Archive for June, 2015

Some Final NBA Draft Thoughts

Posted: 06/25/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

As I start this post at 5:03, the draft is less than two hours away. We know pretty much all we’re going to know, so I’m going to make some last minute predictions. I’m not, however, going to do a full mock draft. Why not? Well, I think it’s a bit silly, as everything is pretty much a guess after the first seven or eight picks. The people who regularly talk to NBA picks don’t get any picks right after the lottery; why should I even try? Instead, I’m going to focus on a few things that I feel more confident in or that I have a strong feeling about. Let’s tackle a few of the major storylines entering the draft:

The biggest trade rumor over the last few days has been the DeMarcus Cousins to the Lakers buzz. I don’t want to be a downer, but I seriously doubt this trade is going to happen. The Kings and Lakers have bad blood in their history, but even putting that aside, I don’t think it makes much sense. What will the Kings ask for in return? Julius Randle? The #2 pick? Jordan Clarkson? A combination of said assets? The Kings will probably be able to get a better NBA-ready return from any number of teams. Coach George Karl (who has been involved in his own buzz) wants to get his Denver team back together in Sacramento, which is why a trade including Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried might make some sense. Remember, new Nuggets head coach Mike Malone used to coach the Kings and was the only coach Cousins actually liked. Any number of other teams surely have an interest in Cousins and could give more than the Lakers. I’m not even convinced that the Kings have any intention of trading Cousins. They are probably going to have to choose between their star big man and their opinionated coach, who was hired just four months ago. And while I like George Karl, he’s no Gregg Popovich; in this day and age, teams should and will pick the star player over the coach every. single. time. This just seems too outlandish to happen, at least tonight.

I think the draft could hinge on the Lakers’ pick at #2. If things go according to plan and LA takes Jahlil Okafor, the draft will probably go as we expect it to go, at least at the beginning. But if the Lakers take D’Angelo Russell, as has been rumored over the last few hours, things get a little more interesting. The Sixers would then likely trade down from #3 to a team high on Okafor, and I’m sure a lot more craziness would ensue from there. It’s just so Sixers to just barely miss out on the prospect that really makes sense for them. It happened last year with Andrew Wiggins, and I’m starting to believe that it’s going to happen this year when Russell goes #2 to the Lakers. Could the whole Russell-to-LA thing be a smokescreen created by the Lakers with the intent of forcing Philadelphia to trade up? Sure. I kind of doubt it, though. Still, I think the Lakers end up going with Okafor. It’s not a slam dunk as many thought it would be after draft lottery night.

More buzz: it seems as if Willie Cauley-Stein, who has been plagued by an ankle injury that could lead to surgery at some point and has performed poorly in some workouts, will fall in the draft to the end of the lottery. You know how much I love WCS, and I think it’s ridiculous that he might fall to #13, which is where he’s being placed in the latest mock drafts. Now, I still don’t think Cauley-Stein is going to fall past #11. Larry Bird and the Pacers (who hold the 11th pick) love him, as do the Kings (#6) and Celtics (#16 but hoping to move up). I’m going to applaud the team that drafts WCS, especially if it’s outside the top 10. And I’m amused by the idea that Frank Kaminsky is now likely to be drafted over Cauley-Stein. In a year — heck, in six months — I think people will be shaking their heads about that. Don’t over-think this, guys. Take the guy who’s going to be the best defensive big man in the NBA.

Another hot debate has been over whether the best wing in the draft is Justice Winslow or Mario Hezonja. I think Hezonja is extremely overrated, as the biggest compliment I’ve heard is that he’s cocky. Since when is that a main reason someone should get drafted in the top seven? The accurate comparison is not Kobe Bryant but instead is J.R. Smith. And no, you don’t want J.R. in the top half of the lottery. I like Winslow, but I think the best of the small forwards is Stanley Johnson, whose draft stock has fallen since opening the season near the top. Johnson didn’t play that well last season, but I think he has a bright future as a small ball power forward. My prediction: Hezonja, Winslow, and Johnson will go back-to-back-to-back to the Kings, Nuggets, and Pistons. Detroit will get the best of the bunch.

Point guards Delon Wright and Jerian Grant will go after Cameron Payne and Tyus Jones, and that’s a mistake. Because both Wright and Grant stayed for four years in college and are 23 and 22 respectively, they are falling down mock drafts into the final third of the first round if not the second round. Meanwhile, Payne (a sophomore) and Jones (a freshman) are expected to go in the 10-20 range. Wright and Grant are both solid, big point guards who are fully ready to contribute to a good NBA team. They’ll be solid backup point guards for a decade, and that’s pretty valuable for someone drafted in the back half of the first round. I just hope they both go to good teams, where they’ll fit much better than if they last until the bad teams at the top of the second round.

Enjoy the draft!

