Archive for May, 2017

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/29/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Can the Nashville Predators stop the Pittsburgh Penguins in their quest to repeat? In a Cup Final that’s been largely flying under the radar, that’s probably the top storyline. But it’s not my favorite storyline. As someone who’s gotten rather sick of Pittsburgh’s sustained success over the last decade, I’d rather focus on their opponents. How about those Predators fans?? They have sooo many great, famous fans (read: bandwagon celebrity fans)! There’s Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ offensive line… The Predators are getting their highest ratings ever and are playing in an arena that’s the loudest in the NHL, at least according to a Ducks player. They’re 7-1 at home in the playoffs. And they play in Nashville! This is quite the success story for commissioner Gary Bettman, which means I’m not really a fan of this storyline, either. Let’s get on to the actual hockey.

The Predators are 12-4 in the playoffs, and they’re 9-1 when they score at least three goals. That’s because they’ve been getting outstanding performance after outstanding performance from Pekka Rinne, who was a mediocre goaltender during the regular season. Rinne leads postseason goalies with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. He has to be the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. And yet, I keep expecting him to regress to his regular season numbers. If that happens in this series, the Predators are toast. They need their goalie to keep standing on his head for them, because they have a lot less room for error than the Penguins. That’s especially true given that they’re going to be without their top center, Ryan Johansen, for the entire series. Johansen may have been Nashville’s most crucial player through the first three rounds outside of Rinne. His loss would hurt against anyone, but it could prove especially costly against a team with two good centers (Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen) and two otherworldly ones (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Nobody can replace Johansen, but at least Nashville’s second line center, captain Mike Fisher, is a capable, stout player. With that being said, he’s far from the chance producer that Johansen is. Fisher has been held pointless through 14 playoff games despite logging 17 minutes of ice time per game. Nashville’s likely going to have to find its scoring from other sources. It’ll be interesting to see how Johansen’s former line mates, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, play without their center. Nashville’s top line was one of the best and most productive in the NHL all season (and especially in the playoffs. Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Johansen are +17, +13, and +12 respectively), which is why it’s such a heartbreaker that Johansen’s going to be out. Forsberg and Arvidsson are good enough to produce even without Johansen, and they’re certainly going to have to be firing on all cylinders against the Penguins and their multitude of scoring options.

The Predators could also seek more scoring from their talented defensemen. I expect Nashville’s blueliners to be aggressive early and often, with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm looking for shooting lanes and springing odd man rushes. You get the feeling that it’s going to be pretty tough for the Predators to create much in settled situations, so look for them to try to fling shots on net and get in the head of goalie Matt Murray. One thing’s for sure: this Nashville team isn’t likely to rally from two or three goals down. They’re best suited to play low scoring games.

The problem is that I’m not sure Pittsburgh’s forwards are going to let the games be low scoring. The Penguins lead the NHL with 3.05 goals per postseason game, and they led the NHL with 3.44 goals per game in the regular season. Whereas last year they got huge performances out of a lot of complimentary players, this year they’ve largely been powered by their star players. Malkin leads the NHL with 24 playoff points; Crosby is second with 20. Nashville’s as capable of slowing those guys down as anyone, as the four defensemen I mentioned earlier are great puck possessors and are also solid in their own zone. The challenge is that — and this is especially true now that Patric Hornqvist is back — there are still so many other weapons to be worried about. Phil Kessel is producing a point per game (seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs). After being elevated to the top line, Chris Kunitz scored two goals and assisted on a third in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 Game 7 win over Ottawa. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are very capable of scoring in bunches. On the surface, it seems like this is a mismatch. But it’s worth noting that, with the exception of Game 5 (a 7-0 Pittsburgh win), the Senators did a pretty good job against Pittsburgh’s talent. They gave up just 10 goals in the other six games, with goalie Craig Anderson often standing on his head to keep the puck out of the net (those 10 goals came on 206 shots, an average of more than 34 per game). Pekka Rinne is perfectly capable of keeping the Preds in the series, just as Anderson kept the Senators in the series. A double-overtime Game 7 loss is about as close to a win as I can imagine. But anyone watching that game knows what I mean when I say that it always seemed like the Penguins were going to be the team that broke the deadlock. I think this series could be very similar. The Predators are a tough team, and they’re a very good defensive team. They’ll keep things close. But the Penguins will be the aggressors late in close games, and it’ll seem like a matter of time until they put games away. Sometimes, the team that’s driving the play late ends up losing. More often, though, what seems inevitable does in fact come to fruition. We’ll never know what this series would have looked like with Johansen, but I’m pretty sure I would have picked Nashville to win. Unfortunately, I now don’t think the Predators will produce enough against a hot goalie (Murray was tremendous after replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the middle of the last round) to win four games. Pekka Rinne will have some huge moments, and it’ll be a tight series, but I like the Penguins to win it in 6.

I wrote about Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, and Lonzo Ball. Now it’s time to focus on two other likely top-10 picks. Neither Dennis Smith Jr. nor Frank Ntilikina gets the level of hype that Fultz, Fox, and Ball get, but each is a very exciting prospect in his own right.

15 months before he began his short career at NC State, Dennis Smith Jr. tore his ACL. That’s an important fact to remember. Most players — Smith included — are healthy enough to play without restrictions after 15 months, but it generally takes about two full years for players to regain their peak level of explosiveness. For a guy like Smith, who in high school was lauded for his athleticism and burst, losing even a little explosiveness can be big. It was evident that, although Smith looked plenty fast and explosive, he wasn’t the same guy who did this kind of stuff in high school:

That’s just something to keep in mind as we analyze Smith’s lone season at NC State. I’ll first address an issue that has nothing to do with his knee. One major criticism of Smith is the way he seemed to quit on NC State when the team struggled early in the season, leading to the firing of coach Mark Gottfried. The point guard certainly left a bad taste in the mouths of Wolfpack fans, as he often disappeared, leading to a lot of blowout losses. NC State ended up winning just four ACC games, and nine of their ACC losses came by double digits (including a 51 points loss to North Carolina). The criticism is fair, but it’s the same thing we hear about most college players who play for bad teams — very similar, in fact, to what we heard about Ben Simmons last year. If a team thinks Smith and De’Aaron Fox have similar upsides, that team probably would draft Fox because the Kentucky guard is a great teammate and a good leader. But once the top five or so prospects are off the board, I have a hard time believing that teams will pass on Smith simply because he took some plays off for a terrible college team. That’s not to say that Smith should even be on the board after the top five, because this ex-blue chip recruit could well become the second best point guard in this draft (he could end up better than Fultz, but that’s a lot less likely).

