Leaf, Rabb, Collins: Three 6’10” Power Forwards

Posted: 06/10/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

It’s a guard-driven draft, but to focus too heavily upon the guards is to risk missing some pretty intriguing talent. That’s why I’m now writing about the top bigs in the draft, from Zach Collins, Justin Patton, and Jarrett Allen last time to Ivan Rabb, T.J. Leaf, and John Collins this time to Ike Anigbogu, Harry Giles, and Bam Adebayo next time. Leaf, Rabb, and Collins are all different types of players, but they all fit the same general idea: solid college producers for good (in the case of Leaf, very good) college teams, but with very questionable (read: limited) NBA upside. All three probably profile as role players at the next level, which is why nobody’s talking about them in the lottery. But in the second half of the first round, teams are looking for players who can become good role players, so these three power forwards will certainly be in the mix. Which one will be the best NBA player? Let’s start with…

While Lonzo Ball got most of the credit for turning UCLA’s program around, don’t sleep on the impact T.J. Leaf made in his only season in Westwood. He averaged more than 16 points per game, added 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists, and generally fit in very well to the Bruins’ up-and-down system. That might be Leaf’s first selling point: he’s very mobile, showing the ability (and preference) to run up and down the court. He also has the rare ability for a big man to get a rebound and then key a fast break by dribbling up the court. He isn’t the smoothest dribbler and doesn’t have the tightest handles, but he’s good enough to not be forced to just grab a rebound and luck immediately for a guard. Leaf is a very skilled offensive player. He’s the rare big man with more assists than turnovers, and his passing was a very underrated part of UCLA’s free-flowing offense. He’s especially good at passing from the elbow, where he spent most of his time in his lone season at UCLA. And he’s also been helped greatly by the NBA’s move to small-ball, which has impacted the power forward position more than any other. Teams are going away from big, long power forwards, instead opting for smaller, better-shooting, more skilled players (the jackpot, of course, is the combination, which is why players like Kristaps Porzingis and Draymond Green are so valuable). For Leaf, who’s 6’10” with a 6’11” wingspan, that’s a godsend. Outside of his mobility, his greatest strength is clearly his shooting. Leaf was a lethal shooter from midrange, shooting 64.4% overall on two-point shots. It looks like the game feels slow for him; he has a high basketball IQ, allowing him to quickly decide whether to shoot or pass. After watching four games of Iman Shumpert, who’s such a liability offensively because it takes him so long to decide what to do once he has the ball, that feels especially important. Leaf also converted 27 of his 58 three pointers — 46.6%. That’s obviously a small sample, and Leaf often passed up on open threes to take midrange shots, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Leaf will turn into a solid three point shooter in terms of both volume and efficiency. A player with this type of offensive skill and basketball IQ is a sure bet to carve out a good NBA career. Whether Leaf can have more of that is another question.

Leaf wasn’t terrible defensively in college, but I think he’s going to have a lot of trouble defending in the NBA. He’s fairly athletic, but he’s not quick enough to guard small forwards (something that I think will never change) or strong enough to guard centers. In an era of switching on defense, Leaf will be a one-position defender, which really limits his defensive upside. Another problem is his lack of length; his 6’11” wingspan is really short for a power forward, and won’t allow him to provide value as a rim protector. Overall, I really like Leaf as a prospect. He’s got good instincts and a good basketball IQ, he’s a good athlete, and he’s a skilled offensive player. He projects as a good stretch four in an era of stretch fours. He’s also a good rebounder. But the lack of length and defensive versatility are concerns that will likely keep him from going in the lottery.