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It’s ironic that it feels as if the most hectic time on the NBA calendar happens immediately after the basketball ends. This year, the draft is just nine days after the final game of the NBA season; just imagine if the NBA Finals had gone the full seven games. But along with all the draft stuff, which is really intriguing by itself, there have been a few sizable (and no, Matt Barnes for Jeremy Lamb, which was just reported, is not sizable) trades over the last few days. I don’t remember if there are often these types of trades between the Finals and the draft, but this feels a bit unusual and certainly adds to the intrigue of this nine day stretch. So, who won the two big trades? What kind of impact will they have? Let’s start with the first one:

Lance Stephenson to the Clippers:
A week ago, the Clippers dealt Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes for Lance Stephenson. Right off the bat, even before looking at the players’ contracts and the other details of the trade, I thought this was a bad trade for the Clippers. First, the positives. Money-wise, it’s a trade without much risk for LA. They are moving Barnes, who’s in the last year of his contract, but more importantly are parting with Hawes one year after he signed a four-year, $23 million deal. And in Stephenson, they are getting a guy who’s basically an expiring contract next season; he gets paid $9 million next year and then the Clippers hold a team option on the 2016-17 season. If Stephenson does badly in LA, they can simply make him a free agent after the season, opening up a good amount of cap space. So the main positive for LAC is that they are opening up some cap room after next season, since Hawes is on the books for two more seasons than Stephenson.

But you have to think that Doc Rivers made this trade because he thought Stephenson could help elevate the Clippers on the court. The Chris Paul-led team, who blew a 3-1 lead in the second round of the playoffs against the Rockets, is rightfully in “win now” mode, with the Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan (if they re-sign him) trio likely to remain strong for the next few years. Last year, the Clippers’ Achilles’ heel was their lack of depth; they had just six players (the big three, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Barnes) who they could rely on. Unfortunately, I don’t think this trade solves their depth issue. They are moving one of the aforementioned key contributors, Barnes, in a deal for a guy in Stephenson who is the definition of unreliable. Lance was always a little shaky, but the Larry Bird and Frank Vogel-led Pacers got the best out of him, which is why he ended up getting a $9 million per year deal. Last year, Stephenson, out of the comfort zone of Indiana, was absolutely atrocious. Let’s start here: he now holds a record for futility on three point attempts, as his 17.1% shooting from beyond the arc is the worst ever in a single season among players who took more than 100 three point shots. Ok, so the Clippers are downgrading from beyond the arc, as, although I always cringed when Barnes took shots, he actually was a pretty decent shooter and made some big shots. The long range shooting is not the only reason Stephenson lost his starting job early in the season and accumulated 13 DNP-CDs over the course of the season. He shot 38% from the field and 63% from the line. In 26 minutes per game, he averaged 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.1 turnovers per game. And even if he bounces back to his final season in Indiana ways, I’m not sure he’s a great fit in Los Angeles. Personality-wise, the Clippers are already in a delicate state; Paul, who has a fierce personality on the court, is thought to have had rifts with both Griffin and Jordan. How will Stephenson, another guy with a pretty fiery temperament, impact that dynamic? He’s also a guy who loves having the ball in his hands, which is why he was relatively good on an Indiana team that didn’t have a true point guard. He won’t get much of the ball while Chris Paul is on the court, and when Paul is on the bench, Crawford is going to have the ball the majority of the time. Now, if Rivers parlays this into a trade of Crawford for another wing contributor or backup big man who is better off the ball, this will make more sense, but as of right now, I don’t really think Stephenson fits. I can’t give them a terrible grade, though, because Stephenson does have higher upside than Barnes, especially given the fact that he isn’t even 25 yet.

I don’t really like this for the Hornets, either, although I understand it more. What they are really doing is trading one year of Stephenson for three years of Hawes at around $5 million a year (they also traded Barnes for Jeremy Lamb, but Lamb is a non-factor at this point). So as the Clippers are gaining long term flexibility, the Hornets are losing it. But just as a new team could help Stephenson, it could also help Hawes, who had a lost season last year. I’m actually fairly confident that, if Charlotte plays him 20+ minutes per game, he’ll have a nice turnaround season. He’ll never be a good defensive center, but he’s a weapon offensively, since he can stretch the floor with his shot. Then again, if the Hornets draft Frank Kaminsky, as has been rumored after their second trade (more on that soon), Hawes becomes unnecessary.

Clippers grade: C-
Hornets grade: C

Nicolas Batum to the Hornets:
I’ll start this by saying that I love Nicolas Batum. He’s been on my fantasy team for years, and I think he is among the most underrated players in the draft. Ok, that’s out of the way. Let’s start with the Blazers. Despite my love of Batum, this makes a lot of sense for Portland, especially if they think LaMarcus Aldridge will leave in free agency. In return for one year of Batum, they are getting one year of Gerald Henderson along with Noah Vonleh, who was drafted ninth overall last season. Getting a recent top-10 pick for an expiring contract is always a good idea, and I’ve long been higher on Vonleh than most. It’s easy to forget that Vonleh is still just 19-years old, and he barely played last season after starting the year injured. I think the power forward will turn into a good player. With Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez entering free agency, it’s looking more and more like the Blazers are going to rebuild around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Meyers Leonard. If that’s the case, this trade makes even more sense. Henderson is a one year filler at the shooting guard or small forward position; he’s a solid player, but he isn’t going to make a huge impact. There’s no doubt that the Blazers are downgrading at wing, since Batum is among the best all-around small forwards in basketball. So for the Blazers, this is all about Vonleh, who could end up being the long-term option at power forward should Aldridge leave.