Considering the fact that he was coming off of a torn ACL, Smith’s numbers are pretty darn good. He averaged 18 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. Outside of Fultz, I think it’s pretty clear that Smith is the most likely point guard in this draft to become an elite scorer. He has the ability to create for himself on all three levels of the floor. He showed the strength to finish through contact at the rim and was aggressive enough to earn 6.3 free throw attempts per game. This is a fearless player, a guy who’s confident enough in his handle and his finishing ability to drive into the teeth of a defense and create easy buckets for himself, especially out of a pick-and-roll. He finished at the rim at a 61% clip, a really good percentage for a freshman point guard. He’s also going to be a good midrange shooter at the next level, when there’s more space on the court. Playing for an NC State team with very few shooters was clearly difficult for Smith, who’s best fit to attack a defense that has to worry about two or three threats to drain threes. The fact that Smith was able to average 6.2 assists per game is really impressive, especially given who his teammates were. He’s a very good passer, especially out of the pick-and-roll situations that are so common in the NBA. He shows the potential to be a tremendous all-around point guard, with a knack to find points for himself and to get his teammates involved. Of course, he’s nowhere near the complete floor general that Lonzo Ball is. While he has the talent and passing ability to get there, his decision making was often subpar and his body language was sometimes downright atrocious. These are issues that, while certainly correctable, often linger into a player’s NBA career. It’s easier to imagine a player improving his decision making than, say, his athleticism, which is why Smith is so alluring as a prospect, but it’s definitely dangerous to simply expect these issues to go away. I expect Smith to be a turnover-prone point guard, at least early on.

I’ve talked about the reasons Smith’s stock has gone down slightly since this time last year. Another of those reasons was the fact that he played lackluster defense for the ACC’s worst defensive team. With a short wingspan (about the same size as his height, 6’3″), Smith probably will never be able to consistently guard anyone other than the opposing point guard. He’s certainly nowhere near the defensive prospect Ntilikina is. But I’ve mentioned before that point guards are more and more often being protected defensively by long-armed wings, and that should play to Smith’s advantage at the next level. Besides, he certainly has the athleticism and instincts to wreak havoc on opposing point guards, as evidenced by his 1.9 steals per contest last year.

Here’s a reason Smith’s stock may have gone up over the past year: his shot is clearly improving. A low 30s% shooter from three in high school, he shot 35.9% last year, and he had 10 games with 3+ three point makes. He’s definitely still a streaky shooter (he had a four game stretch during which he shot 15-26 from three), but given that the degree of difficulty of his shots was generally pretty high (NBA-range and off the dribble, often with a hand in his face), the near-36% shooting portends well for his shot in the future. He’s just a 71.5% free throw shooter, and he struggled at shooting off the catch, but the shot is less of a concern than it was a year ago. It’ll still be quite some time before Smith is good enough off the ball to be anything but a ball-dominant point guard, something that should be right up the alley of a point guard needy team (like Sacramento or the Knicks) but could worry a team in need of a combo guard who can play off the ball (like Philadelphia).

Overall, I think Smith Jr. is being underrated by most draftniks. His potential is through the roof as a scorer and a facilitator, and he has the athleticism to be in the same class as Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.


I have never watched Frank Ntilikina live. I didn’t catch the U18 European Championships, and, as hard as I tried, I never found a Strasbourg game on TV. But I’ve watched a lot of Frank Ntilikina Youtube, and it’s clear to me that he should easily be a lottery pick. The first thing that stands out is that this guy has the potential to be a great defender. Check out this possession in the U18 Euros:

He’s got great lateral quickness, great defensive instincts, quick hands, and, most obviously, super long arms. Ntilikina is 6’5″, and his wingspan has to be close to 7’0″. In that tournament, he averaged 3.2 steals and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes, albeit against far from elite competition. I think he has the potential to be an elite level defender.

He also shot a ridiculous 58.6% from three in that tournament, a performance that screams “small sample size!” Ntilikina obviously isn’t that good, but all evidence does point to him being a good shooter from range. He shot close to 41% from beyond the arc for Strasbourg, with a nice looking stroke.

A player who can defend multiple positions well and knock down threes is already a very valuable commodity — a 3-and-D player. Remember how hard it is to find those?

The reason that Ntilikina is unlikely to go before #8 is that his upside seems fairly limited. Most top point guard prospects have Youtube video after Youtube video of blow-by dunks, step-back threes, and nifty dimes (see: Smith Jr., Dennis, a player created for Youtube). Ntilikina doesn’t, and it isn’t only because he’s European. He really struggles to create for himself and to finish at the rim. He attempted only .9 free throws in 18.6 minutes per game for Strasbourg. He only shot 42.4% from two point range in the U18 Euros, and he often struggled to finish in the half-court offense. And while he has pretty good court vision, Ntilikina also isn’t great at creating offense for his teammates. His 1.4 assists per game for Strasbourg are evidence that he’s probably better off as a secondary ball-handler and distributor, perhaps in the mold of Patrick Beverley with Houston. A player who can spot up from three, pass the ball well, and play great defense is a valuable commodity. Ntilikina can do all of that. But will he ever be able to do much more? I don’t think so, which is why it’ll be tough for me to put him in the top half of the lottery. That skill set, though, is strong enough for Ntilikina to remain a no-doubt lottery pick, especially since I think he’s a lot safer than other guys who might go in that range (like OG Anunoby or Ike Anigbogu). You might be wondering why I’m higher on Jonathan Isaac, another guy who profiles as a 3-and-D role player. It’s because I think Isaac has higher upside — I could see him being a guy who could get his own shot in a few years, something I don’t think will ever be part of Ntilikina’s game. If he’s drafted into the right situation, I think Ntilikina could peak as a very good role player for a good team. That’s a really valuable thing, but it’s not a star. That’s what’ll likely keep Ntilikina from going before Fultz, Ball, Smith, or Fox.

Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox?

Posted: 05/26/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

We’ve established that Markelle Fultz is the no-doubt #1 guard (and overall) prospect in the draft. That’s good for the Celtics, who don’t have to worry about any of this. But for everyone else… who’s the second best PG prospect in the draft? How do Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, and Frank Ntilikina compare? Let’s find out.

I think that the Fultz vs. Ball debate of the college season has become more of a Ball vs. Fox debate in the aftermath of Fox’s annihilation of Ball in the Sweet 16. That was the game that propelled Fox into the top-five discussion. He scored 39 points on 20 shots, going 13-15 from the line and holding a seemingly timid Ball to just 10 points. To make matters worse for Lonzo, the Bruin declared for the NBA draft in the postgame interview and seemed rather unbothered about the loss. This doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, but juxtapose it with Fox’s reaction to UK’s loss in the Elite Eight, and, well, it’s obvious who you’d rather have fight for you on the basketball court.

