this one.

The worst part about it is that there's nothing to look forward too for Nets fans, no pot waiting at the of the rainbow. What's happening to Brooklyn right now is why I think the NBA should think long and hard about automatically protecting Top 5 picks. You can't expect a fanbase to sit through a season as miserable as this without any consolation. It's bad for business. In this analogy, the Celtics are vultures on the side of the road who are mercilessly picking an old hobbled man to death and then are going to pick through his belongings. What's happening to the Nets this season is something out of a Dostoevsky novel.

2) The Nets bench put up a performance for the ages

Check out the plus/minus numbers from this one:

Andrea Bargnani: -18 in 11 minutes
Shane Larkin: -11 in 18 minutes
Sergey Karasev: -10 in 4 minutes
Bojan Bogdanovic: -24 in 19 minutes

The Nets starters aka their actual NBA players were actually competitive in this game. Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Donald Sloan even had positive plus/minus numbers while playing 35+ minutes in a game they lost by 12. That tells you how bad those all-bench line-ups were and whoever the Nets interim coach is might be better off staggering their minutes so they can carry the below replacement level players on his roster. Karasev racked up his plus/minus numbers as part of a front-court that included him, Bogdanovic and Bargnani and Suga Shane Larkin at the point of attack. It was one of the worst line-ups that I've ever seen an NBA team run out, much less in the 2Q of what was still a competitive game.

The Nets bench players combined to score 2 points (!!!) on 14 shots. I don't want to overreact to one game they had clearly mailed in but I wonder how many of those players are going to be in the NBA next season. If you are coming off the bench for a team as bad as Brooklyn, you already have one foot out of the league anyway.

3) The end of the road for Thomas Robinson?

Even for hardcore NBA draft fans, it's hard to summon up too much energy to dissect the careers of guys like Larkin and Karasev. Larkin had what I like to call "a confirmation game" - when you play your old team you can either have a revenge game and show them what they are missing or you can do what Larkin did. On the positive side of the ledger, he had 3 rebounds. On the negative side, he went 0-5 from the field and had 0 assists on 3 turnovers and committed 2 fouls. The next time he comes to the AAC, it might be as a fan.

The more interesting player on the Nets 2nd unit (and I am using that term loosely) is Robinson, whose still living off being a Top 5 pick in the 2012 draft. He has now played on 5 teams in 4 seasons and hasn't been able to stick in the rotation for any of them. The crazy part is that it's not like he was an end of the bench guy who was the 15th man everywhere he went - every single team that had him gave him minutes for an extended period of time before giving up on him.

What's weird is that he's actually putting up decent per-minute numbers so you would think that a team like Brooklyn would throw him out there just to see what they have. The problem is that he gets those numbers in such an ass backwards way that it's incredibly harmful to his team. There's just no room in the league anymore for power forwards who can't shoot and centers who can't protect the rim and those are the only roles that Robinson could conceivably have on an NBA roster.

4) What's next for Joe Johnson?

It's hard not to feel some amount of sympathy for Joe Johnson watching him play out the string. This is not the way an NBA career should end. He's being stretched way beyond his capabilities and being asked to carry a team that he probably couldn't have in his prime, much less at the tail end of his career. The only role for a veteran who has been in the league as long as Johnson on a team as bad as this is as a mentor but what's the point in mentoring young guys who will be out of the league before you? Johnson is being paid a stupendous amount of money to play for this team and that has to be the only thing keeping him sane at the moment. He's a professional whose going to come in every night, punch the clock and hoist mid-range jumpers, but there's no question that this is a job for him right now. This is how I imagine he cheers himself up when he gets home.

While he's clearly a shell of his former shelf, I'm not sure that he's done as an NBA player. He has played in the NBA for 14 seasons (and made $173 million dollars in the process!) but he's still only 34 years old. He needs to do what his former Nets teammate Paul Pierce did to extend his career - slide down a position and go up against slower players who can't take advantage of his lack of speed. Johnson is 6'8 240 and he has a ton of old man strength so he would be more than able to survive at the 4 position in the modern NBA. He would be a great small-ball 4 off the bench for a contender and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a 3rd act on a relevant team next season. It's definitely worth a shot in the off-season because I can't imagine that Johnson is going to ask for a lot of money in free agency.

5) The only reason to watch Nets games the rest of the season

Jakob Poeltl + Damian Jones

At The Cauldron, my weekly draft breakdown looks at two promising 20-year old C's.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jabari Bird + Jordan Matthews

Most of the publicity surrounding Cal this season has been about Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab, their two one-and-done freshmen. Whatever's left has been taken up by Tyrone Wallace, their do-everything 6'6 senior PG. You wouldn't expect a team in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 conference and on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament to have much more individual talent than that, especially one coming off two straight trips to the NIT.

However, they've got two other guys who I've been tracking for awhile who have more of a chance of playing in the NBA than most people realize. Jabari Bird is a former McDonald's All-American who is a plus shooter and a plus athlete at 6'6 while Jordan Matthews is one of the best scorers in the Pac-12. Cal almost has too much talent for its own good, something which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Jabari Bird is a proven 3-point shooter

His 3P% numbers are a little down this season, but he has a good looking stroke and a long history of knocking down 3's at Cal.