Just as they bought Spencer Hawes low, the Hornets are buying Batum low here. It’s easy to forget that he’s just 26-years old and was hampered by a wrist injury much of last season. The bad wrist hampered his shot, as his shooting from beyond the arc slumped to a career-low 32.4%. I expect him to rebound next season and get back into the 37-38% range, where he will serve as the Hornets’ best shooter and perhaps their best all-around player. While he was a small forward in Portland, I think he actually fits better as a shooting guard, where he can use his size and speed to his advantage both offensively and defensively. He fits in well next to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist defensively, and I expect it to be very difficult for teams to score on Charlotte next season. If Batum were signed for three more years, this would be an “A” trade for the Hornets. But he’s a free agent after next season, which means that the Hornets are trading Vonleh for one year of an upgrade from Henderson to Batum. If they were set to be a contender next year, it would make sense. But since they didn’t even make the playoffs last year, I can’t say I get it. Then again, they did make their team better, so I can’t bash it too much.

Portland: A
Charlotte: B-

Every year, there are a few common storylines that form as we gear up for the NBA draft. One is the foreign player juxtaposed with the proven college stud. Another is the big man vs. the guard. A third, the one that I’ll be focusing on in this post, is potential against polish. There is no way that, after watching Frank Kaminsky and Myles Turner or Kevon Looney play last season, you could come to the conclusion that Turner (or Looney), each of whom is a big man, is anywhere near as good as Kaminsky, who dominated so many opponents last season. The stats back up that eye test; Kaminsky averaged 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds (35 PER), while Turner posted 10.1 and 6.5 (26.2) and Looney 11.6 and 9.2 (22.4). And Kaminsky also played on the better team, as his Wisconsin Badgers made it all the way to the final Monday night, while Turner’s Texas and Looney’s UCLA each suffered through tumultuous seasons. So anyone who strictly watched the games and then disconnected from basketball until draft night would expect Kaminsky, the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year, to go much earlier in the draft than Turner and Looney. As you might have guessed, that isn’t the case.

Most mock drafts and prospect rankings I’ve seen have the three rated similarly.

Here is what I found for prospect rankings:

SI ESPN Nbadraft.net CBS Draft Express FiveThirtyEight Bleacher Report Average
Myles Turner 13 9 11 10 11 15 12 11.57
Frank Kaminsky 10 15 25 13 9 18 11 14.43
Kevon Looney 8 20 24 15 19 14 22 17.43

And mock drafts:

SI ESPN Nbadraft.net CBS Draft Express NBA.com Bleacher Report Average
Myles Turner 13 12 12 12 11 10 11 11.57
Frank Kaminsky 9 13 17 11 12 13 15 12.86
Kevon Looney 16 19 23 18 20 20 17 17.43

It’s clear that these three are seen as pretty close valuewise by NBA teams and by scouts. And while Looney is lagging behind a little, it’s interesting to see that the only purely stats-based big board, FiveThirtyEight’s, is one of the few that likes him the most of the three. Why, if Kaminsky was so much better than the others in college (and he was), will he not be drafted much earlier come draft day? It’s all about the P word. No, not polish. Potential.

Let’s first delve into the history of NCAA POY winners. How highly have they been drafted on average? How have they performed in the NBA? Starting from 1995 (giving us a nice round number of players), the player of the year has been drafted with, on average, the 5.6th pick. Early on, when scouting was nowhere near when it is now, teams picked the player they knew best often; from 1995-2000, the POY was drafted first four times, second once, and fourth once. But since the turn of the century, as scouting has improved, POYs have been going later, an average of 7.3rd. There’s a nice blend of success and total failure on the list of the last 20 college POYs; Tim Duncan, Antawn Jamison, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis are all part of the first camp, while Joe Smith, Jason Williams, T.J. Ford, Tyler Hansbrough, Evan Turner, and Jimmer Fredette have been extremely disappointing. It’s too early to tell with the last two winners, Trey Burke and Doug McDermott, but the early returns haven’t been good. So being uber-productive in college doesn’t necessarily guarantee NBA success. The task for teams is to decide whether Kaminsky is more likely to fall in the Durant group or in the Smith group.

Based on where he’s likely to go, there’s no doubt that most teams think Kaminsky’s more likely to be a bust than a star. I think one of the biggest things working against him is McDermott, the 11th pick in the draft last season. Doug McBucketts averaged just 8.9 minutes per game last season, shooting 40% from the field and 32% from three while averaging three points per game. He lost minutes to Spanish-Montenegrin sensation Nikola Mirotic and generally looked lost. He played a cumulative nine minutes in Chicago’s 12 playoff games, and six of those minutes came in a 120-66 thrashing of the Bucks.

Now, I think Frank Kaminsky is a better player than Doug McDermott. They play completely different positions, as Kaminsky, a power forward or center depending on who you ask, is five inches taller than the 6’8″ McDermott, who doesn’t really have a position in the NBA. Kaminsky’s a better athlete, a better distributor, and a better defender. But I don’t know how much better he’s going to get at the NBA level. He’s 22, three years older than both Turner and Looney, and he’ll never be a great defender or Kyle Korver-esque shooter. Where does that leave him? Probably as a rich man’s version of Spencer Hawes, another slender big man who can shoot. He will probably be able to start for a lottery team but will be best suited as an instant offense guy off the bench for a winning team. Polish, but not that much potential. Depending on the team and its draft philosophy, that could be worth the sixth pick or not even worth the 30th pick.