So that was the beginning of the debate between Fox and Ball. Then came the reports that the Lakers were working out Fox and the news that they’d pick second in the draft, setting up a clear choice between Ball — the guy everyone has expected them to take all along — and Fox — the up-and-comer.

I’ll say right away that I understand that some fans don’t want to have to deal with LaVar Ball — Lonzo’s, er, eccentric father. But I really only think that the LaVar thing will be an issue in the NBA if Lonzo underperforms expectations and struggles. If Lonzo’s a star player, he’s going to be at the center of attention, and nothing I’ve seen him say or do has led me to believe that he’s anything but an even-keeled player. In fact, as a player he’s the polar opposite of what you’d expect from LaVar Ball’s son. His greatest strength is his brain. I cannot overstate how smart Ball is and how high his basketball IQ is. His passing is obviously Exhibit A. He averaged 7.6 assists and just 2.5 turnovers per game, darn good numbers for a freshman point guard. But beyond the numbers, he also transformed the UCLA Bruins, serving as the straw that stirred the drink for a team that won 31 games, more than twice as many as it did the year before, when coach Steve Alford was seemingly on his way out.

One reason that Ball has become so tantalizing as a prospect is that he’s a flashy passer. Another is that he’s a brilliant transition player, showing the rare ability to grab a rebound (he’s 6’6″ and has a 6’9″ wingspan, which along with his instincts allowed him to average six boards a game, obviously an elite number for a point guard) and immediately push the pace. UCLA didn’t just beat teams last year — they obliterated them, giving them a knockout punch in the form of a quick 10-0 or 18-4 run. They broke 100 points nine times and finished second in the country in points per game and first in assists. Not all of that was because of Ball. I mentioned this in my effort to laud Fultz, but I think it bears repeating: Ball had an embarrassment of riches around him, especially offensively. Fellow freshman one-and-done T.J. Leaf is set to be a first round pick because he’s a terrific scorer. Ball was joined in the backcourt by senior sharpshooter Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, and Isaac Hamilton, all of whom averaged more than 12 points per game. And for long stretches it seemed as if Thomas Welsh could not miss a midrange shot. But there’s no denying the fact that Ball was the driving force behind all of this.

A third, and probably most important, reason that Ball is a tantalizing prospect is that he seems to fit so perfectly into the modern NBA. He made only 12 shots all season that were neither layups/dunks nor three pointers. A lot of people are painting that as a good thing, and there’s probably good reason for that. I don’t see the NBA moving away from the trend towards threes and layups anytime soon. But the 12 shot stat actually worries me more than it pleases me. The biggest reason I’m not sold on Ball as the #2 pick is that I’m not sold on his scoring potential. It used to be that the best point guards weren’t putting the ball in the bucket as much as the elite players at other positions. Look at Jason Kidd, perhaps Ball’s best case scenario. In his greatest statistical season, Kidd put up 19-6-9, making his fourth straight All-Star game. Kidd ended up making 10 All-Star games, and he’s now thought of as one of the best point guards ever. But guess what? Last year, every All-Star guard averaged better than 20 points per game. 12 point guards averaged 20+ per contest. There’s no Kidd in today’s NBA, and of course a Jason Kidd would be hugely valuable in any era. But teams are looking for their lead guards — and especially their #2 picks — to blossom into guys who can score 22 or 23 points per night… at least. Here are a number of reasons that I don’t expect Ball to ever reach those heights:

  • I find it hard to believe that Ball, with his wonky shot mechanics, is going to be a 41% three point shooter in the NBA. That’s what he was in college, and I have to admit that at some point you just have to ignore the way the shot looks and just accept that the guy’s a good three point shooter. But I’m not at that point yet, especially since Lonzo shot just 67% from the free throw line. I do believe Ball has a high floor as a shooter — maybe 33 or 34%, which is just fine — but I think 38 or 39% might be his upper range. And yes, his low release point does continue to worry me, results be damned.
  • He doesn’t draw fouls. Free throw attempts are fairly translatable from college to the NBA, and Ball attempted just 2.7 free throws per contest. That’s because he almost always chose to pass the ball rather than taking a tough shot off the dribble.
  • In the pick-and-roll, where a lot of guards score a lot of their points, Ball almost always passes. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but we’re nitpicking. I think now we’re starting to see why Fultz should be the consensus #1.
  • He’s not athletic or quick enough to blow by people. He’s not slow or stiff, but his first step is much slower than, say, De’Aaron Fox’s. That’s not a fair comparison, because Fox relies heavily upon his speed and athleticism, but even if you compare Ball’s first step to Stephen Curry’s, you can see that Ball’s going to be rather limited in terms of his ability to create easy looks for himself.

And yet, Ball remains an immensely desirable offensive talent. Unlike many pass-first guards (I’m looking at you, Rajon Rondo), Ball is a very useful player to have off the ball. Because he played on such a talented UCLA team, we got to see him off the ball quite a bit, and he is always moving, cutting, and trying to get open:

He was also a knockdown shooter in catch-and-shoot situations from everywhere on the court. I’m very confident that Ball will find a way to be valuable offensively even when he doesn’t have the ball. That’s why he could prove appealing for a team that already has a primary ballhandler — say, the Sixers with Ben Simmons. Let’s just say that adding a high IQ guard who can shoot and always makes the right pass is never a bad thing for a struggling offense.

That was long, but I felt like all of it needed to be said, because Ball is the most divisive top prospect in the draft (largely because of his father, but still). There’s much more of a consensus about Ball’s defense. It’s what you’d expect: he has the instincts to cause havoc and the size to play decent defense, but he’s not quick or bursty enough to profile as a great defender. In other words, he’s perfectly suitable as the guy covering the less potent guard threat.


If you watched the video I posted above and/or DeAaron Fox’s performance against UCLA, there’s no way you don’t love him. If you watched his quiet, foul-plagued, frustrating performance against North Carolina, you’re probably a bit puzzled about why Fox has catapulted into the top five of most mock drafts. That’s Fox: enigmatic, brilliant, and overflowing with potential. The John Wall comparisons are lazy — yes, we all know they’re both fast, they both went to Kentucky, and neither had a lick of a three point shot coming out of college. Heck, they’re even the same height (6’4″). But Wall was much stouter coming out of college (at least 25 pounds heavier than Fox’s 171) and his wingspan is three inches longer. Fox is a great athlete, but he’s not the physical specimen that Wall has been since he was the consensus #1 pick in 2010. Fox is also left-handed, and it’s hard to compare a lefty to a righty. But the fact is that speed is such a central part of both Fox’s game and Wall’s game that the comparisons are unavoidable. I think the comparisons are lazy, but I also think that Fox could turn out to be as good as Wall is. But he has a long way to go.