Freshman: 32.3% on 3,0 3PA's
Sophomore: 36.9% on 3.7 3PA's
Junior: 33% on 4,3 3PA's

The ball looks good coming out of his hands:

He's tall enough to where he can shoot over the top of close-outs:

Bird is an elite athlete

At 6'6 200 with a 6'7 wingspan, he has good size for the SG position at the next level, although he doesn't have exceptional reach and he could stand to gain a few pounds. What's intriguing about him is how well he moves for a shooting specialist. Watch him sky for this rebound in traffic:

In this sequence, he moves the ball while in the air in order to create an angle for himself in traffic. Shooters aren't supposed to be able to do stuff like this. He's shooting 52.9% from 2-point range this season despite taking an awful lot of difficult shots.

Watch him get back in transition and prevent the lay-up. When it comes to being able to guard on the perimeter, the biggest thing for me when watching NCAA guys is the eye test and seeing the way they move. That's especially true for 2nd-round picks and UDFA's who have to earn their way into the league because you assume they are willing to be coached up on defense or there won't be too much of a sunk cost when it comes to cutting them losses. Bird definitely moves like an NBA player.

Bird can do multiple things on offense

He's a fairly complete guard who can attack a close-out, put the ball on the floor and move it to find the open man:

Jordan Matthews can score the ball in a number of ways

He's a career 42.7% from 3 on 4,4 3PA's a game. He has a quick release and he doesn't need a lot of space to get his shot off:

At 6'3 205 with a 6'4 wingspan, Matthews is kind of trapped between guard positions at the next level but he's the perfect size for a combo guard off the bench. He has an NBA-ready body and he can get to whatever spots on the floor whenever he wants and score:

He also has the ability to shoot off the dribble, which makes him almost unguardable at the NCAA level:

When he has the green light, he can absolutely wreck NCAA defenses. In Cal's upset of Arizona over the weekend, Matthews had 28 points on 17 shots in 30 minutes off the bench.

The problem is the way Cal's team fits together:

Bird and Matthews have both played better in the last few weeks following Tyrone Wallace breaking his hand. It's not that Wallace is a bad player so much as that it opens up the floor and removes an extra ball-dominant player from the equation. As it stands now, Cal's top three players all need the ball in their hands and shoot 27% from 3 (Brown), 28% from 3 (Wallace) and don't take shots outside of 10+ feet (Raab). Combine those 3 with one of the mammoth but unskilled 7'0 C's that Cuonzo Martin likes to roll out there and there's no space on the floor for anyone to do anything.

Bird and Matthews are the designated floor spacers, which means there's little room for them to create off the dribble when everyone is healthy. In theory, they should benefit from playing with 3 guys who can generate double teams but when all of those guys don't have to be guarded off the ball it's pretty easy for the defense to find the numbers to stick everyone.

The only solution is for Cal to play smaller

This unit would feature as many as 5 NBA-caliber players and it would have a lot more room for Wallace and Brown to drive the ball to the rim and for Raab to post up, which is the strengths of their game:


The problem is that it leaves two inexperienced players playing up a position and it still leaves at least two players who don't have to be guarded off the ball.

I wouldn't be surprised if Cal is better next season

Wallace will graduate and they will almost certainly lose Brown and Raab to the draft and they will be left with a less talented but more experienced team that fits together much better. Their best two players will be senior guards who can shoot 3's off the dribble at a high volume and they will be surrounded by a playmaking PG (Sam Singer), a 6'7 floor spacer upfront (Stephen Domingo) and two 7'0 who won't be asked to do anything but crash the boards and protect the rim (Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh) and whose lack of scoring ability won't be as big a deal when they are playing in more space.

At that point, the key for both Matthews and Bird is whether they can develop into better passers once they have the ball in their hands more often. They both have the tools to where they have the chance to play in the NBA - the problem is they just don't have the chance to put up the type of all-around statistics scouts are looking for. The good news is that scouts will be watching Cal plenty over the next few months so both Bird and Matthews have a chance to make an impression while everyone watches Brown and Raab.

You have to scout a prospect's teammates as much as his own game

No basketball player exists in a vacuum. The types of teammates that someone plays with can make them look better or worse than they really are while their game will determine what type of players make sense around them and what type of team they can be functional parts of. You can see the problem with Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab at Cal this season.

Brown's lack of shooting from the 3 position means that it's almost impossible to pair him with another ball-dominant player on the perimeter. Raab's lack of shooting from the 4 position means that it's easy for him to disappear for stretches of the game, especially when he's paired with a non-floor spacer at the 5 position who clogs up the lane. You can slide him down a position but that leaves him vulnerable when going up against bigger C's like Jakob Poeltl.

If those guys had consistent perimeter shots, they would be surefire Top 5 picks and Cal would be the best team in the country. Since they don't, it leaves Cuonzo Martin with a lot of difficult decisions and it means their team may actually be better off without them. That's something to think about when you are deciding how high in the draft you want to take either of them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Beating The Warriors 3.0

At RealGM, a look at why the Thunder might have the best chance to pull off the impossible.

Spurs vs. Warriors

Well ... that one got out of hand pretty quickly. On one hand, that's the type of game where the Spurs have to be tempted to just burn the tape and forget it ever happened. They got beat so bad and so convincingly that it's hard to take anything from it other than they need to start over and get back to the basics on both sides of the ball. On the other, that was the first match-up between the two best teams in the league and only one important player (Tim Duncan) on either side was out so anything we can glean from that is important. There's no point in running away from what happened and it's best to look at the data under the light of day and see where the Spurs go from here.

1) Can they play Tony Parker in this series? Or Patty Mills?