Myles Turner, on the other hand, has gobs of potential, but he never really put it all together with Texas. One issue was his mobility; he ran awkwardly, which could point to knee or leg problems down the line. With the number of big man injuries in the NBA (I’m looking at you, Joel), that was a big big concern for teams that could have pushed Turner out of the first round. Instead, he took tests at the Hospital for Special Surgery based in New York. The results? His mechanical issues stemmed from weakness in both his left and right gluteus medius. I have no idea what that means, but the important thing is that it can be corrected over time, and Turner has already made significant strides (pun intended). Now, onto the potential. Turner, the #2 prospect in his HS class (behind Jahlil Okafor), is a 6’11” power forward with a 7’4″ wingspan who could become a LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, Chris Bosh hybrid. He blocks shots at an incredible rate (4.7 per-40 minutes for Texas), has a smooth jumper, and shot 84% from the line. I don’t expect him to become an elite three point shooter, but he’ll have a good enough shot from deep to keep defenses honest. His rebounding (11.8 per-40) could also become elite with more coaching, and he is already a great rim protector. But he could also be another in a long line of busts. What if his agility problems become a long-term issue? What if he never develops a viable three? What if he gets intimidated by the great big men in the NBA? Until we see Turner in NBA games, these are unanswerable questions, which is why Myles is not going to go in the top five. However, I see him as the best of these three guys and would consider taking him as early as eighth or ninth.

Finally, we get to Looney, probably the most divisive of the three. Of the three big men I’m profiling, Looney has the least polish but also might have the highest potential. Despite playing 31 minutes a game, he averaged just 11.6 points per game. Looney’s offensive game is really limited to hustle plays and fastbreak opportunities; he has no jump shot off the dribble (5 for 21 on those shots, per Draft Express) and attempted just 53 three pointers the entire season, and although he did hit 41.5% of those, most of them were wide open shots he probably won’t get in the NBA. At 63%, he’s also a poor free throw shooter. All of this is very worrying, and so is the fact that Looney isn’t a great athlete. But he also has the ability to become a great player. His 7’3″ wingspan is above average for a power forward, and he averaged 1.3 steals and nearly a block a game in his lone college season. He’s also a tremendous rebounder, averaging north of nine boards per game for UCLA. I also think he was misused as UCLA. He was the Bruins’ most talented player, but they didn’t call any plays for him. I’d be interested to see what he would be able to do with more offensive responsibility. If Looney can add strength (his 220 pound frame is not going to be able to sustain a full year’s worth of NBA beatings in the paint), I think he can become a very good player a la Harrison Barnes. But because he hasn’t really shown much offensive ability or terrific athleticism, I think it’s just as likely that he becomes Al-Farouq Aminu, a good, long defender who can rebound but doesn’t help offensively. That risk is a good one to take late in the first round, but I don’t think it’s worth taking Looney in the lottery.

The question of potential vs polish and college success isn’t a black and white one. There have been tremendous college players who have become tremendous NBA players, and there are tremendous college players who have become draft busts. The same goes for high potential players. But in this case, here’s approximately where I would put the three:
Turner: 9th-11th
Kaminsky: 17th-19th
Looney: 24th-27th

If you look at a ranking of the top prospects of the 2015 draft, you will almost certainly see Willie Cauley-Stein’s name listed as one of the first 14, or in the lottery. You will see something about his defensive ability and something about his three year tenure at Kentucky. You will also see criticism of his offense and the important fact that he is two years older than the one-and-done freshmen in the draft. You won’t, however, see a comparison in value to Jahlil Okafor or to any of the top prospects.

It usually takes me more than a few days to realize mistakes, but I know already that my post talking about the top five prospects in the NBA draft was slightly off; it should also have included Cauley-Stein, because, after a little more thinking, I now consider him to be part of the top six, after which there is a big drop off to the draft’s top wings, Mario Hezonja and Justice Winslow.

The reasons that Cauley-Stein is seen as more of a mid-lottery pick are obvious and understandable. He’s two years older than the top prospects, and, more importantly, his offensive game is way less developed than his peers’. It’s hard to get too excited by a guy who has been compared to Chris “Birdman” Anderson and Samuel Dalembert and a guy who, per nbadraft.net, “projects mostly as a lob finisher, roll target, and garbage man in an NBA offense.” In his three years at Kentucky, he never averaged as many as nine points per game despite averaging 24.5 minutes over the course of his career. His career high in field goal attempts was a measly 6.1, showing that he never really looked for his shot. He also had just 90 assists in 105 college games. His per-40 minutes numbers last season don’t even look all that impressive: 13.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. The seven foot center wasn’t ever really involved offensively on a team with offensive talents like Karl-Anthony Towns, the Harrison brothers, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles. He finished fifth on the team in points per game despite leading the team in minutes.

But that’s where the positives begin. Cauley-Stein led the best team in the country, loss to Wisconsin aside, in minutes. He’s not a total black hole offensively; he improved his free throw percentage from 37% in his freshman year to an acceptable 62% last year. He also is a tremendous fast break finisher, thanks in large part to his athleticism and speed; his fast break shooting percentage was 77%, one of the best rates in college basketball. Cauley-Stein is going to be a good pick-and-roll finisher, and even his jump shot is improving. He showed an ability to hit some jump shots and he has a very solid jump hook, although the rest of his post game is certainly subpar. This video of his jump shot shows that, despite having a slight hitch, it’s looking pretty darn good.

