NBA Draft: Continuing the Focus on Big Men With Four More

Posted: 05/24/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

A couple of days ago, I went over the three top seven-footers. This is a big man heavy draft, and I didn’t want to forget about some of the other talented bigs, so I’m coming right back with more. While none of these four guys crack seven feet, they’re all immensely talented and young, with the oldest being the 20-year-old Domantas Sabonis, who left college after his sophomore year. The four are all pegged to go around the middle of the first round. Let’s start with the guy I watched least this season (call it East Coast bias).

Before a month or so ago, I had never heard of Washington freshman forward Marquese Chriss. Chriss was the #60 recruit in the Class of 2015, well behind the two other players in his class I’m talking about today (although still certainly on the radar), so it’s safe to say he’s come from relative obscurity from the average fan’s perspective. Chriss, a 6’10”, 235 pound power forward, is a raw prospect with tremendous upside who seems like the perfect power forward in today’s NBA. He’s lengthy and springy, with a 38.5 inch max vertical and some thunderous dunks like this one. This is a guy with the athleticism to be featured on many a highlight reel. But athleticism alone shouldn’t put you in the conversation for a lottery selection. And it doesn’t for Chriss, who also averaged 14 points per game in his only season at Washington, shooting 53% from the line and 35% from three. For an 18-year-old who started playing basketball late, that’s pretty impressive. With his ability to finish at the rim and pop out for threes, Chriss has the potential to become a great pick-and-pop player. Unfortunately, that’s all it is right now: potential. Chriss is a long way away from being helpful in the NBA. His troubles start with a frequent inability to stay focused. Chriss committed a preposterous 4.1 fouls per game, and he fouled out of 15 games and committed four in 10 more contests. He also turned the ball over about 2.5 times more often than he was credited with an assist (69 turnovers, 26 assists), which is certainly a troubling sign for a player who will be expected to play a lot on the perimeter. And Chriss doesn’t seem to have the motor or awareness, at least at the moment, to hold his own on the defensive glass. He rebounded the ball 5.4 times per game, but even that number hides how much trouble Chriss has on the defensive glass, as nearly half of his boards are offensive. For a 6’10” power forward, 2.9 defensive rebounds per game is putrid and something that seems like it could be a longterm issue. Another big issue? Chriss often totally loses his man on defense, as he does in the video I’ve linked to. In a lot of ways, he seems very similar to a lot of flashy college players who have been hyped up and then failed at the next level due to a lack of polish and effort. Last time, I talked about polish vs. potential in the Poeltl-Labissiere debate. Chriss is certainly more like Skal and Jakub and is probably even less polished than the Kentucky big man, just to give you an idea of where he currently is. But if you want upside in the middle of the first round, Chriss is your man. He has the potential to be an 18 points per game type player with good defense. Just like Skal, I would advise a team with multiple first round picks to look at Chriss, because I think he’s worth taking a chance on.

Of the four guys on this list, nobody has the all-around offense profile of Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson. The 6’11” power forward averaged 17 points per game while playing for a team that lacked much talent aside from him. While Sabonis, who I’ll talk about later, has a good back-to-the-basket game, Ellenson is a face-up player who has the skill and quickness to drive to the basket or pull up for a three. While his three point shot (29%) lacked consistency, I’m fairly confident that Ellenson will turn out to be a good shooter from beyond the arc. He has good form, and he also shot 75% from the line, which often turns out to be a better indicator of NBA three point success than college three point success is. Speaking of free throws, Ellenson attempted nearly six free throws per game last year, an impressive number for a guy playing 33.5 minutes per game in his freshman year of college. And he had to work for his points, often serving as a primary ball handler for Marquette and going coast-to-coast on plays like this one:

That highlight pretty much sums up Ellenson’s appeal to a tee. You can see his tremendous fluidity and how comfortable he is with the ball. You can also see the soft finish with his left hand. When he refines his three point shot, which I’m sure he will do, he’s going to be a tremendous offensive weapon.