The Warriors put opposing PG's in a box and that was never more evident than what happened on Monday night. If you are asking Tony Parker to guard Steph 1-on-1, you might as well give him a blindfold and a cigarette for all the good that it's going to do. He was never a great defender in his prime and now that he's lost a step he's slower, smaller and less physical than Steph and he can't contest his shot, stay in front of him or chase him around screens. The Warriors didn't even really need to run him in the pick-and-roll with Draymond Green as much as they usually do because he was scoring against Parker so easily. Steph is going to score on anyone but all the more reason not to make it as easy as possible on him.

The problem becomes that you can't really move a small guard off the ball against the Warriors because there's no one to hide him on defense. Golden State has a phalanx of 6'6+ wings who can get their own shot and take a smaller defender into the post. Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are going to mercilessly kill someone who can't contest their shot, especially a weaker defender like Parker. The only player that he has a chance of guarding would be Harrison Barnes and that's only out of the hope that he makes a few Harry B type plays that bail out the defender. (He was +1 in a game where every other starter was at least +18 - a lot of that was him playing in garbage time but still).

My guess is that even Barnes would make short work of Parker and Mills which means that the only player in the Warriors rotation that those two can even hope to guard is Leandro Barbosa. And I'd assume that Kerr would take him out of the rotation when things got serious. You don't want to over-react to one game and there are a lot of possible adjustments that Pop could make but I don't see what he could do to keep his PG's on the floor against the Warriors. Not with Steph playing the way he is playing and with the size and speed advantage the rest of their wings would have against 6'1 guys who aren't good defenders to begin with. It becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole and every time Parker and Mills get on to the floor they are going to get whacked and they are going to get whacked hard.

2) Kawhi on Curry

Everyone wants to talk about the brutal off-ball cut that Curry put on Kawhi and the couple of baskets he was able to score against the best defender in the league. 

That was bad but I still think Kawhi gives them the best chance of sticking Curry 1-on-1 and you want to even out those odds as much as possible (even if it still leaves you at a disadvantage) to give you as much of a chance to make it up at the other spots on the floor. The margin for error that Steph is playing with at the moment is so high that you have to do whatever possible to slow him down, especially if you can do it with only one player. That means Kawhi, Danny Green and Jonathan Simmons taking turns on him on defense and those guys running through a ton of screens on the other end of the floor to try and take his legs out from under him. You want to physically tax him as much as possible, which is another reason why the Spurs have to take the PG's off the floor.

3) More Manu and more Boris and more Kyle Anderson

Playing without Parker and Mills means the Spurs have to look somewhere else for playmaking and the good news is they have multiple 6'6+ players who can handle and pass the ball like guards. Having a bigger player initiate the offense makes it harder for the Warriors to bother them at the point of the attack and get the Spurs out of their flow. Worst comes to worst and all those guys can put Golden State's defenders on their back, bring the ball up the floor and enter the ball in the post. I think you have to go with as big a line-up as possible on the perimeter when you are playing the Warriors.

4) All 6'6+ everything

This might be the line-up I'd try if I were San Antonio: Manu + Green + Simmons + Kawhi + Boris. It's like a slower version of the Warriors Line-up of Death. Or maybe the Line-up of Death in an old Toyota with 100,000 miles on it and a super-changed engine. Boris is probably the one guy in the league who can consistently take Draymond into the post and bury him and they would have pristine spacing to let Boris, Manu or Kawhi initiate the offense. That still leaves room for Kyle Anderson and Rasual Butler - the Spurs have a lot of wing players, which is a really, really good thing.

5) What the hell happened to LaMarcus Aldridge? 

Probably the most disappointing storyline for the Spurs had to be the performance of their prized free-agent acquisition. The numbers speak for themselves - 5 points and 3 rebounds on 2-9 shooting - and he might have even been worse on defense. He couldn't guard on the perimeter at all and he didn't provide too much rim protection either. It seemed like Draymond was in his head and he wasn't aggressive when looking for a shot against him and when he was he didn't come up with anything good. Draymond pushed him off his spots and bullied him on both sides of the ball.

In theory, LaMarcus has the perfect skill-set to attack a shorter post defender like Draymond. If he can get comfortable and bury 18-foot turn-arounds in the post there shouldn't be much a smaller player with a shorter wingspan can do to stop him. What I did like in the 2nd half was when LaMarcus started using pump fakes to get Draymond off him and get him in the air in order to draw contact and go to the line. The Spurs gave him $80 million dollars because he's one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the league and he's going to have to figure out some way of at least making Draymond uncomfortable on defense if they are going to have a chance.

6) Draymond Whac-A-Mole

The one positive take-away the Spurs can take from this game is that Draymond is the Warriors best defensive match-up on LaMarcus and Kawhi. I thought LMA did a pretty good job scoring on Andrew Bogut when he was on him and Kawhi did a great job of burying the smaller Warriors wing defenders in the post and then using his size to score over the top of them. That's the way forward for me - whoever Draymond isn't guarding needs to be super aggressive about looking for his own shot. Playing 1-on-1 basketball is the best way to slow down the Golden State defense and prevent them from wreaking havoc, causing turnovers and scoring defense to offense.

7) How much can Tim Duncan help?

While Duncan is their best interior defender of all their big men, the concern is that San Antonio might only be able to play one of their big men at a time anyway. It's very hard for 3-out to beat 5-out and that goes double when your big men can't defend in space or protect the rim. The combo of Boris and David West had trouble doing that and so did any combo with LaMarcus on the floor. Maybe Boris + Tim Duncan presents the best combo of interior defense + perimeter playmaking of any of the Spurs big men duos and that's a look I'd expect the Spurs to go a lot to in a rematch.