The real reason Cauley-Stein is seen as a lottery pick, though, is his defense. He is the best defensive player in the draft, and it isn’t close. If Okafor is a low-post savant, then Cauley-Stein is a defensive maestro. He’s seven feet with a 7’3″ wingspan, and he also is a former high school wide receiver who runs a 40 in the mid 4s. Cauley-Stein legitimately guarded all five positions in college, and he’ll likely be able to do the same in the NBA. It’s almost impossible to find holes in his defensive game; he’s fast, skilled, smart, and athletic enough to be both a great perimeter defender (1.8 career steals per-40) and a menacing rim-protector (3.6 career blocks per-40). He has the potential to be the Defensive Player of the Year, and quickly.

Really, my WCS awakening came while watching the NBA Finals. Cleveland made a valiant effort, but they were always going to come up short. The main reason why? They couldn’t find a way to defend pick-and-rolls. Because the Warriors usually had a “center” on the court who was both faster than his opponent and able to hit a three, the Cavaliers got burned on pick-and-rolls (or pick-and-pops) no matter what they tried. If they switched, Steph Curry would get the matchup he wanted and invariably drain a three over Tristan Thompson or drive to the basket for an easy buckey. If they doubled, the “big” man (usually Draymond Green) would get the ball and a four-on-three. It didn’t end well for the Cavs, and it wouldn’t have for pretty much any team. Rare is the big man who can defend both down low and also stay with point guards after switching.

The league-wide shift toward more switching and faster lineups is precisely the reason that Cauley-Stein will be so valuable at the next level. Just think of him as a quicker and better shooting version of DeAndre Jordan, another valuable center who is limited offensively. Jordan went in the second round in the 2008 draft, but if the draft happened tomorrow, he’d go in the top five, and that’s in a draft with Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Serge Ibaka. Cauley-Stein, like Jordan and Ibaka and very few others, has the ability to be a center who can take a team’s entire offense away. And if that’s not worth a top pick, I don’t know what is.

The offense will never be great, although Cauley-Stein will rebound well and shoot at a respectable percentage. But it’ll be good enough to make him at least a threat offensively, and that, along with the top defense, is enough to make him one of the best players in the draft.

In hockey, like in basketball and unlike in baseball, the first few picks usually turn into good players. That’s why you don’t usually hear people talking about baseball busts; there are too many of them. Busts are noteworthy in hockey (guys like Rick DiPietro, Cam Barker, and Aleander Svitov in recent times come to mind) and basketball (Kwame Brown, Adam Morrison, Darko Milicic, and now seemingly Anthony Bennett) because they are generally the exception in the top five, not the rule. Top picks don’t always become superstars, but they generally turn into good contributors. This draft, though, is different, in that there are two guys at the top who seem almost locks to become franchise cornerstones. I’ll write about those guys today. It’s also not a two man draft, as scouts have said it’s one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. That (and the fact that the Flyers were bad enough to secure a top-10 pick) is why I’m more excited for this NHL draft than I ever have been.

It’s a mistake to put Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the same category. McDavid is on a different level. I don’t know if there’s been a more surefire stud top pick since, well, Sidney Crosby. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg seemed pretty safe, but in baseball nothing can be taken for granted. A number of first overall picks in the NBA draft have turned out to be studs (every player picked #1 from 2008-2012 has become a star) but none of them came into the league without notable question marks. The closest was probably Andrew Luck, but there was even some question over whether the Colts should draft Luck or Robert Griffin III. There is no such question when it comes to McDavid. The 18-year old has been known as “The Next One” since he became the third player to play in the Ontario Hockey League at 15. The first two? John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad. You might have heard of those two former first overall picks; Tavares finished this past season with 86 points, one off the NHL high, while Ekblad is one of the candidates for Rookie of the Year despite being a 19-year old defenseman.

McDavid is already a fantastic player and could probably center the Taylor Hall line tomorrow. Last season, as a 17-year old, he scored 44 goals and added 76 assists… in 47 games. This despite the fact that McDavid’s biggest “weakness” is his shooting. He also has 38 points in 26 games for Canada while playing in various tournaments. So the stats are obviously there. And everything else is there, too. At 6’1″ and 194 pounds, McDavid is the perfect size for an elite center (and two inches taller than Crosby). He’s physical (broke his hand in a fight) yet nimble, powerful yet quick. Best of all, he contributes on the defensive end, too. The fact that it’s impossible to take the puck off of him or force a bad pass means that McDavid is going to be a stats darling, too, and it’s hard to score against someone when your team can’t get the puck. But perhaps his best traits are his vision (and passing ability) along with his hockey IQ, which allow him to pick out the right passes (hence the gobs of assists) and be around the puck almost constantly. This is an incredibly skilled and incredibly smart player, and guys like that him rarely (if ever) bust. Oh, and if all of that isn’t enough, check out this video of some of McDavid’s highlights (and keep in mind that this was two years ago). Or just watch a period of a game McDavid is playing in. He’s the real deal.