I think he has the potential to be a more complete scorer than Ball is. He already excels at many of the things Ball struggles to do. I mentioned that he went 13-15 from the line against UCLA. Fox averaged 5.9 free throw attempts per game in 29.6 minutes per contest. He used his quick, spindly frame to free himself for open midrange look after open midrange look (part of that, of course, is that other teams were daring him to shoot those shots. More on that in a second). He used his sneaky strength and his athleticism to finish tough shots at the rim, although more consistency would be ideal. He only shot 36% from midrange jumpers, but he at least showed that he can vary his offensive game, which could allow him to explode if he fixes his shot. And he’s obviously a great transition player, thanks largely to his speed. More than 35% of his points came on the fastbreak.

As a playmaker, Fox is hit-or-miss, certainly not on Ball’s level. As he became more aggressive late in the season, his assist numbers trended down, and he ended up averaging just 4.6 assists per game (Wall averaged 6.5 in his lone season at Kentucky, by the way). He made some outstanding reads and passes, setting up a lot of easy Bam Adebayo dunks. But he’s nowhere near where he needs to be as a floor general. He’s also only 19, and that’s something that will surely improve with experience. If your major worry about Fox is his distribution, you should take him in a heartbeat. I think he’ll end up being a good facilitator, albeit probably not on Wall’s (or Ball’s) level. But nobody’s biggest concern is Fox’s distribution…

It’s his shot. Fox’s shot doesn’t look bad, but it is horrendous. He shot 24.6% from three point range, and not much better from midrange. He hit two threes in the Elite Eight against North Carolina, but that was atypical. He only had two other games with 2+ three pointers made all season. And if we’ve learned nothing else from the last few years, we’ve learned that ball-dominant point guards who can’t shoot are huge liabilities offensively. Just look at Elfrid Payton, a lottery pick who was set to be a steal “as long as he could figure out how to shoot.” He never has, and some guys never do. In order to consider Fox a top three pick, you must think that Fox will develop some semblance of a jump shot. He at least has to hit on his midrange shots and keep opponents honest from three. Best case scenario is a Wall-like progression from three — Wall went from shooting sub-30% in his first three years to about 35%, also known as good enough. Fox can return top-10 value without figuring out how to shoot much, because he’s a more dynamic player than Payton. He’s also a great defensive player. Fox is tenacious, laterally quick, and can disrupt passing lanes with his long arms or opposing guards with his quick hands. He still needs to get stronger, but he could easily be an elite defensive point guard. I hate to be so simplistic, but it really all hinges on the shot. If it becomes average, Fox is an All-Star. If it’s 24.6%, he’s a role player. If it’s in between, he’s probably a solid starter.

I went into this thinking I would prefer Fox to Ball, largely because that’s what I was thinking after that Sweet 16 game. And I do believe that Fox has the higher overall upside. But I’m just so scared of his shot, and I know that I’m going to get a valuable offensive contributor in Lonzo. I think it’s fairly close, but I think Ball’s a better prospect than Fox is.

Markelle Fultz is a Slam Dunk

Posted: 05/21/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

We’ve been hearing for years (years!) that the 2017 NBA Draft featured a bumper crop of point guards. 247 Sports’s composite rankings for the HS Class of 2016 had five point guards in its top seven: Lonzo Ball (second), Markelle Fultz (fourth), Frank Jackson (fifth), De’Aaron Fox (sixth), and Dennis Smith Jr. (seventh). Throw in Belgian point guard Frank Ntilikina, who’s been ranked in or around the top ten of mock drafts all year, and things were looking very good for point guard needy teams. One year later? As is often the case, things look about the same. Jackson has fallen out of the conversation, and will now probably be a late first round or second round pick, but the other five remain locked in the lottery of every prospect ranking in the country, and Fultz and Ball are pretty much the consensus #1 and #2 players (you’ll soon find out that I don’t fully agree with that consensus). I’ll be writing about Ball, Fultz, Fox, Smith, and (to an extent) Ntilikina in the upcoming days. Let’s start with the guy who is easily the best player in this draft class.

Every so often, there are top draft prospects who are most noteworthy not for any one or two specific skills but rather for their lack of weaknesses. Karl-Anthony Towns was one. There haven’t been many. Just look at the rest of the top of this year’s draft class: Ball (can’t create for himself, limited defensive upside), Jackson (can’t shoot), Fox (can’t shoot), Jonathan Isaac (can’t create for himself), Jayson Tatum (one-dimensional scorer), Malik Monk (one-dimensional shooter)… the fact is that most players, and even most good players, have a glaring weakness. Markelle Fultz doesn’t. The guy just has it all. He hasn’t yet turned 19-years-old, making him one of the youngest players in the class. He’s 6’4″ with a near-6’10” wingspan. He’s super athletic, can jump out of a gym, and is the smoothest player in the class. The measurables and athleticism are all there… but most of all, Fultz can flat out ball. I didn’t watch many Washington games, both because of my East Coast bias and because Washington was a terrible basketball team, but whenever I did (the one game I remember most distinctly is a Washington-Arizona game. Fultz put up 26 points on 16 shots, and the Huskies lost handily. In other words, a typical performance), I was stunned by just how well-rounded he was offensively. He shot 41% from three point range and has a sweet looking jump shot (although I don’t know what was going on with his feet on the last few in this video).

He averaged nearly six rebounds and six assists per game. His 36% assist percentage (percentage of baskets assisted by a player when he’s on the court, excluding his own baskets) was second-best in the draft class behind Jawun Evans. Lonzo Ball’s the guy who gets all the plaudits for his passing ability, and Ball does indeed make some incredible passes, but I’d argue that Fultz is nearly as good of a passer, something that will be evident when the talent around him resembles what Lonzo played with at UCLA. His court vision and unselfishness make him an ideal point guard. Ignore the French — this is a really good video.

He can also get a bucket for himself whenever he wants, either at the rim or from midrange. That’s important, because I think teams that totally abandon midrange shots (a la Houston) are failing to realize that your offense needs alternatives when it struggles, especially in the playoffs when everyone knows what to expect. Look at the Warriors, who can get a barrage of threes but can also give the ball to Kevin Durant and let him drain 18-footers and who have role players like Shaun Livingston and David West who excel at hitting midrange shots. Fultz can elevate and drain those shots — his pull-up jumper has the potential to be lethal in the NBA. Another thing he can do? Play off the ball, serving as a secondary ball-handler. This is another key skill for a player on a championship-caliber team, because most great teams have multiple guys who need the ball in their hands. Fultz shot 38% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, a percentage I expect to go up when his shot mechanics are even better and when there’s more spacing.