8) The Spurs are at a big athletic disadvantage against the Warriors

Just from a pure eye-test perspective that might have been the biggest take-away of the game for me. If you take a step back and try to look at the forest through the trees, it seemed like the Warriors were faster and quicker to every loose ball and they were a step ahead of anything the Spurs were trying to do on either side of the floor. They pressed up on San Antonio on defense and they never let them get comfortable and it seemed like the Spurs never recovered from the initial haymakers that the Warriors threw. That was a 2nd or 3rd round TKO if I ever saw one and San Antonio was mostly on the defensive all night asides from a few stretches in the 2Q. They could have thrown in the towel in the middle of the 3Q and saved everyone the time.

That's why I liked Pop's move to bring in Jonathon Simmons and give him the most run (25 minutes) of any of their bench players. He's their best athlete and he's one of the only guys on their roster who can run and jump with the Warriors. He got stretched a little beyond his capabilities on offense on Monday but he was one of the only guys taking the fight to Golden State. Developing him over the rest of the season went from a luxury to a necessity and they need to fully weaponize him as much as possible to give themselves the best possible chance against the Warriors.

9) The good news is that Pop is willing to think outside the box

When I was taking notes during this game, I assumed I'd have something about playing Kawhi at the 4 and running out line-ups with Manu and Simmons as something the Spurs could try the next time they faced the Warriors. That's how most NBA coaches tend to operate - they are cautious to a fault and they don't want to bust out a lot of line-up changes over the course of a game. Pop's mind is working fast enough that he can process what is happening at real speed and rapidly move on to the next possible combination. He was cycling through line-ups real fast against the Warriors and that's what you want to do in order to try and find something that works.

I'm not a big fan of saving possible adjustments until the playoffs in order to catch teams by surprise because what you really want to know is what adjustments they are going to have to your adjustments and you want to have as much line-up data as possible going into that series in order to figure out your game-plan. The Spurs have a very versatile line-up and Pop is going to try everything over their next 3 game in order to see what works and what doesn't against the Warriors. As Herm Edwards said, you play to win the game.

10) The bad news is the Spurs have to adjust to the Warriors

No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy and it's hard to see how the Spurs can really run out a 2 big-man post-heavy offense against the Warriors and win. Maybe Tim Duncan changes that and I'm being a prisoner of the moment but I liked the point that Ethan Strauss made in a recent podcast on the Cavs vs. Warriors about how sometimes we fall victim to not wanting to over-react and not wanting to hot take what we just saw. I don't see how you can't jump to conclusions based off what we watched on Monday. The way the Warriors are playing some things just aren't going to work against them and there's no point in endlessly trying to pound a square box into a round hole and try to convince yourself otherwise.

The point is that the Warriors can beat the Spurs playing like the Warriors but the Spurs probably can't beat the Warriors playing like the Spurs. They can't afford to stand pat which means they have to make the initial adjustments and move away from their preferred identity on both sides of the ball. Maybe the biggest issue is that they might not be able to catch Golden State for the No. 1 seed anymore, which means a 2nd round match-up with OKC that is going to be tricky, tricky, tricky. Let's not write Spurs vs. Warriors in the WCF in stone just yet and I'm not convinced that they provide the best possible challenge to Golden State anyway.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Brice Johnson

There have been few big men in the country more productive than Brice Johnson, whose made the leap from good to great in his senior season at UNC. With Marcus Paige being very inconsistent and Kennedy Meeks struggling with injuries, Johnson has been the best player on the No. 1 team in the country. He has improved in almost every single statistical category and he is putting up first-team All-American type numbers:

Junior: 12.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks on 56.6%
Senior: 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 63.3%

Johnson came into Chapel Hill as a super-skinny big man and has steadily put weight on his frame over the last four years. He was always faster and more athletic than most of his competition at the NCAA level and now he's stronger than them too. At 6'9 230 with a 6'11 wingspan, he's undersized for the C position at the NBA level and he doesn't have great length for either front-court position, but he has the type of nuclear athleticism that can make up for it.

Johnson is a monster on the glass

Johnson has po-go sticks for legs and he can jump 2 or 3 times before a lot of big man can jump once. The result is a guy whose a terror on the offensive boards. He would be amazing at 21 because he could always tip everyone else back to zero:

He gets a lot of his points from being a garbage man around the rim. He's a relentless rebounder with a nose for the ball, great hands and a soft touch in the lane. He can also elevate over the top of just about anyone, which allows him to score in traffic:

Where he has really improved this season is on the defensive glass, boosting his defensive rebound percentage from 22.7 to 31.1. That's where the extra strength comes into play, as Johnson has an easier time keeping guys on his back and from there he's going to win most jumping contests:

Johnson has improved as a shooter

He's probably never going to be a 3-point shooter, but he is more capable of stepping out and knocking down a mid-range jumper, which is a must for a big man at almost any level of the game these days. Johnson's ability to play out at 15+ feet makes it much easier for UNC to play him with a more traditional 5 like Kennedy Meeks:

He even has the beginnings of a face-up game. If he can force big men to respect his J, he's so fast that he should be able to get around them pretty easily:

Free-thow percentage is one quick and easy way to look the isolated shooting stroke of a big man. That tells you how much time he has put in improving his game and whether he can play some pick-and-pop at the next level. Maybe the most encouraging thing about projecting Johnson to the NBA is how much he has improved in that category in his time at UNC.

