Everyone loves guards who can make plays for themselves off the dribble. As the NBA gravitates away from the post game, three point shooting is more important (as I’ve talked about ad nauseam), but so is scoring off the bounce. As Kyrie Irving has showed in these playoffs (and for the last few seasons), nothing is more devastating for a defense than locking up the opposing offense for 20 seconds before someone makes an unbelievable individual effort and gets to the rim or frees himself for an open shot. Gone are the days of point guards needing to create for their teammates first and look for their own opportunities second. Any list of the best guards in the NBA should include Damian Lillard, Irving, James Harden… You get the idea. The three guys I’ll be writing about today could create for themselves as seniors in college (18+ ppg). But so can a lot of seniors, most of whom never turn into good NBA scorers. Two of them were consensus first-team All-Americans, but none of them are projected to go before the very end of the first round. Which one has the best chance of replicating his scoring prowess in the NBA? We’ll start in Colorado, with overlooked combo guard Derrick White.

He doesn’t play on either coast, and his team went just 19-15, but that doesn’t mean Derrick White isn’t worth talking about. The fact that White is even going to be drafted is amazing, considering that he was once a high school senior whose lone scholarship offer came from a culinary school. He didn’t go to said culinary school, but he did play his first three years at DII Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) before transferring to Colorado. He was obviously amazing in DII (it takes a special DII player to receive attention from a Pac-12 school like Colorado — as a junior, he averaged 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 3.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game), and it’s clear that he’s undergone a complete transformation in the five years since he was close to heading to culinary school. The scrawny 6-foot, 155-pounder who could barely dunk as a high school senior is now a sturdy 6’5″ and 200 pounds. He’s now super bouncy:

And he has proven himself as a go-to scorer in a tough conference.

White shot 40% from three point range, using a quick release to get shots off even against tight defense. Unlike many gunners, he thrived on both catch-and-shoot threes and off the dribble. He shot 81% from the line. He certainly has NBA range. But he also shot 57% from inside the arc, showing that he can also get himself a bucket from in close. He’s not an elite athlete, and certainly will not be the best or most frequent driver-and-finisher in the NBA. But he has a nice looking floater and finished confidently in college, and he’ll likely be quick enough to attack sloppy closeouts and pick his spots in the NBA. He looked most comfortable as both a shooter and a passer out of the pick and roll. Since he created most of his offense for himself, it’s no surprise that he thrived when he had a bit of a head start on an opposing defender. He’s great at using his size to gain leverage off the pick and roll, and he’s great at using his size to see over defenders and pick out cutters or the rolling big man. He averaged 4.3 assists per game, which isn’t great for a point guard but is a good number for a combo guard. White should probably play off the ball more often than not in the NBA, but he’ll be very good as a secondary ball handler. And the fact that he showed that spot up shooting is in his lexicon certainly helps his argument that he can transition to more of a secondary role, something that some college studs struggle with.

Defensively, White has a lot less potential. He’s got good instincts, but he’s certainly not a good enough athlete to lock down explosive guards or strong enough to slow down physical two guards. I don’t know where he’ll end up as a defensive prospect, but the fact that he’s already almost 23 leads me to believe that his defensive upside is quite low. His 6’5″ frame should help him bother some guards, but his 6’7″ wingspan isn’t long enough to make his length a true strength. Does he guard 1s or 2s? I think it’ll be mostly shooting guards, and probably not well enough to be a starter in the NBA.

I’m really bullish about White’s scoring ability at the next level. I think he blends punch off the dribble with off-ball cuts with shooting with playmaking really well. He’s not a good enough athlete to be a potential offensive superstar, but I think he could be a real asset as a rotation combo guard. That’s a steal in the 30s and very solid return in the 20s.