It’s pretty hard to imagine a better pick-and-roll prospect. Fultz has the ability to dribble in tight spaces, find passes, shoot off the dribble, drive to the rim, or step back for a three. Watch this and remember that Fultz is still 18!

And this:

That’s just so rare.

Fultz can obviously improve offensively. He shot just 65% from the line, which could hint to some real shooting struggles early in his NBA career. I’m not as worried about his shot as I am about Jackson’s, because Fultz shot better in college and because his jump shot is clearly smoother and more consistent. He’s not turnover-prone (3.2 turnovers per game in 35.7 minutes isn’t bad for a player who always had the ball in his hands), but he can sometimes get lazy and force bad passes or get stripped. Other than that? I’ve got nothing. In all the areas where most young players struggle — shooting off the dribble, finishing with the off hand, distributing, attacking a pick-and-roll, balancing an individual offensive game with the need to get teammates going — Fultz is terrific.

Defensively, Fultz isn’t nearly as polished as he is offensively. He obviously has the size and athleticism to be a very good defensive player, and his work ethic off the court is clearly very good. But his defensive focus and intensity isn’t where it needs to be at this point. The reason I’m not at all worried about this, and the reason I don’t expect Fultz to ever consistently be a lockdown defender, is that point guards are being relied on more and more offensively and less and less defensively. I think a very fair comparison for Fultz would be a righty James Harden who’s not quite as much of a liability on the defensive end. If Harden really wanted to expend energy and effort on the defensive end of the ball, he could be a good defensive player. He just chooses not too — and his coach fully concurs with that choice. I think Fultz could easily be that type of player.

I’m not one of the people who worries a whole lot about a player’s college success. As we’ve seen time after time, it’s impossible for one player (let alone one freshman) to transcend a crappy team with a crappy coach. The Huskies went 9-22, but Fultz was so obviously not the problem that I think people are feeling uncomfortable with how not the problem he was and are thus calling him part of the problem (if that makes any sense). Fultz reminds me of a guard version of Towns, who I mentioned earlier. His floor is very high, and his ceiling is very high. The worst-case scenario, I think, is Harden-lite, a player who fills it up offensively and takes a lot of plays off defensively but who doesn’t quite have Harden’s ability to carry an offense. That’s pretty darn good! The best-case scenario is that Fultz proves to have a super high motor, allowing him to use his size and speed compete on the defensive end while providing Harden-level production offensively. That’s one of the best players in the NBA! It might be tough to judge how good Fultz is right away, because unlike Towns and almost every #1 overall pick he’s going to be playing for a contending team (barring a trade or a surprise). I think it’ll be tough for Boston to keep Fultz off the court, but the Celtics do already have a lot of pretty good guards, including one of the NBA’s top scorers. It’ll be interesting to see how the minutes are allotted in Boston next year if Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, and Fultz are all on the team. One thing’s for sure: Markelle Fultz is one of the best guard prospects in the 21st century and is the no-doubt best player in this draft.

Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum

Posted: 05/16/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

It’s a big night in the NBA, with Game 2 of the Warriors-Spurs series and, more importantly, the NBA draft lottery. I’m not going to preview the NBA Conference Finals, because both matchups lack intrigue, especially now that Kawhi Leonard is injured. Here’s my quick prediction: neither the Cavs nor the Warriors will enter the Finals undefeated, but neither will have more than two losses. In other words, both Golden State and Cleveland will win in five or six games and roll into the Finals, which, I would argue, is where the playoffs really start (because this Finals matchup has been a foregone conclusion for so long). And while I know a lot of people/websites are doing it, I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen in the lottery tonight, because come on. Instead of writing about the playoffs or the lottery, I’m going to focus on the players that conventional wisdom says are the premier wings in the draft: Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum.

Let me say this right away: I’m not going to speculate about Josh Jackson’s off-court issues, because I know nothing about them. The misdemeanor property charge is definitely something teams will have to look into, but I’m going to ignore it for the sake of this post, not because I don’t think it’s an important consideration. I love Josh Jackson as a player, because he’s the one guy in the draft who left an obvious imprint on every game he played in. It’s rare that a college player, and especially a college freshman, can find a way to positively impact a game when he’s not scoring. Jackson’s top selling point is that he can do that. There are a few types of intriguing defensive prospects. There are raw, long, athletic, high-potential players who often disappeared in college games. There are scrappy, high-effort players who generally find their niches in the NBA. And then, very rarely, there are athletic, active, high-potential, high-effort guys. Josh Jackson is one of those guys. Jackson’s a 6’8″ wing with a 6’10” wingspan. He is always active on the defensive end, and he averaged 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game in 31 minutes per contest. He’s very laterally quick, and he makes up for his relative lack of length with outstanding anticipation skills and a great basketball IQ. He’s strong enough to guard power forwards and quick enough to guard point guards. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of wings switching on screens in the NBA. Based solely on his physical skills, Jackson is the prototypical NBA wing defender. Just as important, though, is the fact that Jackson clearly enjoys playing defense and takes pride in his ability to shut down a star player. A lot of players should be defense-first; few actually embrace that role.

Offensively, Jackson usually found a way to impact Kansas’s games. He scored in single figures just three times all year despite averaging just 12.3 shots per game as Kansas’s second or third option. He’s quietly a very unselfish, smart, and good passer, as he averaged three assists per game and excelled at making the extra pass to turn a decent look into a great one, a skill that’s very important to have in the NBA, where spacing is king. He’s a menace in fastbreak situations, with the athleticism and body control to finish at the rim. He’s not as good in the halfcourt offense, but few guys are coming out of college. The real question, of course is his shot. On the surface, there’s nothing to worry about: Jackson shot 38% from three in his lone season at Kansas. He finished the season on a 25-for-52 tear from beyond the arc. But he shot just 57% from the line, and he has a really funky release. Watch this clip and tell me you think Jackson will be a good tree point shooter at the next level:

If he’s going to be a legit 37% three point shooter in the NBA, Jackson should be at least the #2 pick in the draft, because everything else is the real deal. On a team with Frank Mason, the Naismith Player of the Year, Jackson was clearly the team’s most important player — they lost to TCU in the lone game he missed. I find it hard to believe that Jackson will never become at least a suitable shooter, which is why I like him so much as a prospect. But even if he’s a 30% three point shooter, he’ll find ways to score the ball and to be a key contributor at the next level. The sky is the limit for Jackson, but I don’t think his floor is as low as some have made it out to be, thanks to his selflessness, his competitiveness, his defensive ability, and his basketball IQ.