Freshman: 57.7% on 0.7 FTA's
Sophomore: 62.2% on 2.4 FTA's
Junior: 67.8% on 3.0 FTA's
Senior: 79.5% on 4.4 FTA's

Johnson is a solid interior defender but his lack of elite size and length is a problem

Johnson averages 1.3 blocks a game, which is pretty good for a guy who plays a lot of PF. He has good timing and good defensive instincts in terms of rotating over and protecting the rim:

He does a good job of being active and using his ability to play above the rim to bother opponents shots. The problem is that his lack of elite length (6'11 wingspan) means he has to get off his feet to be a good interior defender, which leaves him vulnerable to pump fakes and foul trouble:

There were a couple of plays in their 75-70 victory over VA Tech that show why it's difficult to project him as a full-time 5 at the next level. In this sequence, Johnson isn't strong enough to prevent freshman big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. (6'10 240) from powering through him and finishing.

In this one, Blackshear is able to score right over the top of Johnson when he dives to the rim. He's just giving up too much size to bigger players (and he doesn't have the super-sized arms like Draymond Green to make up for it) to be any more than a situational player at the C position in the NBA:

Johnson struggles to guard 1-on-1 on the perimeter

The interesting part of the Virginia Tech game for Johnson was his match-up with Zach LeDay, a 6'7 235 combo forward whom Buzz Williams has slid down to the small-ball 4 position. LeDay is big enough to at least hold his own in the post and he can shoot the 3 and put the ball on the floor, which makes him the perfect test case to see how Johnson could fare against small-ball 4's at the next level. The results were mixed, especially on the defensive end. Johnson is not comfortable closing out around a smaller wing player at the 3-point line and he repeatedly let LeDay (whose been one of the breakout stars of ACC play this season) get right around him:

Johnson didn't really want to get out on LeDay and LeDay was able to punish him for closing out short:

Given the way the league is going, it's hard to imagine Johnson as a full-time starter at the 4 position.  He doesn't have the range to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line and he's not comfortable guarding 3/4 types like Harrison Barnes. He's not a great back-to-the-basket scorer and even if he was trying to win with size at the 4 position has proven to be a losing cause over the last few seasons.

The most intriguing part of Johnson's game is his pick-and-roll D

While he's not great on 1-on-1 defense at either front-court position, Johnson's speed and athleticism makes him an intriguing option when it comes to playing team defense in the NBA, particularly on the pick-and-roll. His steal average (1.3 a game) is really impressive for a big man and it shows that he has quick feet and quick hands, which is exactly what you want when a big is defending in the two-man game. Here he is trapping and forcing a TO:

He's fast enough to play a step off guards and still contest their shot coming off the screen:

He's also capable of sliding his feet and staying in front of smaller guards when they drive the ball at him on the switch:

Brice Johnson could be the next Brandan Wright

Put it all together and Johnson is an intriguing prospect with very defined strengths and weaknesses who will have to be put in the right situation in order to succeed at the next level. He's not big enough to be a starting 5 and he's not perimeter oriented enough to be a starting 4 but he's a great athlete and a great rebounder who can be a good contributor in the pick-and-roll game at both sides of the ball. The role he should have is as a small-ball 5 in a 4-out offense, ala what fellow UNC big man Brandan Wright was doing when playing with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.

If he's playing in enough space, Johnson can has the speed, the touch and the leaping ability to be a huge problem as a roll man. He can also knock down free throws, which is a huge plus for a big man whose going to catch the ball around the rim a lot. While you didn't see it in these clips, he has crazy dunking ability and he's going to put guys on some Vines when he gets to the NBA.

He has also greatly improved as a passer in his time at the NCAA level. Watch him dissect the Syracuse zone in these clips, a good indication of the improved skill level and feel for the game he has developed under Roy Williams:

On the other side of the ball, the key with Johnson is using him in the right match-ups. You don't want him banging against guys like Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins but he's strong and athletic enough to deal with most backup 5's in the modern NBA.

It's going to be a lot like what happened with Wright. If you put him somewhere where he has to play with another traditional big men in a post-heavy offense where he doesn't get to operate in a lot of space, he's not going to be all that effective. If you let him play in a super uptempo offense like UNC and let him play in space in the half-court, he could be a real problem. DraftExpress currently has him at the No. 42 pick in their most recent mock draft, which seems a little low for him, but it makes sense when you consider that he can only really succeed in one role at the next level - small-ball 5 in a spread pick-and-roll offense.

OKC Supporting Cast

At RealGM, a look at the possible options the Thunder can use next to their Big Three.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Baylor vs. OU

1) You really can't zone a team like OU

Baylor was drawing dead from the start in this one. If you were drawing up a blueprint for a team that would kill the zone, it would look a lot like OU. They are a well-coached and very experienced team with three guards who can fill it up from the perimeter and a big man who can knock down mid-range jumpers and make plays from the middle of the zone. When Baylor eventually went to man when they were down by 15+ points in the middle of the 2nd half, OU was shooting 65.7% from the field and 66.7% from 3. They have too many good decision-makers to make a lot of mistakes against the zone and they have too many good shooters that they are going to kill you if you keep giving them open looks.

Baylor couldn't even take advantage of Buddy Hield getting in foul trouble in the first half because OU knew they could just run offense and create shots in the half-court against the zone. Scott Drew has had a ton of success in his time in Waco and it's hard to knock him for what he has done to build up the program but I feel pretty comfortable making the prediction that they will never win a Big 12 championship until he moves away from his beloved 1-3-1 zone. It does have its benefits in the NCAA Tournament because teams are so unfamiliar with the style of play and the overall length and athleticism that Baylor can throw at them, but every team in the Big 12 knows precisely how to attack it and there's a real ceiling on this program until he decides to take advantage of the pronounced athletic advantage he has on most nights and commit to playing man defense.