I think we’re all a little bit more familiar with the Naismith Player of the Year — Frank Mason. Mason was the prototypical off-the-dribble scorer at Kansas, racking up points at will and often serving as KU’s only real offense. He averaged 21 points per game on 13.7 shots, making him an incredibly efficient scorer. He shot 47% from three and 79% from the line. He scored 20+ points in 10 of his final 11 games, including in all four tournament games. And yet… he’s not much of a draft prospect. Why? Because we’ve seen this before. How many small point guards have been incredible in college, only to get to the NBA and realize they can’t finish and are relegated to being spot-up three point shooters? Let me put it this way: for every Isaiah Thomas, there’s an Isaiah Canaan (22 ppg as a college senior, non-factor in the NBA)… and then a bunch more. Mason’s 5’11” with a 6’2″ wingspan. That’s going to make it very difficult to, among other things, finish against length (which is everywhere in the NBA) or play passable defense against anyone. We already saw some of that in college. Mason only shot 50% from inside the arc as a senior, a really mediocre mark. He was clearly bothered by the presence of Jordan Bell in KU’s tournament loss to Oregon. He went just 3-12 against Baylor’s big, athletic frontcourt. This is a real problem, and it’s probably always going to be a real problem, especially since Mason’s already 23. I understand comparisons to Isaiah Thomas, who’s actually a few inches shorter than Mason. I actually think that Thomas’s explosion this season is going to be part of the reason that Mason is even drafted. But I think it’s foolish to project Thomas’s breakout for Mason. The fact is that most 5’11” point guards who struggle to finish against length in college will struggle even more in the NBA, to the point that they’re inefficient scorers until they take most of their shots from three. If Mason’s a 40% three point shooter, he’s going to get his chances in the NBA. And he’s certainly exhibited the toughness and athleticism to grab those chances and run with them. He was an unbelievable college player, a joy to watch and surely a pain to play against. But again, we’ve seen this before, and it doesn’t usually end in NBA stardom. I think Mason has a ceiling as a role player, which is why he’ll probably be taken in the second round.

There’s something cool about college players who improve reliably and consistently for four straight years before ending up as first team All-Americans. It feels like that’s the way things are supposed to work. Mason did that, and so did Josh Hart. Hart’s minute numbers went up from 21.4 to 25.5 to 31.4 to 33.2 as his point totals improved from 7.8 to 10.1 to 15.5 to 18.7. By his senior season, he was clearly Villanova’s best player, a guy who made big play after big play down the stretch of close games for one of the best teams in the country. He was a really well-rounded player in college, showing the ability to hit threes (40%) but also the preference to take it to the hoop for an easier shot. He was strong enough to post up and quick enough to explode past defenders. He averaged 6.4 rebounds (tremendous for a guard) and 2.9 assists. He earned a share of the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s 6’5″ and has a 6’8″ wingspan, good for a shooting guard. He’s a 75% free throw shooter, which is probably the closest thing to a weakness in his game. This is a player with very few weaknesses. What’s his calling card? He probably doesn’t have one in particular, which explains why most people have him going in the second round. But people always seem to underrate these jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none guys. And the fact that Hart has fixed all of his issues over four years at Villanova is very promising. He’s a tough, coachable player who’s going to do what it takes to improve his game and help his team win. And he’s the youngest of the three players I’ve written about today, as he turned 22 in March. I find it hard to believe that the team that drafts him is going to be disappointed in a year. I think he fits in well in today’s NBA as a 3-and-D guard who can also produce a little bit for himself (he certainly won’t be anything like he was as a scorer in college, but I could see him getting to 12-14 points a game). He’s not going to be one of the best three point shooters or one of the best defenders in the league, but a player who is above average at each is a longterm NBA rotation player at the very least.