Given the fact that McDavid is almost guaranteed to become the next Sidney Crosby, it makes sense that the Sabres were pretty heartbroken when they failed to get the #1 pick after finishing with the worst record in hockey. Eichel will make for a terrific consolation prize, though. After playing a year at Boston College, it’s clear that the 18-year old is going to be a pretty good professional too. He won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best college hockey player in the country, and racked up 26 goals and 45 assists in 40 games. Those aren’t Connor McDavid stats, but they are pretty darn good considering that Eichel was playing against guys three years older than he was. He’s also picked up 24 points in 29 games for the US in various tournaments. Eichel’s an inch taller than McDavid and might be even faster. His puck handling is also incredible and his playmaking ability is sublime. Again, if you don’t believe me, check out this video. He won’t tally as many points as McDavid, but nobody will. And while McDavid has been compared to Crosby, Eichel’s thought to be a poor man’s Mario Lemieux. Mario Lemieux just so happens to be the second best hockey player of all time. If McDavid produces at a point-per-game level, which I think is very possible, I think Eichel I will be just a shade under that. Doesn’t 70 points seem pretty realistic? Regardless of the exact point totals, the continued development of both McDavid and Eichel will be fascinating.

It’s a shame that the two studs will be placed in different conferences, because this rivalry has a real chance to become a better version of the Sid-Ovechkin feud. There’s the fact that they’ll be forever linked as the top two picks in the 2015 draft, but there’s also the nationality factor (Eichel is American and McDavid is Canadian) and the fact that both are two way centers. It’s been a long time since you could say that about the top two picks in a draft, which is what makes this year’s draft so special. I hope that Eichel and McDavid one day face off for the Stanley Cup, but even if they don’t, it’ll be a joy to see them excel in the NHL.

With the NBA and NHL seasons drawing to an exciting close (both championship series seem likely to go seven games), it’s time to look ahead to what will happen right after it finally ends; the basketball and hockey drafts. I’ll be writing about the super top of the NHL draft soon, but today I’m going to tackle the exciting question of how the top five guys in the NBA draft, each of whom brings something different to the table, should be ranked. Most people have Karl-Anthony Towns first, but after that, I’ve seen the next four ranked in almost every possible order. The consensus seems to be that there is a big gap after #5, so the focus for the top four teams is now which player to pick. Now for the order I’d take them in, team fit aside, starting at #1..

Karl-Anthony Towns: I don’t think Towns is ever going to be a top five player in the NBA. He’s definitely a worse prospect than fellow Kentucky alum Anthony Davis. But I certainly see him turning into an All-Star player, especially on a Timberwolves offense that seems a good fit for his skill set. With all the reports saying that Towns will almost surely be taken by the T-Wolves, it’s safe to say that he’ll benefit right away from a fast paced offense with a wizard, Ricky Rubio, at point guard, some scoring playmakers (including last year’s #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins), and a clear path to playing time at power forward and/or center. For much of the college season, the consensus #1 overall pick was Jahlil Okafor. But as the season went on, Towns gained more and more traction in the top prospect conversation. Why? Well, we always knew he had the higher upside simply because of his superior defensive play, better range, and better athleticism. But late in the season, Towns showed off a polished post move, going a long way to nullify Okafor’s only substantial advantage. Although he won’t be a dominant scorer against big time defenders, Towns is almost the full package. He can drain three pointers, and it’s likely that he’ll get more license to roam outside the paint and show off his range at the next level. He’s also a great free throw shooter, as he made 81% of his free throws last season. Add his defensive prowess (2.2 blocks in only 21.1 minutes per game), his post moves, and his overall basketball IQ, and you have a great all-around prospect and a lock to go in the top two.
Ceiling: Timberwolves, #1
Floor: Lakers, #2

D’Angelo Russell: Russell seems perfectly suited for the run-and-gun, three pointer or layup style that so many successful NBA teams are implementing. Of the three top prospects who played college basketball, Russell was by far the least known this time last year and even this time six months ago. But the combo guard turned heads with his flashy dominance of the Big 10. Until the Arizona game in the NCAA tournament, Russell never seemed to get rattled. The smooth point guard averaged 19.3 points on 45% shooting (41% from beyond the arc) despite being the focal point of Ohio State’s offense every time he took the floor. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds and five assists, leading an otherwise mediocre team to a #10 seed and the round of 32. He’s a 6’5″ guard with a 6’9″ wingspan, so length is definitely not a problem. He also made a handful of absolutely incredible passes, including this one, that showed off his terrific court vision. His decision making isn’t always sound, which is why it’s tough to classify him as a true point guard, but that will get better with time. The passing is one reason Russell has been compared (unfairly to both parties) to Stephen Curry. The main reason? He’s a tremendous, smooth shooter. Russell is a playmaker, and that’s why he’s risen so far up the list. Of course, there are still some red flags. I wouldn’t take one game too seriously, but that Arizona game did show that Russell, who isn’t all that athletic, might have some trouble running an offense and scoring against better, more physical defenders. He also took some possessions off on the defensive end and will never be a lockdown defender. But these are the same things people said about Curry, who was an amazing player at Davidson and still didn’t go in the top five. The top five teams this year won’t let the same thing happen to Russell.
Ceiling: Lakers, #2
Floor: Knicks, #4