2) OU doesn't have the horses to be the No. 1 team in the country

This is going to sound like hating after the performance they pulled off on Saturday - a dominant 82-72 win at Baylor that gave them their first home loss of the season - but I thought you could see some of the flaws on OU's roster nevertheless. They are a good team and it's easy to see why they have been so successful this season - they start three seniors and one junior and they are built around 3 guards who can shoot, dribble and pass, one of whom is one of the best players in the country. That's the formula for racking up a lot of wins at the NCAA level and for putting up the type of gaudy offensive numbers that make everyone sit up and notice. It has been enough to get them to No. 1 in a year where there aren't many great teams, but they aren't going to stay there after losing to Iowa State earlier in the week and I doubt they return.

There are three main problems that I can see with this team:

1) They aren't very deep.

They only play 7 guys serious minutes and the two guys that come off the bench - freshman forward Dante Buford and senior guard Dinjiyl Walker - are basically just placeholders there to give the starters some rest. Not only are they very vulnerable to injury, but any amount of foul trouble could be their doom in an NCAA Tournament game. A ref with a tight whistle could absolutely kill them because anyone picking up 2 early fouls will have to be play super cautious to avoid exposing their lack of depth.

2) They don't have a lot of size upfront.

Ryan Spangler (6'8 235) is a really solid role-playing big man and Khadeem Lattin (6'9 210) has a good combination of length and athleticism but they aren't all that big and they can't impose their will on the game. That's a problem two ways - 1) they will be giving up a lot of size to bigger teams (see Baylor beating them 34 to 19 on the boards) and 2) they can't force smaller teams to adjust to them. You can't pound the ball into Lattin and Spangler and they aren't going to kill you as shot-creators or 1-on-1 players. Spangler can spread the floor and Lattin can protect the rim but they are there to hold serve and not to win the game.

3) They don't have a lot of size on the wings

Taurean Prince (6'7 220) wasn't totally able to take advantage of this on Saturday for reasons I will get into later but OU doesn't have a natural option to match-up with bigger 3/4 combo forwards. Lattin is a more of a traditional big man + rim protector type, reserve big man Dante Buford isn't a great athlete while Buddy Hield is their biggest guard and he has to save himself for the offensive end of the floor. The last thing they want is for Hield to pick up cheap fouls banging with bigger players, which is what happened on Saturday. Their best perimeter defender is Isaiah Cousins and he's only 6'4 200.

3) Buddy Hield as a pro prospect

It was hard to get a great feel for Hield in this game because Baylor spent so much of it on zone on one end and doesn't run a ton of offense through their perimeter players on the other. He put up 19 points in 10 shots by going 4-7 from 3 mostly by shooting over the top of the Baylor zone and getting out in transition and knocking down open 3's. He did a decent job on defense, as he slid between all 3 of the Baylor perimeter players and didn't let the bigger Prince or the smaller and faster Medford take advantage of him. It was a solid all-around performance that showcased the strengths of his game and couldn't tell us too much about his weaknesses.

The thing about Hield's game that you have to like is that he's a volume 3-point shooter (8.0 3PA on 51.5% as a senior) whose big and athletic to defend his position and can put the ball on the floor and move the ball. He should have a pretty solid floor as an NBA player as a plus shooter who doesn't kill you on the other end of the floor and isn't a liability with the ball in his hands. The question is his ceiling - will he be able to create his own shot against bigger and more athletic defenders? Will he be able to match up with those players on defense? That's what separates starting 2's from backup 2's at the next level and Hield doesn't offer a ton of versatility to your line-up if he's coming off the bench. Let's remember that he's an older player playing in great space who has a ton of offense run through him at the NCAA level. He has everything set up to be a star at the NCAA level and that may not necessarily translate to the NBA.

I'd really like to see what he can do in a 1-on-1 match-up against one of the other top wing prospects in this year's draft. Unfortunately, none of them play in the Big 12. While Hield was able to get the best of Wayne Selden in their first game against Kansas, he struggled at times against the smaller and faster Frank Mason. I'll be really interested to see whom they face in the NCAA Tournament and I'd love to see what he could do if matched up against someone like Caris Levert or bigger PG's like Kris Dunn or Wade Baldwin IV.

4) Isaiah Cousins was the difference maker on defense

Cousins doesn't get a lot of publicity playing in the shadow of Hield, but he's a very good player in his own right and he's OU's best two-way player on the perimeter. He had 13 points, 9 assists and 2 steals on 6 shots against Baylor and his ability to press up on the Baylor guards and use his long arms and quick hands to generate turnovers was key for OU to get in control of the game at the end of the first half, when Hield was in foul trouble. He got them a lot of points going defense to offense and he was able to keep Lester Medford in check, as Baylor's lead guard finished with only 6 points on 6 shots and 7 assists on 6 turnovers. Cousins is a great complement to Hield on both sides of the ball and his ability to take the tougher defensive assignment on the perimeter, control the tempo of the game and create easy shots for his running buddy is a big reason why Hield is having the type of season that he's having. They have a real Batman and Robin set-up between their two senior guards and it's the biggest strength of this OU team.