Here’s how I rank these three:
Hart (I see him as a clear first round prospect)
White (fringe first rounder)
Mason (clear second rounder)

The Raw Bigs: Bam, Giles, and Anigbogu

Posted: 06/11/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

According to 247 Sports’s composite rankings, Harry Giles was the second best recruit in the Class of 2016 — first among bigs — while Bam Adebayo was ninth — second. And while Ike Anigbogu wasn’t the five-star recruit the other two were, he was a pretty good (four-star, top-50 recruit) prospect in his own right. There was never any doubt that Giles and Adebayo were going to be one-and-done college players, while Anigbogu flashed enough upside to boost his stock into the first round. Neither Giles nor Adebayo is really considered a top-10 prospect anymore, but all three of these guys could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to the middle of the second. The three have a few things in common. They’re all slightly undersized big men with crazy long arms and good measurables. Giles and Anigbogu are two of the youngest players in the class, while Adebayo is more than a year older than Ike and almost a year older than Harry. They all played for traditional powerhouses — Giles for Duke, Anigbogu for UCLA, and Adebayo for Kentucky — and none of them was really a featured offensive player for his team. I’m going to start by writing about…

There was a time when Harry Giles was supposed to be the next big thing. Read this interview of his high school coach in 2014. I know the guy was biased, but seriously?? “Some people try to say Kevin Durant, some Kevin Garnett…” Neither of those comparisons made much sense even in 2014, but the fact is that Giles was supposed to be a generational talent. Then he tore his ACL, and then he tore it again. The Harry Giles we all saw last year at Duke was a shell of himself as an athlete and as a basketball player. He didn’t return from injury until December, and he played just 11.5 minutes per game in 26 games as he backed up fifth year senior Amile Jefferson. His averages at Duke — 3.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, .7 blocks — don’t inspire much confidence. Speaking of confidence, it really seemed like Giles lacked it as a Blue Devil. The dominance he showed as an elite high school prospect (again, he was the #2 recruit even though he tore his ACL twice!) was gone. The guy who did this:

… was gone. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the guy who played for Duke last year deserves to be drafted in the first round. No, the team that drafts Giles is going to have to like his medical report and like his body and upside enough to write off the season he had for Duke, because his average of 13.5 points per-40 minutes ranked last among collegiate players who have any chance of being drafted (although Anigbogu wasn’t much better).

Giles is 6’11” with a 7’3″ wingspan and a 9’1″ standing reach. As you saw in that video above, he was enormously athletic before his injuries hampered him. He was a good rebounder even at Duke, he’s apparently a very good and coachable person, and he has the ideal body to eventually be a great rim protector. If everything comes together, he’ll obviously be a steal wherever he’s drafted. It’s just hard for me to get excited about a player who has no jump shot (I can’t believe anyone ever compared him to Kevin Durant), seemingly has no confidence, and has huge injury problems.

In many aspects, Ike Anigbogu seems like a similar prospect, albeit with fewer major injury concerns and less potential upside (he wasn’t near the player Giles was in high school). Despite being one of the youngest prospects in the draft, Anigbogu has the advantage of having a developed lower body. He weighed in at a solid 252 pounds at the combine, making him 30 pounds heavier than the rail-thin Giles is. Anigbogu is an inch shorter than Giles, but he makes up for it with an unbelievable 7’6″ wingspan and a 9’2″ standing reach. He only played 13 minutes per game for UCLA, but I think it’s pretty clear what Anigbogu is going to be asked to do in the NBA. His offensive game is unrefined (read: nonexistent). He can’t shoot a lick, he doesn’t post up (and is a trainwreck when he does, with almost as many turnovers as buckets), and a huge portion of his points came on lob dunks for UCLA’s fast-paced team. But nobody who drafts Ike is going to ask him to be a go-to scorer. Even though he barely played in college, I think he’s one of the most projectable players in the draft. He has the length and explosive leaping ability to rebound at an elite level, as he did at UCLA (four rebounds per game in 13 minutes). He was especially impressive on the offensive glass, grabbing 4.1 offensive boards per-40 minutes. And his main value is going to come on the defensive end of the ball, where he does stuff like this:

He averaged 3.7 blocks per 40 minutes, showing good timing and instincts while putting his length to good use. He’s also athletic enough to be a good pick-and-roll defender, which is of course crucial in the modern NBA. He’s probably going to get in a lot of foul trouble early in his career, but he’s not going to play enough for it to really matter. In the long-term, he’s probably going to be best suited to be an energy big who can provide rim protection, rebounding, transition lob dunks, and not much else.