Offensively, Jayson Tatum is the most polished player in the draft. I hate to use that word, because it’s the one everyone uses to describe Tatum’s offensive game, but it really is apt. Give Tatum the ball in the post, and he’ll outmuscle smaller players or deke past big men (1.303 points per possession in the post, 99th percentile). Give it to him on the wing and clear out, because he can take a slow defender to the hoop or pull up from midrange against a smaller player. Tatum’s a great isolation player, because he’s both big (6’8 with a 6’11” wingspan and a wide frame that should make him a force to be reckoned with as he fills out) and fluid. He has a whole bag of tricks, from crossovers to hesitation dribbles to fadeaways. If you want a guy who can find his own midrange shot, Tatum’s your guy. The problem is that the NBA is quickly moving away from isolation ball and midrange shots. The Raptors flamed out against the Cavs in the second round, partly because they didn’t have LeBron James but also because their offensive gameplan — which was predicated on a lot of isolation ball and midrange shots — was no match for Cleveland’s barrage of three pointers. Tatum shot just 34% from three at Duke, largely because he has a slow release that makes it difficult to get an open look unless he’s wide open. To be a great offensive weapon on the wing in this day and age, you pretty much have to shoot threes. DeMar DeRozan put up a lot of points this season, but when push came to shove he was pretty easy to slow down in the playoffs, because opponents could sag off of him, forcing him to give the ball up or take a three. Tatum did show some passing upside, and I’m confident that he could fit in a more free-flowing offense, just as I’m just DeRozan could do the same. But if Tatum’s really an offense-only player, his offensive game is not good enough to justify a top-five selection.

Defensively, Tatum’s probably better than he’s given credit for. He’s not a flashy athlete, but he’s versatile enough to guard both forward positions pretty well. He’s a good defensive rebounder, and he averaged 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. There’s no reason to expect him to be a premier defender, and I certainly wouldn’t want him guarding Kevin Durant, but there’s also no reason to believe he won’t fit in well in a good defensive scheme that provides plenty of support for a wing defender. It’s hard to get excited about his defensive upside when he’s compared to Josh Jackson, but I could easily see him defending as well as Justin Jackson, a guy who got a lot of plaudits for his defensive performances in the NCAA tournament. I think Tatum will be solid defensively, and if he’s solid defensively, he has a really high floor as a skilled role player who provides a lot of offense in 25-30 minutes per game. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is, and I’d disagree with the people who say he’s a future 27-30 points per game scorer, because I don’t think he’s athletic enough or a good enough shooter to consistently score that much. But Tatum’s definitely a guy I’d like to have on my team.

If it wasn’t clear before this, I prefer Jackson to Tatum, because I’m more confident in his ability to always positively impact a game and because I think he fits in better in the modern NBA. Jackson’s my #2 prospect in this draft class. But Tatum’s a darn good prospect in his own right and someone I’ll probably have in the 5-7 range of my final big board.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/12/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Two rounds into the NHL playoffs, we’re left with a question we have had to ask a lot recently: can anyone stop the Pittsburgh Penguins? I really believed that this would be the year that the Capitals would finally exorcize their black and yellow demons and advance to the third round (and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup). But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals dropped three of the first four games, saw the pressure on them drop substantially, and then win two straight to set up Game 7. With the pressure back on, they came out all guns blazing in the first period but failed to score, and they eventually fell quietly, losing 2-0 and showing very little fight in the third period. I don’t usually subscribe to this type of theory, but it really felt like the moment was again too big for the Caps. Facing a team with a ton of playoff experience (they won the Cup last year, after all), the pressure got to them. This quote from Nick Backstrom speaks volumes: “We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games.” Sure, the Caps were down 3-1 in the series. But they fought back and had a Game 7 ON THEIR HOME ICE! The Backstrom quote fits in with the general theme of the Capitals lacking postseason confidence. I’d bet that Capitals fans are very torn about their team right now. They’ve won consecutive President’s Trophies, but they always flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Could we see the Caps blow it up this summer with a trade of Alex Ovechkin and others? After 13 years of consistent playoff disappointments, I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Penguins have now beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets (+54 GD, 108 points) and Capitals (+81, 118) in the first two rounds. Of the other three teams left in the playoffs, the Ducks were easily the best regular season team (+23, 105 points). The Penguins also have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, good secondary scoring, and a scorching hot Marc-Andre Fleury. The narrative should be about the Penguins. But this Penguins team isn’t that great! Fleury is going to cool off because he’s not that good, and the Penguins are missing Kris Letang, their top defenseman. The return of Matt Murray gives the Penguins insurance for Fleury, but the point is that this is a very beatable team that’s really thin at the blue line. Let’s get into the two matchups.

Penguins over Senators in 6:

The Senators have done very well to get this far. This feels like a long time ago, but the Senators lost 10 of their final 15 regular season games and entered the playoffs with a -2 goal differential, making them the only playoff team who allowed more goals than they scored. Thanks to the heroics of Erik Karlsson, an explosion from defensive-minded forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven goals in the playoffs, including four in one game), and some timely goals (5-1 in overtime), the Sens have squeaked through to the third round. They’re just a +1 in the playoffs, but they have a 7-2 record in one goal games. That’s a fluke, but some things don’t have time to correct themselves in the playoffs. Hopefully for Ottawa, the Sens’ performance in one goal games is one of those things.

It’d better be, because the Penguins have a pretty clear talent advantage in this series. With Crosby fully recovered from the concussion he suffered against the Capitals, they have their full allotment of offensive firepower. Malkin has 18 points in 12 playoff games, making him a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy (given to the best playoff performer). Crosby has 14 points in 11 games, and Jake Guentzel has nine goals. The fact that I haven’t even talked about the immensely talented Phil Kessel yet says it all. The Penguins have 41 goals in the playoffs, good for 3.42 per game. Now, the Senators are fairly stingy defensively, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson, who’s a solid goalie. I think they’ll get under Crosby’s skin a little bit and make things difficult for the Penguins. But Anderson is going to have to steal a couple of games for the Senators to win this series. Ottawa’s a gritty team, and Karlsson’s an outstanding player, but this is probably the right time for the Senators to be sent home.