5) Taurean Prince at the 4

Scott Drew almost has too much of a good thing with his frontcourt rotation following the emergence of Terry Maston as a solid contributor at the 4 position. He has three really good NCAA big men - Gathers, Motley and Maston - but his best player (Prince) is most effective as a small-ball 4. When Prince is playing at the 3, he tends to settle for jumpers and there isn't a lot of room for him to leverage his size and athleticism and attack the rim since none of the Baylor big men can stretch out the defense. While Baylor was able to pound OU on the glass with their bigger line-ups, they found their most success when they were spreading the floor with Prince. Moving Prince down a position also had the benefit of scrambling the match-ups for OU. Since they didn't want either of their big men guarding him, it forced Spangler to chase one of the Baylor guards on the perimeter.

6) King McClure

The only way to fully take advantage of playing small is having enough wing players who can take advantage of all that extra space upfront. The guy I'm really interested in for Baylor who could possibly fill that role is freshman guard King McClure, who had one of the best games of his young career on Saturday, with 11 points and 4 steals on 6 shots. At 6'3 200, he has a good combination of size and speed for a college guard and he has the ability to shoot and dribble the ball. He was a 4-star recruit who was chased by a ton of top schools so there's definitely the possibility that there's more to his game than the 4 PPG he has averaged this season. Baylor needs more shot-making from their perimeter and McClure is one guy who could possibly provide that for them as the season goes on.

7) How far can OU go in the Tourney?

As we saw in this one, you really can't zone OU so a team that can't hang with them athletically on the perimeter is going to be in trouble. Spangler can spread the floor, Lattin can roll to the rim and all 3 of their guards can initiate offense - they play a modern offense and they won't have trouble scoring points on just about any team in the country. That should be enough to get them into the 2nd weekend of the Tourney, though I do think they have a few weak spots that could be exploited by a really good mid-major team - they can't dominate a smaller team with size (which means there are a lot more potential teams who could give them trouble) and they are so vulnerable to foul trouble.

The real concern is going to be in the 2nd weekend when they have to face bigger and deeper front-lines who can get Spangler and Lattin into foul trouble because they have almost nothing behind them. Teams that can get to the rim, either at the 4 or 5 positions or with bigger wings who can attack off the dribble, can play inside-out and take advantage of their defense. If they get a perfect draw, they could make it all the way to the Final 4 but my guess is their lack of size across the board and their lack of a pure 5 and a pure 3 is going to be their undoing at some point in their Tourney and it could be a lot earlier than many people expect given their national ranking.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mavs vs. Thunder

1) It's Salah Mejri's world and we are all just living in it

This game was just about over until Rick Carlisle reached all the way to the very bottom of his bag of tricks and wound up with Salah Mejri, the 29-year old third string C from Tunisia who had played a grand total of 45 minutes in the NBA coming into Friday. Mejri is apparently an OKC killer because he had a great showing against the Thunder - 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 shots - when the Mavs rested all of their guys last week.

There's a lot to like about his game. At 7'2 245 with a 7'3 wingspan, he has the length and athleticism to protect the rim and be a threat as the roll man. He's a less explosive version of Javale McGee who is A) in better shape B) doesn't make as many mental mistakes C) makes free throws and D) has less baggage in terms of his reputation. The Mavs wouldn't have had a chance without Mejri's presence at the rim on both sides of the ball in the 4Q - he finished with 5 points, 1 rebound and 2 blocks in 8 minutes and he was tied for the best plus/minus on the team (+8). How's this for a storyline? Mejri had monstrous blocks on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in crunch time that fueled the Mavs aborted comeback.

You don't want to get too excited about him considering how small the sample size is. No one in the league knows anything about him (although he claims that Durant and Westbrook knew who he was because he blocked their shots in international play) and there's isn't really a scouting report on him at the moment so it's easy for him to surprise teams who don't have a game-plan for attacking him. Nevertheless, he's been very productive when he has gotten on the floor and the idea of Salah Mejri is certainly very enticing to this team. He could theoretically give you the best of both worlds at the C position - more of an offensive threat than Zaza, more defensive awareness than McGee. He's definitely going to need some minutes, if for no other reason than for the Mavs to figure out exactly what they have in this 7'2 international man of mystery.

What worries me is that Mejri's minutes will probably come out of JaVale's and while he still makes a lot of mistakes when he's out there I don't think there's any question that JaVale has been a positive presence for this team. JaVale had 11 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes tonight and he had several monstrous pick-and-roll finishes that got the whole building excited. For as much as Zaza has given the team this season, I'd much rather play McGee and Mejri more minutes and become a pure spread pick-and-roll team and use Zaza as a change of pace rebounder/enforcer because that's the best way to maximize everyone else's game on both sides of the ball.

2) Talent beats execution

Before the Mejri Magic Hour began, the story of this game was the way OKC put their foot on the pedal in the 3Q and blew the Mavs out of the water. Dallas had played one of their better halves of the season in the first half and they were out-executing the Thunder to death. I guess they really missed the presence of Steven Adams (who hurt himself in warm-ups) at the rim because they gave up a number of open lay-ups and they had a terrible time communicating and setting up the second line of their defense. I'm not sure how many open shots they gave up on back-door cuts but it was a lot.

That was all well and good but then the 3Q began and OKC was like we have Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka and y'all don't. The Thunder stars just absolutely took over the game and there was really nothing the Mavs could do about it. Westbrook started making dead sprints to the front of the rim off Mavs misses and creating wide open looks for either himself or one of his teammates. Carlisle was moving Wes Matthews between Durant and Westbrook all game to stem the bleeding and whoever he wasn't guarding pretty much had free reign out there. The best teams in the league have to have 2 perimeter stoppers and the Mavs only have one. It's not the biggest problem this team has but it is a big problem in a game like this one.