I think there’s a pretty easy comp for Anigbogu: Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo, who was drafted #7 overall in 2011, is similarly long (7’6″ wingspan), poor offensively, and dominant defensively and on the boards. He’s never averaged more than six points per game, so it’s probably safe to say that he shouldn’t have been drafted seventh, but he’s averaged 11.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per-36 minutes in his career. He’s a great energy guy for about 20 minutes per game but is too much of an offensive drag to be useful for much more time than that. Anigbogu will likely be the same type of guy in the NBA. There’s nothing sexy about taking a role player who’ll never average double digits, but NBA teams realize that getting a good role player is really all you can hope for out of a late first round pick.

To say that Bam Adebayo was often very difficult to guard as a Kentucky Wildcat is an understatement. He had 18 points and 13 rebounds against UCLA, 25 points against Ole Miss, 22 and 15 against Missouri, 18 and 15 against Florida, double-doubles in his first two NCAA Tournament games… there were times when it seemed like stopping Bam would be an impossible task. Standing at 6’10” with a 7’3″ wingspan and weighing in at a chiseled 250 pounds, the interior defenders he faced just weren’t anywhere near strong enough to slow him down. He attempted double-digit free throws nine times on the season and averaged 6.2 free throws per game as opposing teams did anything they could to keep him from bullying his way to the basket and getting an easy bucket. In total, Bam averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game, shooting 60% from the field and 65% from the line (much better than Giles and Anigbogu) in 30 minutes per game. And yet… there were times that Adebayo disappeared or was rendered ineffective. Louisville held him to 11 points, Kansas to 10, and Florida to 9 the first time they played. All three of those teams featured stout, long interior defenders — Jaylen Johnson for Louisville, Landen Lucas for Kansas, and Anigbogu for UCLA. And so we reach one of my chief concerns about Adebayo: can he score against NBA-quality defenders? I think he’ll have to diversify his offensive game. Bully ball won’t work at the next level like it did in college, so Bam has to develop a jumper. His shot mechanics aren’t terrible, but his free throw percentage and percentage on jumpers when he did settle for a shot weren’t promising. At the very least, it will take Adebayo a while to learn how to become a threat from midrange, which should make him rather useless early on in his career (hence my calling him raw). And the fact is that Adebayo doesn’t provide much outside of scoring on the offensive end. His basketball IQ is lacking, and it often seemed like he panicked when opposing teams doubled him. He turned the ball over more than twice as often as he got an assist, which was a rare occurrence (32 dimes on the season). And against teams that had a big who could actually put a body on him, Adebayo failed to really create space for himself on the block when his first move failed.

Adebayo used his strength to play solid defense. When he was engaged, he protected the rim and was versatile enough to switch screens. The problem was that he wasn’t always engaged, a bad sign for a player who profiles as a role player in the NBA. He often fell asleep, letting opposing bigs maneuver their ways to easy points. And I’m not convinced that he’s quick enough to switch screens in the NBA without getting consistently roasted. Bam is a solid rebounder, but he provided much more energy on the offensive glass than he did on the defensive glass.

Overall, I don’t see much that makes Adebayo more than a run-of-the-mill big man prospect. He’s not exceptionally long (he really just has average size for a pure center), nor is he an exceptionally good finisher. Unless he develops a reliable shot, he’s not going to get much playing time in the NBA. But I’m quickly learning that this draft, while relatively deep in the lottery, is very weak from the middle of the first round on. And Adebayo did show glimpses of dominant play, even against strong defenses. He’s got a strong, NBA-ready frame. He’s strong enough to hold his own against big centers in the post. He doesn’t really wow me, but I could see him being a fine pick near the end of the first round. I just don’t think he has that much upside. His body has already filled out, and while he was good at Kentucky, he was inconsistent and overall was far from dominant.