Predators over Ducks in 6:

Aside from the Penguins, the Ducks have been the best offensive team in the playoffs. They also rank first of remaining teams in playoff Fenwick (shots+missed shots for over total shots, 54.68%). I can’t say I watched a lot of the Ducks in the regular season, so I don’t know if they’re playing a lot better than they did in the regular season, but their puck possession numbers suggest that they are. Going from below-average in the regular season to tops in the playoffs is a heck of a swing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that neither Calgary nor Edmonton is a great defensive team. The Nashville Predators have been great defensively in the playoffs. They’ve given up 14 goals in 10 games. Pekka Rinne has a .951 save percentage and has looked unbeatable at times. As I wrote about before the second round, the Preds have four tremendous defensemen (great now, maybe problematic come the expansion draft). Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Subban and Ekholm have been much more effective than Josi and Ellis so far in the playoffs, but all four are capable of slowing down the hot Anaheim attack. That’s the matchup to look out for in this game: can Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler keep up their barrage of shots at the net against Nashville’s defense? Can they get those shots past the red-hot Rinne?

Nashville’s offensive attack is much more balanced than Anaheim’s. While the Ducks rely on skilled forwards Getzlaf and Silfverberg (15 combined goals in 11 games), the Predators have been getting a lot of scoring from defensemen. Ellis leads the team with nine points, and Josi and Subban have eight and seven apiece. I wrote about Nashville’s great first line before the last round, and Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have continued to drive play when on the ice (all three have FF% of 54%+). But the goals dried up for them against St. Louis, as the first line tallied just two goals in the second round. Forsberg and Arvidsson were both 30 goal scorers, and they’re going to have to light the lamp more often. Luckily, they’re now facing a goalie who gave up three goals on six shots in Anaheim’s 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6. That game obviously inflates his save percentage, but even excluding it he had just a .909 save percentage against the Oilers. Gibson’s just 23-years-old, and this is his first playoffs as the full-time starter. It’s worth wondering whether fatigue is getting to him. If it is, and Gibson continues to give up three goals per game, the Ducks are going to have a tough time winning this series. He gave up 3+ goals in five of the seven games this series, and the Ducks went 3-2 in those games. But give the Predators three goals and they’re probably going to win. That’s why I’m taking Nashville in six games, setting up a pretty intriguing Stanley Cup Final (for neutral fans, probably the Final we should be rooting for if we want a good, long series).

The NBA Draft Lottery is next week, which means that the draft itself is not too far away. It’s time to start taking a deep dive into the prospects. For years, this draft class has been deemed the best in recent memory, lauded as perhaps being level talent-wise with the amazing 2003 draft (LeBron, Melo, Wade, Bosh, a ton of good role players). I don’t think it’s that great at the top, but I do agree that it’s deeper than recent drafts have been. Guys who will probably be late lottery picks this year might have gone in the top-10 last year. In particular, I’m thinking about three wings: OG Anunoby, Jonathan Isaac, and Justin Jackson. I was going to start off my draft preview by breaking down the loaded crop of point guards (five point guards will almost certainly go in the lottery, and maybe in the top-10). Instead, I’m going to take a look at the three guys I just mentioned. Not only are they evidence of the depth of this draft class, but Anunoby, Isaac, and Jackson also play at a position that’s quickly become the most coveted and toughest to find — small forward or, more accurately, wing. If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs, you know how much wings are tasked with. If they’re good enough defensively, they have to guard the opponent’s best player from the outset, because they are the position which generally best combines size and speed, both of which are needed in spades to have any hope of slowing down LeBron, Harden, Kawhi, or Durant, to name a few. And even if they aren’t defensive stoppers, wings regularly find themselves in difficult positions because they’re the guys who do most of the switching. I can imagine how tough it would be to be a wing defender against the Warriors or Cavs. Not only do you have to play impeccable on-ball defense, but you’re also put through endless screens and switches, endless cuts, and endless off-ball screens. And even if you do everything right, there’s still a 50-50 chance you’ll get called for a ticky-tack foul. That’s just the defensive side of the ball.

The hottest commodity in the NBA right now — besides superstar players, because duh — is 3-and-D wings. The “D” part is obvious — I just outlined how much wings have to do on the defensive end of the ball because they’re usually the most malleable players on the court. Offensively, most of the onus has been placed on point guards, who generally slack off on the defensive end of the ball. All wings have to do is hit threes to be considered valuable offensive contributors. The name of the modern game is floor spacing, and the more potent three point threats a team has, the easier it is to drive-and-kick or just drive-and-finish. Just watch the Rockets play. Of course, it’s a huge bonus for wings to be able to do more than just shoot the three and play defense. That’s how you go from being a valuable starter to being Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Gordon Hayward, all of whom are just a notch below the league’s elite wings. But guys like Robert Covington are enormously valuable, because it’s surprisingly hard to find 3-and-D players. So which of Isaac, Anunoby, and Jackson has the best chance of being a 3-and-D guy? Which of the three has the best chance to grow into an offensive fulcrum? Let’s find out.

I watched a lot of Florida State basketball last year, and sometimes I forgot that Jonathan Isaac was even on the court. I’ll say this right away: if you want a wing who can consistently get his own bucket, you’ll fall in love with Jayson Tatum (who I’ll write about in a different post). You won’t like Isaac. I do like Isaac, and I’m liking him more after watching playoff basketball and seeing the direction that the league is going in. Isaac is 6’11” and has a 7’1″ wingspan. He’s really thin right now, but in a few years I can absolutely see him being a small-ball center. He’s also a really fluid athlete who eats up opposing wings. A lot of big, athletic wings are said to have huge defensive potential, but few of them ever pan out. The biggest reason for that is a lack of foot speed that keeps wings from keeping up laterally with quick perimeter players. Isaac does not have this problem. His foot speed is probably his biggest selling point. It is unbelievably valuable to have a guy who can easily guard four positions, switch ball screens, and disrupt pick-and-rolls. I think Isaac can be one of the league’s premier wing defenders, a rare 6’11” forward who is quick enough to guard wings. A lot of this is based on his tools, but Isaac also produced really good defensive numbers last year. Playing 26.2 minutes per game, Isaac averaged 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He was the best defensive player on an overachieving Florida State defense. He also showed a willingness and ability to sky for rebounds despite his lack of brawn — he gobbled up 25% of available defensive rebounds when on the court, a good rate for a power forward, let alone a small forward. He’s going to be a solid NBA defender right away. His defensive potential is through the roof.

Offensively, Isaac’s potential is a lot lower. He’s not exactly a ball-stopper, but he’s pretty uncreative with the ball in his hands. He averaged more turnovers than assists, and he doesn’t have the bucket-making ability to fully make up for that, as he pulls up from midrange way more often than he takes it to the hoop. This can all be corrected, but he dribbles too much sometimes and often doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing on the offensive side. The one thing Isaac really has going for him is his shooting stroke. He was inconsistent from three in his lone year at Florida State, and ended up shooting just 35% from three. But he’s got good shot mechanics and hit 78% of his free throws, which probably means he’ll grow into a better NBA three point shooter. College three point percentages don’t mean everything. Josh Jackson (easily my favorite wing in the draft, but that’s another post) shot 38% from three, but Isaac’s a much better bet to hit on his long range shots in the NBA.