Emmanuel Mudiay: Disclaimer: I’ve never watched either of the next two guys on this list play in a real, live game. But boy do I like what I see from Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis. Mudiay played in China last season, but it’s not as if he’s come out of nowhere. Last season, he was a top recruit along with Towns and Okafor, and his skills are apparent. Unlike with Russell, there’s no doubt over whether Mudiay is a pure point guard. He’s fast, strong, and a terrific point guard, and in a bigger, more physical Chinese league, he averaged 18 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game. If he hadn’t gone down with an ankle injury early in the season, he might be in the running for the #1. pick. As it is, he’s almost certainly going to go in the top five. If Russell is Curry, Mudiay is John Wall, a more explosive, better defending point guard who has struggled with his shot. In fact, Mudiay and Russell are almost opposites, with Mudiay serving as the better defender and pure point guard and Russell being the better shooter and playmaker. To me, it’s really a matter of choice. Do you take the guy with the more projectable NBA career (Russell) or the more mysterious one with the higher upside and a lower floor (Mudiay)? I think that is over simplifying things, because Russell has upside and Mudiay will be a productive player even if he can’t develop a better offensive game, but you get the point.
Ceiling: Lakers, #2
Floor: Magic, #6

Kristaps Porzingis: If you were to ask me which of these five studs has the highest ceiling, I might go Porzingis. I’m really tempted to make the lazy comparisons to fellow non-American big men shooters Dirk Nowitzki (the upside) and Andrea Bargnani (the downside), but I’ll stay away from those comparisons. I’m not going to lie; putting Porzingis ahead of Okafor makes me nervous. I’ve seen Okafor a ton of times, and I know that he’s going to be a productive offensive player in the NBA. I can’t say the same thing about Porzingis. The biggest negative is the lack of strength that I can see from watching just 10 minutes of highlights. Porzingis is going to need to add a lot of muscle if he wants to battle down low with NBA big men, and more importantly, he can’t lose much mobility in the process of adding that weight. He also isn’t yet a great finisher at the rim and also pulls down a disappointingly few number of rebounds. Not good, right? Well, 10 years ago, most teams wouldn’t consider taking a player with such a high bust potential over a sure thing like Jahlil Okafor. Even today, most teams would take Okafor. I wouldn’t. Why? Because Porzingis not only has upside but also has bankable skills that will translate over to the NBA. Remember, he succeeded last season in the second best league in the world, averaging 11 points in 21 minutes per game as a 19 year old for Sevilla. He’s also 7’1″, a good (albeit not Russell-esque) three point shooter, and a good free throw shooter. But the real reason I rate Porzingis higher than Okafor is again because of the way the league is trending. If he can add a few pounds, Porzingis will be the perfect stretch four, a power forward who can defend his position, draw opposing big men out to the three point line, knock down shots, and contribute on the glass. The power forward is so important for spacing; a less mobile PF will clog the paint, while a more mobile one will open the game up. Porzingis is just better suited to play in today’s NBA than Okafor is, especially after he makes some initial adjustments to the NBA game.
Ceiling: Sixers, #3
Floor: Bobcats, #9

Jahlil Okafor: No, I don’t hate Jahlil Okafor. If I hated him, I’d put Justice Winslow, Willie Cauley-Stein, Mario Hezonja, and others ahead of him. I have no doubt that he’ll be a 20 points per game player in the NBA, and soon. He was incredible at Duke, a matchup nightmare and impossible to guard on the block one on one. He’s a tremendous post-up player and made 79% of his shots near the rim (66.4% total). Aside from his scoring, Okafor is also a pretty decent passer for his age and size, and he’s pretty nimble for a 270-pound guy with a 7’5″ wingspan. In post-up situations, he’s as good as it gets. The problem is that big men are posting less and less in the NBA, and it’s everything else that makes me nervous. Okafor has no shot outside the paint area, and shot just 51% on free throws. He won’t stretch the court and really needs to be next to a power forward who can shoot. The bigger problem? Okafor’s defense. Jahlil actually isn’t that bad at guarding guys in the post, but he’s a poor rim protector (thanks to lackluster lateral quickness), a bad defensive rebounder (6.5 DREB per 40 minutes, one of the worst rates among top college big men), and has some big lapses in which his man scores easy baskets. So Okafor needs to play next to a power forward who can stretch the floor and protect the rim. How many of those are there? They exist (Serge Ibaka), but there aren’t many of them. I just worry that picking Okafor will hamstring whomever picks him. That team will have to run its offense around the big man and find a suitable way to hide him defensively. He’s still a top guy because he contributes so much on the offensive end, but he’s really a liability in a lot of areas. Okafor will have some huge offensive games, but I don’t think his overall game is good enough to warrant taking him over any of the top four. Again, most of the top teams will probably disagree with me, which is why this is my personal opinion and not a mock draft.
Ceiling: Timberwolves, #1
Floor: Knicks, #4

The Best Team in the AL

Posted: 06/11/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

I was thinking about what to write today and came up with two pretty solid ideas: why I still think the Warriors will win the series after going down 2-1, and who the best team in the AL is. I think the baseball one is probably the better bet, so I’ll go with that one. But if the Warriors go down 3-1 or 3-2, expect a post titled: “Doubling Down on the Warriors,” because I was inches away from making that the title of this one.