Here’s how I’d rank the three:
Anigbogu
Giles (because I still believe he has upside if he ever recovers fully)
Adebayo

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

Over the last few years, the top of the NBA Draft has been littered with big men. Last year, Dragan Bender, Jakob Poeltl, Thon Maker, and Domantas Sabonis were all among the first 11 players picked, as was 6’10” stretch four/five Marquese Chriss. The 2015 draft was one of the most big-heavy in recent memory, with Karl-Anthony Towns going first, Jahlil Okafor going third, Kristaps Porzingis going fourth, Willie Cauley-Stein going sixth, Frank Kaminsky going ninth, and Myles Turner going 11th. As you’ll be able to tell by some of the names, the current NBA isn’t all that conducive to success for pure centers. I don’t think there’s evidence that any of the players I just mentioned is a whole lot worse than we expected; the problem is that most of them can’t get/stay on the court because they’re out of place in the era of spacing and small-ball. I know all of these guys are super young, but take a look at the numbers of minutes per game each of the rookies picked in the top-11 played last year:

Bender — 13.3 (43 games)
Poeltl — 11.6 (54 games) … 4.3 in the playoffs (6 games)
Maker — 9.9 (57 games) … 19.3 in the playoffs (6 games)
Sabonis — 20.1 (81 games) … 6 total playoff minutes (5 games)
Chriss — 21.3 (82 games)

Compare that with the other guys drafted in the lottery (Brandon Ingram: 28.8 minutes per game; Jaylen Brown: 17.2; Kris Dunn: 17.1; Buddy Hield: 23; Jamal Murray: 21.5; Taurean Prince: 16.6, but 31.2 in the playoffs; Denzel Valentine: 17.1) and it’s clear that it’s easier to fit a guard or wing into a rotation than it is a pure center, especially come the playoffs. That’s not to say that teams should avoid drafting a big man — good bigs are still very valuable and are huge matchup problems. Towns, Porzingis, and Turner were obviously fantastic picks, and Maker showed tremendous potential in his playoff cameo. But over the past few years, teams have begun to realize the reality of a league dominated by the Golden State Warriors: it’s a heck of a lot harder to keep up when playing with a traditional big man. This trend of going small and spreading the floor will eventually be reversed, but it doesn’t look like the Warriors are going away anytime soon, which means that teams have to accept the reality that any big that’s not a dominant offensive force or rim protector may be played off the court in the playoffs. That brings me to this year’s draft.

I was being a bit misleading when I called this a weak draft class for centers. There definitely isn’t a Towns or Porzingis, but if this draft were being held, say, five years ago, I think multiple centers would be locks to go in the lottery. But in 2017, a big whose ceiling isn’t that high is not a very attractive prospect. Most teams are probably far more likely to take a shot on a sweet shooter like Lauri Markkanen or Luke Kennard or on a malleable defender like OG Anunoby than they are to select a traditional back-to-the-basket big without All-Star potential. With that being said, there are some intriguing bigs in this draft class, centers who I think could be very valuable players for a long time. Today, I’m going to talk about three big men who played at a really high level in their lone freshmen seasons. These aren’t the only three good big men prospects. I’ll get to Harry Giles and Ike Anigbogu, each of whom will be drafted more for his tools than for his production. I haven’t even begun to look at the European bigs, although I know this is supposed to be a weak Euro draft. And I’ll write about John Collins, Ivan Rabb, and T.J. Leaf in another post, because I think they’re closer to being power forwards than centers. None of these guys was a go-to scorer in college, each is an intriguing prospect in his own right. Without further ado, let’s start with…

There was a time that I expected Justin Patton to rise into the top-10 of mock drafts. That was around January, when Patton, who redshirted last season before coming out of nowhere for Creighton this year, averaged 15.4 points on 67.8% shooting against a tough Big East schedule. But after star point guard Mo Watson got injured, Patton’s play nosedived with the rest of the Bluejays’. And Patton’s horrendous performance in Creighton’s loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3/12 shooting, fouled out in 21 minutes against a physical Rhode Island team — certainly didn’t help his draft stock, as it played into the narrative that he’s immature and sometimes overly emotional . But as Patton’s stock steadily declined, I remained (and remain) relatively high on the 7-footer.