Is Isaac ever going to be a first or second offensive option? Probably not, no. He can definitely get more polished offensively, but it’s rare that this type of player blossoms into a go-to scorer. Of course, this is why he’s not in consideration for the #1 pick. At his best, Isaac could be the ultimate 3-and-D guy, a 38% three point shooter who regularly destroys opponents’ sets. Some team’s going to see that and take him in the lottery. I think he’s worth a top-7 pick, simply because his floor is so much higher than, say, Dennis Smith’s.

OG Anunoby has a different body type than Jonathan Isaac, but he has the same type of game and upside. He’s a young sophomore, as he’s not yet 20-years-old and is just a few months older than Isaac. He also tore his ACL in January and played just 13.7 minutes per game as a freshman. Development-wise, it’s safe to treat him as a freshman. Whereas Isaac is a spindly 6’11”, 205 pounds, Anunoby is a stout 6’8″, 215. His wingspan is a reported 7’6″. He looks like the prototypical lockdown wing defender, and he plays like it too. Indiana was solid defensively when Anunoby was on the court, which is how they were able to win games against North Carolina and Kansas. They were horrific after he got injured, which is why they finished 18-16 (5-9 in his absence) and got nowhere near the NCAA tournament. Even last year, Anunoby showed an ability to quiet NBA-caliber wings. He shut down Jamal Murray in the NCAA tournament, holding him to 16 points on 18 shots and spurring Indiana’s win over Kentucky. We’ve seen this type of defensive prospect before. When he’s dialed in, he’s the prototypical defensive stopper. Unfortunately, he takes more plays off than you would like from someone who should be bringing toughness and scrappiness to the table. That may seem correctable, but I’ve been burned in the past for assuming that a player’s focus will automatically be improved in the NBA. For a player with so little offensive upside, the lack of consistent defensive effort is a red flag.

Isaac is a better offensive prospect than OG, whose shot is a mess. He shot 31% from three and 56% from the line this year, and he’s really bad when his shot is contested. His shot doesn’t look Andre Roberson-bad, but it’s bad enough at this point that defenses will readily sag off of him. The shot, of course, is the X-factor, as it so often is. We know how important it is to have wings who can at least shoot enough to draw a defender out of the paint. Anunoby’s threes don’t look pretty (they’re line drives), but I don’t think it’s completely broken, so there’s room for growth there. He’d better become an average three point shooter, because he doesn’t have much else to offer offensively. On a fastbreak, when Anunoby is running at a defender with a head of steam, OG is tough to stop. When the defense falls asleep and OG glides in for a dunk, he’s tough to stop. In all other situations, he’s not a very good offensive player. His handle is much worse than Isaac’s, as is his midrange game. He’s even rawer offensively than Isaac, and his shot is years behind.

We’ve seen this type of prospect so many times. Oodles of defensive potential. No off-the-dribble game. A shaky shot. This type of prospect so rarely pans out, so I’d be hesitant to draft Anunoby. I think the most likely scenario is that he’s a bench player who contributes a valuable 15-20 minutes as a defensive stopper (think Jerami Grant). OG fans will bring up Kawhi Leonard, and I can see why: they are similar physically and have the same type of defensive ability. But Leonard’s transformation from a bad college offensive player to an MVP-caliber finisher and creator is very, very rare.

Justin Jackson is the guy everyone’s most familiar with of the three, for obvious reasons. He was a three year starter for a team that made two straight title games, winning this year. He was a first team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year. You probably know him for his feathery floater, which always seems to go in. He turned into a plus (37%) three point shooter this year, and he was a high volume three point shooter (7.1 attempts per game). Jackson has a super quick release and transformed his shot mechanics during his time at Chapel Hill. Just as importantly, he also has great offensive instincts, which is what truly differentiates him from Anunoby and Isaac. He became a facilitator in the NCAA tournament, averaging 3.7 assists per game as he had the ball in his hands more and more often with point guard Joel Berry hobbled. With all of that said, Jackson still certainly has offensive warts. I hate it when people criticize a player for not being able to score as well against size and length, because I feel like that’s true of every single player. But it’s definitely a more pronounced difference for some, and I think Jackson is one of those guys. His worst games of the year came when the opponent was able to get physical, which makes sense given that Jackson is not off-the-charts athletically and is a very skinny 6’8″ (193 pounds). He’s not an explosive player, which will probably keep him from ever being a go-to threat at the next level. It’s also worth noting that Jackson is probably getting a little overhyped because of the team he was on. His stats this year (18 points per game on 44/37/75% shooting) were good, but it’s not like he was putting up 25 points per game or consistently finishing in traffic. The fact that he’s already 22-years-old also doesn’t help. But make no mistake about it: Jackson has the chance to be a very good secondary creator, with the ability to shoot from three or put home that beautiful floater and the court vision to find the open man.

I was really impressed with Jackson’s defense in North Carolina’s final three tournament games. I didn’t focus much on Jackson’s defense before the tournament, so I can’t say if he was doing this all year, but he shut down Malik Monk (12 points) and Tyler Dorsey (3-11 from the field) and was instrumental in holding Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss to a 5-17 shooting performance. In those three games, Jackson looked like a shutdown defender. This should all be taken with a grain of salt. Jackson has a 6’11” wingspan and is way bigger than Monk (6’4″, 6’3.5″ wingspan), Dorsey (6’4″, 6’3″), and Williams-Goss (6’4″, 6’6″). He should be shutting down those guys. But I was impressed by Jackson’s lateral quickness and his defensive fluidity. In the NBA, I don’t think he’ll be strong enough to bang with power forwards or quick enough to slow down the league’s great wings. But I had assumed he’d be a total defensive liability, and now I think there’s a chance he’s a solid defender in the NBA.

Jackson certainly has the intangibles going for him. He’s a smart, unselfish player who rarely makes rushed or bad decisions. That alone makes Jackson an easy fit in the NBA. But intangibles alone don’t get you drafted in the lottery. The reason the draft’s second best J. Jackson deserves to go in the lottery is that he’s a really solid all-around player. I think he’s a really projectable player, a guy who’ll probably be best suited to be a sparkplug off the bench. He’s not a good pick for a team looking to hit a grand slam, but he fits in relatively well to the evolving NBA and will slot in as a valuable piece for the team that drafts him in the middle of the first round.

Here’s how I’d rank the three:

Jonathan Isaac
Justin Jackson
OG Anunoby