Beginning to Talk About the NBA Draft — Top 7-Footers

Posted: 05/22/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

With the NBA playoffs still in full swing and thus very few nights without any basketball, it’s easy to forget that the NBA draft is fast approaching. But it is indeed approaching, and it’ll be upon us before we know it. The draft’s on June 23rd, and since the lottery happened last week (in case you didn’t hear, everything went exactly as it was supposed to. The top 14 picks will be made by the teams with the 14 worst records in the league (and the teams some traded those picks to) in that exact order), this feels like the exact right time to start talking about the draft. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are going to start dueling it out on my television screen in about an hour, but I want to talk about some 19-year-olds who will largely be out of the league in five years!

Over the next month, I hope to research and write about enough prospects for me to be able to have an informed personal top-30 list. I’m going to save the big debate (Simmons or Ingram) for closer to draft day, but I will say that those two will be at the top of my board, just as they are in everyone else’s estimation. I haven’t done much writing about the prospects yet, but I did write about the top elder statesmen in the draft class in seniors Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine and junior Kris Dunn. At the end of that post, I wrote what was then my top-10:
Ben Simmons
Brandon Ingram
Dragan Bender
Kris Dunn
Buddy Hield
Denzel Valentine
Jaylen Brown
Jamal Murray
Diamond Stone
Jakob Poeltl

I’m positive that my list in a month will be different than that one, but let’s use that top-10 as a baseline. I’d also like to note that, thanks to a new rule, draft entrants who have not hired an agent may still return to college. They have until only Wednesday to decide, so this will no longer be a stipulation soon, but it is something to keep in mind. I’m linking to a nice handy list of players who have — and haven’t — hired agents.

Today, I’m going to look at the three most highly-regarded seven-footers in the draft: Jakob Poeltl, Skal Labissiere, and Dragan Bender.

Pronounced “Ya-kob Per-tel” and called “Purtle the Turtle” (by me), Jakob Poeltl is a 7’1″ sophomore center from Utah. I plead guilty to not watching a lot of Pac-12 basketball, so most of my firsthand knowledge of Poeltl and his game come from the NCAA tournament. In last year’s tournament, he really impressed me. Although he played just 23.3 minutes per game in his freshman year, Poeltl averaged 26 minutes in three tournament games and nearly led Utah past Duke in the Sweet 16. At the time, I remember thinking: how have I not heard of this big, athletic, funny-named Austrian guy? Well, by the next year, everyone had heard of Poeltl. He made huge strides, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game and becoming a second-team All-American. With that being said, his season ended on a very sour note, as he was thoroughly dominated by Domantas Sabonis and Gonzaga’s frontline to the tune of just five points and four rebounds. If that takes people off his scent, though, it shouldn’t.

A quick look at the stat sheet tells me that Poeltl shot 68% from the field as a freshman and 65% as a sophomore, and, after watching some gameplay, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been even higher than that. That’s partly due to some poor opposition, but the fact that he scored 17 points on fewer than 10 shots per game says more about Poeltl than it does about a lack of quality big defenders. I’m willing to write the Gonzaga game off as an anomaly, because Poeltl was consistently great at putting the ball in the basket. He’s certainly not a threat from long or even mid range, but he was tremendous in college with his back to the basket. I believe his biggest strength is his touch around the basket. Purtle the Turtle is very good with both hands, and while his post moves never make you gasp, his hook shots and footwork are strong enough to work the majority of the time (he shoots 69% around the basket in the half court). Unlike some great post players (not that Poeltl is a great post player, because I don’t think he will be), the center also moves pretty well. This

illustrates that pretty well. I don’t think Poeltl will have a lot of highlights like this at the next level, but it’s this speed and coordination that will allow him to be a productive pick-and-roll player at the next level, a skill that’s vital for a big man in today’s NBA. Another thing I consider vital? At least some ability to knock down free throws. And after Poeltl shot just 44% from the line his freshman year, he connected at a 69% rate as a sophomore, while attempting 6.6 free throws per game. All reports say that Poeltl has a great attitude and is very coachable, and the free throw numbers back that up.