Had Ivan Rabb declared for the draft last season, he probably would have been a late-lottery pick. But he opted to stay for another year and is likely to go late in the first round of a much stronger draft. It’s always tough for a player to improve his draft stock when he returns for a second year, because teams and scouts are expecting massive improvements and looking to poke holes. With that being said, Rabb didn’t do himself any favors. As he would have expected, he was given a much bigger role in his sophomore season, as he became a featured part of Cal’s offense. But he shot just 48% from the field after shooting 62% as a freshman, and his scoring ticked up from 12.5 to just 14. There’s no escaping the fact that Rabb was very inefficient last year. He was basically a post player who was an inconsistent scorer from the post against collegiate defenders (.75 points per post possession). He doesn’t lack the skill or footwork to get himself open shots, but he wasn’t strong enough even as a sophomore to control his post game. Despite being relatively tall (6’10”) and long (7’2″ wingspan), he’s just 220 pounds. He also shot just 66% from the line (not terrible for a power forward, but definitely not a strength) and attempted just 20 three point shots all season. All of this sounds pretty bad — inefficient, regressed in his second season, doesn’t stretch the floor — but we have to keep his circumstances in mind. Leaf played for a team that accentuated his strengths, while Rabb played for a team that… didn’t. Cuonzo Martin is, er, not a great coach, and it showed last season. Rabb generally played next to another big who couldn’t shoot, limiting the space he had to operate and allowing defenses to hound him constantly. He should be much more efficient in the NBA, where he’ll be able to use his mobility to get out in transition more often and have more chances in the pick-and-roll (and fewer traditional post-ups).

Rabb’s greatest strength is his rebounding — he averaged 10.5 rebounds per contest, showing the ability to use his soft hands, size, and length to impact the game. He’s a pretty good defender, with a high basketball IQ and the instincts to put his length to good use. With that being said, he has the same defensive issues as Leaf. He’s not athletic or quick enough to guard small forwards or skilled power forwards and he’s nowhere near strong enough to guard centers. Rabb’s game indicates that he’s best-suited to be a center at the next level, because he doesn’t stretch the floor or create for himself offensively and because he’s comfortable in the post. But he has to add a lot of weight to be a good defensive center, and that’s not something most players do easily. And if Rabb does add weight, what kind of impact will the added bulk have on his offensive game? I could see him becoming more efficient in the post, but I could also see him becoming slower and even less helpful offensively. Overall, Rabb is really a tweener, not athletic enough to play power forward or big enough to play center. That’s ultimately what will (and should) keep Rabb from being drafted where he would have been last year.

Speaking of tweeners… John Collins is the ultimate tweener. He’s a 6’10”, 225 pound player with a 6’11” wingspan who is really only comfortable inside. He was a darn good college player. Playing for Danny Manning and Wake Forest, he was the catalyst for Wake’s surprising NCAA Tournament appearance. He led college basketball in PER, as he averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in just 26.6 minutes per game. Those are ACC Player of the Year-type numbers, and I really think Collins should have gotten more consideration for the award (which was eventually won by Justin Jackson). He shot 62% from the field and 75% from the line. As a sophomore, he was a devastating force from the post, using his array of moves and outstanding footwork to embarrass some really good ACC defenders. He was also a solid shooter from midrange, he showed the ability to finish through contact, and he got to the free throw at will and hit at a solid rate. His instincts in the half-court are excellent. He was an unbelievable offensive rebounder (3.8 per game in 26.6 minutes) at Wake Forest. And he’s devastating in transition. How is this guy not a top-5 prospect? Well, there are real concerns about where he’ll fit in on an NBA offense. He averaged just .5 assists per game (and had a .28 assist:turnover ratio). He attempted one three pointer in two years of college. His lack of ball-handling and floor-stretching ability is going to make it difficult for him to be anything other than a center. And I’m not sure how many teams are comfortable playing a guy with a 6’11” wingspan. Collins is going to have to be a lot more versatile in order to play next to another non-shooter, because it’s not really viable to play two traditional non-shooting bigs in today’s NBA (hence Marc Gasol’s new three point shot, which has allowed the Gasol-Zach Randolph combination to continue to thrive).

Defensively, Collins doesn’t display any of the instincts that make him an intriguing offensive prospect. It’s clear that he hasn’t worked much on his defense, as he often committed lazy fouls or got lost in the middle of a play. And like the other two guys, it’s unclear that he’ll be athletic enough to guard good fours or big enough to guard fives. All three of these players have their problems defensively, but Collins was probably the worst of the three defensively in college. And yet… I could see him eventually being a fine defensive player. He blocked some shots and showed some athleticism on the defensive end. His rebounding ability will allow teams to prevent possessions, which can’t be taken lightly. And he showed in college that he can be a good help defender (it was on-ball that he had many more issues). You can’t dismiss how productive Collins was in college or how easily he scored. He should be drafted in the first round.

Here’s how I’d rank these three:
Leaf
Collins
Rabb

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