The first thing that jumps out to me when watching Patton is how natural he looks on the basketball court physically, something that can’t be said about many 7-footers. He’s a smooth, fluid athlete, which really is more than half the battle for big men. Watch this:

Patton’s athleticism and quick first step should allow him to be a plus pick-and-roll finisher at the rim. He’s also an exceptional transition finisher, one of the best in the country on a per-possession basis last year. He really is electric in the open-court, often throwing down rim-rattling slams like these (and this is just a small sample). While Patton has shown some evidence of a post-up game, he’s always likely to be the type of big who doesn’t need or want any plays to be called for him. The fact that he struggled after Watson got injured is telling — and unsurprising. If you want a big who can get himself a bucket when his team is struggling, you don’t want Patton. But I’ve always been a sucker for the DeAndre Jordan-type center, because I think a rim-runner who can set screens and finish put-back dunks is often more valuable offensively than even a relatively efficient post finisher, especially on teams with score-first guards. There’s some evidence that Patton is a skilled enough player to become a decent midrange shooter. I wouldn’t take much from his 8-for-15 performance from beyond the arc on the season, but at least it shows that Patton’s willing to pull the trigger when he’s open. There’s no question that his stroke needs work; he shot just 52% from the line and missed most of his midrange attempts. But I don’t think he’s always going to be a 50% shooter from the line.

Defensively, Patton has a huge amount of upside, and his athleticism and high work rate give him a high floor. His feel for the game isn’t quite there yet, as evidenced by his high foul numbers and relatively low rebound totals, but that’s very common for young centers. He has to put on some weight, as he got outmuscled on the glass far too often in his lone season in Omaha. But even if he’s never quite strong enough to be an elite rebounder, he has the single attribute that I think is becoming most important: feet quick enough to allow him to switch onto guards and do a suitable job. No center’s going to be able to shut down Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving, but some (say, Tristan Thompson) do a better job than others (say, Pau Gasol). I think Patton has the potential to be a pretty solid all-around defender and to do well enough on switches to validate keeping him in tight games against smaller lineups, all of which makes him a pretty enticing prospect. He doesn’t have 20 point-per-game upside, but again, I’m not necessarily looking for that from my center.

Zach Collins’s draft stock has skyrocketed, largely as a result of his exceptional NCAA Tournament performance for runners-up Gonzaga. Because he was Przemek Karnowski’s less heralded backup, he went largely under the radar all year and never played more than 23 minutes in a game. But make no mistake about it: this guy didn’t come out of nowhere. He was a four-star, consensus top-40 recruit. He isn’t another guy that Gonzaga found in a garbage heap. Collins was insanely productive on a per-minute basis. He averaged 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks per-40 minutes, shooting 65% from the field and 74% from the line. There’s a lot to like here. Offensively, Collins probably has higher go-to scorer upside than Patton does. He wasn’t a consistent option in Gonzaga’s offense, but when given the ball he showed tremendous footwork and finishing ability from the post. His 74% stroke from the line also suggests that he’s already a better shooter than Patton and has the potential to be a very dangerous threat from midrange (and beyond). Like Patton, Collins is a fairly smooth athlete and a tremendous finisher in transition and at the rim, where he shot 70%. But I’m skeptical that Collins can be anywhere near as effective against bigger, longer, more athletic defenders than he faced in the WCC. He’s not very long (his wingspan is “just” 7’1″), and he’s also not very physical. His finesse game was unstoppable at Gonzaga, but how will it work in the NBA? Also concerning: Collins doesn’t seem to have a backup option when his moves don’t work. He has really bad court vision, as evidenced by his meager .4 assists per game. By comparison, Patton, who’s just as raw, averaged 1.2 assists and had a far more palatable .68 AST:TO ratio than Collins’s .27. What will happen when everything breaks down around Collins? I can tell you that Patton has seemed far more assured in chaotic situations than Collins has.