A decade ago, a 7’1″ talent like Poeltl would probably have been a top-five lock. But in today’s NBA, there are some things teams are looking for from their centers that Poeltl just doesn’t have. First of all, he’s never going to be an elite rim protector. His wingspan is “just” 7’2″, and he averaged 1.5 blocks per game, a fine number but probably a sign that he won’t be a great shot blocker at the next level. His one-on-one defense in the post is fine, but given that so many teams are shying away from going straight to the post, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not he can stay on the court against small-ball lineups. I would guess not, at least against the best of the small-ball lineups. There’s also the obvious fact that Poeltl is not a threat from outside the paint. I’m confident, though, that he can develop at least a decent mid range shot. The final concern is that Poeltl isn’t strong enough to rebound over or defend big centers. He’ll need to strengthen his legs at the next level, but again, that’s something I think he can do. For teams who want a traditional center, Poeltl should be the top guy on their list.

Skal Labissiere was the #2 recruit in the country coming out of high school, behind Ben Simmons and a spot ahead of Brandon Ingram. To say he disappointed in his only year at Kentucky would be an understatement. Labissiere played just 16 minutes per game, averaging 6.6 points per game. After the end of non-conference play, he cracked double figures just four times. And in the second round of the tournament, against an athletic Indiana team, Labissiere scored four points. Of course, there’s a reason that Labissiere, who at 216 pounds is 25 notches lighter than Poeltl, was such a prized recruit. Poeltl is the much more polished player. In fact, Skal, a Haitian, had barely played basketball before he arrived in the US in 2010. It’s fair to say that he lost a lot of confidence at Kentucky, largely because the coaching staff didn’t give him a long leash. With that in mind, I hope he ends up with a team that will allow him to play consistent minutes and develop. He’s a real athlete, with great jumping ability and speed in fast break situations. In two key ways, he’s the opposite of Poeltl. While Poeltl is not a great shot blocker and does not have a good jump shot, Labissiere can do each very well. He equaled Poeltl’s 1.6 blocks per game in just 52% as many minutes. And in this video, he looks like he can shoot it like a guard.

Of course, that wasn’t in a real game, which is kind of the point. The Poeltl vs. Labissiere debate is one a lot of teams are going to be having over the next month, and each team’s answer will probably come down to their own philosophy about whether to go for the polish or the potential. Because, while Labissiere could be a great weapon on both sides of the court, he could also be Nerlens Noel with worse defense, which is code for out of the league. This is a guy with no post game and a player who committed three fouls per game (one every 5.3 minutes) while picking up a TOTAL of 11 assists. This is also a guy who’s so quick and athletic and shows so much potential.. but not really in games. Labissiere would be a good pick for a team willing to take a risk or one with multiple first round picks. As of now, this is the way I look at the two guys I’ve talked about:

   Likelihood  superstar  Likelihood  star  Likelihood  starter  Likelihood  role player  Likelihood  bench warmer
Jakob Poeltl 1% 9% 55% 26% 9%
Skal Labissiere 5% 15% 21% 39% 20%

So do you want the guy who’s more than 150% as likely to be a starter, or the guy who’s twice as likely to be at least a multi-time All-Star? Again, that comes down to draft philosophy.

Of course, if you draft high enough, you don’t need to make that decision. In Dragan Bender, you can have the high floor and the high ceiling. There’s a reason the Croatian, who’s more than two years younger than Poeltl and a year and a half younger than Labissiere, is very likely to be #3 on my board. I have no stats to share with you. I mean, there are stats, but they are worth nothing, given that Bender has barely played as a teenager in a league with grown men. I also want to shy away from comparisons to Kristaps Porzingis or any other European big man, because that’s just lazy and probably incorrect. I think Dragan can be the total package. His standing reach is 9’3″, at least three inches longer than the other two seven-footers. Watch this video and tell me what he can’t do:

He can hit threes. He can go coast-to-coast. He can alter and block shots. He can play in the post, although that part of his game needs some work. Now, it’s very fair to say that I’m overrating him because I’ve only watched highlight videos like this one. I haven’t seen Bender’s version of the Gonzaga game for Poeltl. And that’s a fair point. But I look out for things other than highlight reel dunks against overmatched opponents. I see Bender’s great outlet passes and court vision. I see decent footwork. I also see the potential for great defense and the ability to eventually be able to switch onto guards. Now, Bender also needs a lot of work. He won’t be a good three point shooter right away, and he’s going to be manhandled down low. And there’s also a reason that I have him clearly behind both Simmons and Ingram. Those guys have the potential to be go-to scorers. I don’t think Bender is as likely to fill it up offensively barring huge improvements. He’s an inconsistent shooter (much worse than Ingram), and lacks Simmons’ ability to get into the paint at will. At the same time, though, he could potentially be one of the best two-way players in the league as a stretch-four. That’s why I like him so much at #3.

Ranking of the three:



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