In the National League, the hierarchy is pretty clear. The Dodgers and Cardinals are the class of the league (and baseball), and the Nationals will probably join them sooner rather than later. The rest of the NL is composed of above-average teams (Giants, Pirates, Cubs), a few average ones, and a few horrid ones (cough Phillies cough). It’s not a very interesting league, because it’s early June and we pretty much know what the playoff field is going to look like. The AL is a totally different story. Record-wise, the Royals are the best team in the wide-open league, but they’ve lost nine of their past 15 games and seem to be regressing to more of what we thought they would be. I don’t think they are the best team in the league or will be the best for the remainder of this season. Where does that leave us? Well, preseason favorites like the Indians, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, and Mariners, the teams touted to make the playoffs before the season, have all struggled; their combined record is 142-156. Meanwhile, upstarts like the Yankees (whose best player may still be A-Rod), the Rays (whose cleanup hitter is David DeJesus), the Twins (whose cleanup hitter is Trevor Plouffe), the Astros (who have won an average of 58 games over the past four years), and the Rangers (who are on paper a worse team than the one that finished last in the AL West last year) are bossing the league, combining with the Royals to post the six best records in the American League. Heck, the team with the worst record in the AL, the Athletics, has a +10 run differential. It’s a crazy league. And guess what? I haven’t even mentioned the best team in the Junior Circuit. That would be the Toronto Blue Jays.

I omitted one rather large fact when explaining why I wanted to write about the AL. That tidbit? The fact that the Blue Jays are currently on an eight game winning streak. The streak has kind of gone under the radar, because the Jays are still just 31-30 and mired in third in the most mediocre division ever, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me, perhaps because I have their leadoff, two-hole, three-hole, cleanup, and sixth hitter on my fantasy team.

Luckily for my fantasy team, this team is powered by its offense. In the post-Bonds era, run scoring is at a premium, with few teams cracking 4.5 runs per game. The Blue Jays have averaged 5.32 per tout, smashing the second-place Yankees by two thirds of a run per game. Wow. They are +51.6 in Fangraphs offense, and the difference between Toronto and the second place Dodgers (+15.2) would be the fifth best offense in baseball. They are slashing .266/.333/.445, good for a .778 OPS that would have ranked 12th in 2000 but is first this year. They are fourth in baseball in homers, ninth in steals, and fifth in walk rate. And the scary thing is that their input (the lineup) makes the output (the run scoring) look sustainable. The addition of Josh Donaldson to an already-good offense got nowhere near enough buzz this offseason. Donaldson finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2013 and eighth last season, and he might finish first this year. Hitting second, right behind Jose Reyes and ahead of the rest of the heavy hitters, he leads the league in runs scored with 50 and is second in RBI with 44. He’s slashing .317/.371/.592 with 17 homers and 15 doubles. In a better hitter’s park in Toronto than he played in while a member of the Athletics, he’s hitting .372/.391/.729 at home. His 3.8 WAR ranks second in baseball. But unlike Mike Trout, Josh Donaldon isn’t a one man team, and when he slows down, the runs will probably keep coming. Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion are always threats to get injured, which worries me, especially since all three have already been banged up this season. But all three are healthy now, and they are all great contributors when healthy. Bautista is putting up classic Joey Bats stats, with 11 homers, an 18% walk rate, and a .909 OPS. Reyes is just heating up, with seven runs, seven RBI, two homers, five steals, a .429 average, and a .500 OBP in the last week. And Encarnacion, perhaps the best hitter of all of them, hasn’t gotten going yet.

But wait, there’s more! Russell Martin, another offseason acquisition, has been a huge boost at catcher, posting a 2.6 WAR, a .362 OBP, and a .859 OPS. And second baseman Devon Travis is the AL ROY frontrunner despite spending the last few weeks (and maybe another week or two) on the DL with shoulder inflammation. Travis is hitting .271/.336/.504 and has added good defense to the equation. Meanwhile, Chris Colabello has exploded as the starting left fielder, piling up 138 plate appearances and hitting .341/.384/.504 with a 151 wRC+, although he’s given a lot of that value back in the field. And Justin Smoak, the former top prospect, has had a career revival, posting a .800 OPS and a 125 wRC+ at first base. The offense is loaded. Why, then, is the record just 31-30?

Well, I think the defense is pretty solid, especially up the middle, and I don’t think that’s the problem. The real issue, of course, is the pitching staff. The Blue Jays have a team FIP of 4.37 that ranks worst in baseball. Given that they are usually thrashing teams or getting thrashed, the bullpen hasn’t really been a factor. They have just six saves and are near the bottom in bullpen innings. The real problem has been the rotation. But while the full season stats for guys like Drew Hutchinson, Mark Buehrle, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez haven’t been pretty, things are starting to look up for the rotation. Hutchinson, the de facto ace with R.A. Dickey struggling and Marcus Stroman out for the season, has a 2.97 ERA, a .96 WHIP, and a 30:4 K:BB ratio in the last month. Buehrle has returned to take back his Mr. Reliable mantle, with seven consecutive solid starts that have lowered his ERA from 6.75 to 4.25. But the real potential comes in the form of the team’s top two prospects, Sanchez and Daniel Norris, each of whom has great stuff. I think that if Sanchez and/or Norris figure it out this year, which seems pretty likely given that they both are thought to be big league ready. The Blue Jays need them to shoulder the load with Stroman, who was set to have a breakout season, out, and I think they will. I also expect Toronto to be fairly active in the trade market, with guys like top outfield prospect Dalton Pompey or Collabelo available for more solid starters. They have pieces to trade and to plug into the rotation, and I think it will only improve from here.

In a league as convoluted as this year’s AL is, it makes sense to take the team with the most dominant unit. This year, that is undoubtedly Toronto’s offense, which is destroying pitching and still has room to grow. Luckily for the Blue Jays, the pitching has room to improve, too, which is why I expect them to win (maybe run away with?) the AL East.