3) Durant and Westbrook as passers

If the Mavs had a defensive strategy against the Thunder stars that wasn't close your eyes and pray, it was sending a bunch of extra men at them in order to make them pass the ball. If the mark of a well-coached team is that the right guys are shooting the ball, the Thunder weren't particularly well-coached - they took 91 shots and Durant and Westbrook only had 40 and most teams who play them will live with that. None of that is to say that they should have forced the action more - they both made the right pass most of the night (Westbrook still took his share of silly shots of course) and they combined for 14 assists on 7 turnovers. OKC's supporting cast is going to have to knock down shots and they did a good enough job on Friday to pull out the win.

4) The emergence of Cam Payne

From a plus/minus standpoint, the most productive player for OKC was rookie Cam Payne, who is slowly moving into Killa Cam territory.  He was +13 in 12 minutes and had 8 points (on 10 shots) and 3 assists (on 2 turnovers). Payne appears to be another keeper from the Thunder scouting department, the one part of their organization that always seems to pull their weight. More important than his individual numbers was the way he controlled the game, ran the pick-and-roll and created good shots for the OKC 2nd when neither Westbrook nor Durant was in. I'm pretty sure the Thunder would still be better off staggering their minutes but if Payne can hold the fort it at least gives them a chance.

At 6'2 180, Payne is never going to wow you physically and his ridiculous haircut only makes him easier to underestimate. He's pretty frail-looking in person, he doesn't have a lot of meat on his bones and he's not a plus athlete but he's a really smart player who knows how to maximize his physical abilities and he doesn't appear to make a lot of the mental mistakes that get rookie PG's sent to the bench. Like most OKC draft picks, he has really long arms (6'7 wingspan) and that helps his cause. He can shoot off the dribble from the 3-point line and he already has a nice floater as well as a great feel for manipulating the defense and finding the open man on the move. He's a player - there's no doubt about that. The question is whether he can survive enough on D that OKC can use him more as the season goes on.

"He was huge. They trapped him out there at half court, which I sort of take as a compliment," said Durant. "If they trap you that mean you're doing something right, so he came out and played well. He is playing with a lot of confidence right now and we are going to need that coming down the line."

5) The Thunder have their closing 5

OKC went with Westbrook - Waiters - Singler - KD - Ibaka tonight and that's the group that I assume they're going to use going forward. Singler has apparently returned from the dead and remembered how to play basketball so that 5-man unit is their best approximation of a group that can play D and stretch the floor around their Big 3. Going with KD at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5 puts the defense in an impossible position and Donovan clearly trusts Waiters over DJ Augustin (too short), Anthony Morrow (can't defend) and Andre Roberson (can't shoot). I wonder if playing Payne with Westbrook in the backcourt and allowing Russ to guard 2's might make more sense long-term but Waiters has the body and the build to play better D than OKC's scrawny rookie so he just needs to take care of the ball and not do too many foolish things on offense.

The Mavs still made a point to attack Singler on defense and that's something to watch going forward. They forced Billy Donovan into making this interesting switch - instead of having Singler on Parsons, Ibaka on Dirk and Durant on Mejri, they moved Durant to Parsons and Singler to Mejri. Dallas then prompty put Singler in the 2-man game and attacked him at the rim but those are the breaks. I like the idea of KD being a defensive stopper and they are clearly going to need their two superstars to play at about as high a level as possible if they are going to have any chance of beating the Spurs AND the Warriors. The question is whether Singler's floor spacing and playmaking is going to be a better fit than playing a bigger guy like Adams and whether they are better off going small with worse players or trying to dictate the match-ups and go big with their best players.

6) Parsons at the 4

This is going to be repetitive for the brave souls who regularly read these recaps but once again Parsons played really well as a small-ball 4. The Mavs made most of their run in the 4Q with Parsons at the 4 and Mejri at the 5. OKC tried to have Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka out there and Parsons went right around Kanter like he wasn't even there so Donovan had no choice but to go small and put Singler in the game. The thing is that Singler couldn't guard Parsons either, especially with how wide open the floor was for him to operate. Fun fact - Parsons and Singler were in the same recruiting class (2007) and Singler was the No. 4 player in the country while Parsons was at No. 44.

7) The domino effect of Parsons at the 4

In the first half, Carlisle had Dwight Powell as the backup 4 behind Dirk, which worked when he was paired with Zaza and then collapsed in on itself like a dying star when Dirk came back in the game and the Mavs were playing both of them. You just cannot play those two together for any amount of time - the defense can't handle it, especially when they are going up against a line-up that had Kevin Durant on it. Powell was -12 in 7 minutes and that stretch at the end of the 1Q allowed OKC to get back in the game and completely negated a great start by the Mavs.

In the second half, Carlisle played Parsons at the backup 4. The good news is that it meant that neither Powell nor Charlie V got in the game after halftime. The bad news is that playing Parsons at the backup 4 creates a hole in the 2nd unit at the SF position, especially once Wes Matthews comes out of the game. Carlisle went with a 3 PG line-up - JJ Barea, Devin Harris and Deron Williams - and it did not work out very well. This team is one wing short and it has been a problem all season long. It would be nice if Justin Anderson could get those minutes but it would probably take an act of God for Carlisle to be willing to be give a rookie serious minutes.

8) Westbrook's Revenge

I'm not sure I've ever laughed harder at a Mavs game.

9) Kyle Singler's Hair
Though to be fair this was pretty close.'

10) Is Mitch McGary a better player than Enes Kanter?

Just throwing that out there.