But then there’s the defensive side of the ball, where he struggled a lot in college. There’s really nothing good to say about Ellenson’s defense right now. He’s bad in the pick-and-roll, he’s bad on the perimeter, and he’s especially bad on the inside, where he can neither hold his position nor protect the rim. There’s also the unfortunate fact that he doesn’t try very hard on defense, which maybe partially explains his ability offensively. One thing you can’t say about Ellenson is that he doesn’t rebound, as he was just a tick away from averaging a double-double. But I feel like I could score on Ellenson. Not a good sign. I think there are two possible NBA futures for Ellenson. In future #1, he devotes himself to improving on the defensive end and becomes a playable (albeit still below-average) defender. Future #1 Ellenson is a good starter, a guy who can play 35 minutes per game on a playoff team. Future #1 Ellenson is worth a pick in the 4-7 range. In future #2, Ellenson improves his three point shot but stays dreadful on defense. Future #2 Ellenson is a role player but an important one, playing close to 20 minutes per game on a playoff team. He can carry the offense when the star player is on the bench but will rarely find his way onto the court in crunch time. Future #2 Ellenson might be worth a pick at the end of the lottery (although I probably wouldn’t take him until later, since I value defense pretty highly). That pretty much covers Ellenson. His real draft range may well be that 4-14 range I just laid out, and whether or not the pick will be a good one will depend on how much his defense improves.

Three of the big men were key players for their college teams. Deyonta Davis, a member of the Michigan State Spartans and the #22 recruit in the Class of 2015, was not. He played 18.6 minutes per game for Sparty, scoring 7.5 points on 60% shooting and grabbing 5.5 rebounds per contest. But while Davis, who played behind senior Matt Costello, didn’t play a lot, he certainly flashed some potential when he did play. Davis should provide good defense right off the bat. He’s big and strong at 6’10” and 240 pounds, and his 7’2″ wingspan should allow him to be a great rim defender. Unlike a lot of big men, Davis looks like he belongs on a basketball court, as he’s both extremely athletic and very fluid and agile. His 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in just 18.6 minutes show that he’ll likely be a good shot blocker and rebounder immediately. He also has offensive potential, although that will probably manifest itself further down the line. For a raw player, Davis actually has some offensive moves. This hook shot missed, but you can see how fluid it is:

He averaged .98 points per post possession, which isn’t an elite number but is good enough to convince me that he won’t be the traditional offensive stiff who only impacts the game on defense. He also has nice touch on his midrange jumper and doesn’t exhibit any of the frantic, disjointed offensive play that has characterized poor offensive big men. I don’t think he’ll ever be a good three point shooter, but if he can extend his range to 16-18 feet, he can be a solid offensive player. At the very least, he’s showed the offensive potential to be considered an interesting prospect and a potential pick anywhere after the top half of the lottery.

Neither Chriss nor Ellenson made the NCAA tournament. Davis made it but was knocked out in the first round (in maybe the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history). Domantas Sabonis, though, starred in the tournament, making it out of the first weekend and dominating Jakub Poeltl in a second round matchup. Sabonis’s Zags lost (very) big man Przemek Karnowski early in the season, which allowed Sabonis to star alongside versatile power forward Kyle Wiltjer all season. Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, shooting 61% from the field and 77% from the line. In three tournament games, he scored 59 points, grabbed 43 rebounds, and swatted eight shots. The Zags lost to Syracuse, but Sabonis nearly single-handedly lugged them to the Elite Eight. If you pick him in the first round, it won’t be because of his physical traits. Sabonis is 6’10”, but he also only has a 6’10” wingspan, short for a power forward and very short for a center. He also doesn’t have great leaping ability. No, if you pick Domantas in the first round, it’ll be because he’s deadly in the post. According to Synergy Sports, he ranked seventh in the country in post-up scoring and third in efficiency. He combines great footwork, body control, and mobility to make defenders (including Poeltl) look silly in the post. He shot 67% on post-ups. Here’s Sabonis scoring easily on Chriss in the post:

Of course, tremendous interior efficiency in college does not always carry over to the next level, so Sabonis probably lacks the offensive certainty that Ellenson will likely give the team that picks him. If you inferred from the 12 rebounds per game that Sabonis is likely to be a good rebounder at the next level, you’d be right. He has good instincts and always seems to be in the right place for rebounds. His defense is shaky, albeit not as bad as Ellenson’s. The effort is there and Sabonis is a fine post defender, but he can’t stay with quicker power forwards. Regardless of whether he becomes a good defender or not, Sabonis is likely to have a long NBA career due to his post ability and willingness to do the dirty work.

Ranking of the four:
Davis (I love his athleticism and the offensive potential he showed in college)
Ellenson (I trust his offense)
Chriss (the upside is tantalizing)
Sabonis (won’t be a star, but I’d love to have him on my team)

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