Collins was an elite shot blocker in his lone season at Gonzaga. He seems to have tremendous defensive instincts, allowing him to block nearly two shots per game. In the tournament, he blocked 18 shots in six games, helping to anchor Gonzaga’s elite defense. He’s also a very good rebounder. But again, I have questions about whether his shot blocking and rebounding can hold up against longer and more athletic opponents. I think he’ll be fine, but it’s probably unwise to expect him to be an elite rim protector and rebounder, since his lack of length and strength will almost certainly be magnified at the highest level. He’s also rather foul prone, with 2.7 fouls per game (same as Patton) in just 17.2 minutes per contest. I think Collins is now being somewhat overrated as a prospect, because of his flashy play during the postseason, because his weaknesses (a lack of defensive discipline, poor court vision, lack of length, hesitant shooter) were masked by weak opposition in the WCC, and because he had the plush job of playing behind Karnowski. He’s certainly a skilled player, but I don’t think he has Patton’s overall upside.

Jarrett Allen was a five-star, consensus top-20 recruit out of Austin, more heralded than both Collins and Patton. Shaka Smart kept him in his home town, where he abruptly fell off the map (at least for most fans) for a disappointing (11-22) Texas team. Until, that is, this happened:

It came in a 15-point loss, the fourth of seven straight defeats, but that was enough to get everyone’s attention. As you can tell from that dunk, Allen’s biggest selling point is his physical tools. He’s short for a center (not even 6’11”), but his arms are incredibly long (near 7’6″ wingspan) and his hands are huge. He’s a very raw player, like both Patton and Collins, but he played a lot more than either of his counterparts did in college. He averaged 32.1 minutes per contest, averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while adding 1.5 blocks on 57% shooting from the field and 56% from the line. While he wasn’t as efficient or effective on a per-minute basis as Patton or Collins, he was a more willing post finisher, showing an array of hook shots and, critically, looking comfortable with either hand. He also finished at the rim well, even though his looks were often more difficult than Patton’s or Collins’s. Encouragingly, he was tremendous late in the season. From the beginning of February through the end of the season (12 games against Big 12 opponents), Allen averaged 16 points per game and shot 58.6% from the field.

It’s tough to take much from Allen’s performance on a Texas team that entirely lacked spacing and experience. He played power forward for the Longhorns, something he almost certainly will never do in the NBA. He’s the type of player that excels with shooting around him. At the same time, there were certainly reasons to be concerned by his play. His basketball IQ is lacking, he doesn’t have a consistent shot, and he’s not a strong or tough player. On the other hand, his shot should improve — he has solid mechanics and gets good rotation. His length allows him to compensate for his lack of strength, and he should get stronger anyway. There’s potential here for Allen to develop much like ex-Texas center Myles Turner (6’11”, 7’4″ wingspan) did. Turner averaged 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game at Texas. He had a much, much better shot than Allen did at UT, but he was also pretty raw and thus fell to Indiana at #11 (there were also questions about his running form, which he has since fixed). Two years into his career, Turner is one of the best young centers in the NBA, averaging 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks on 51/35/81% shooting. Again, Allen doesn’t have (and might never have) the shot that Turner has always had, but they’re similar size-wise and had similar seasons at Texas, and Allen is probably a better athlete than Turner is. Allen’s length gives him higher upside than either Patton or Collins have, but he’s not close to being a good contributor for an NBA team. Another edge he has: he just turned 19 in April and is almost a year younger than Patton and half a year younger than Collins. He may be further behind in terms of his development, but he also has more time to catch up.

Here’s how I’d rank the three bigs:
Patton
Allen
Collins

The most common question mark for NBA prospects heading into the draft is three point shooting. How often do we hear (or, for that matter, do I type): “he’ll be a superstar… if he can fix his shot??” And how often does the guy actually fix his shot? Let me put it this way: there’s a reason Kawhi Leonard is such a popular best-case scenario for rangy wings who can’t shoot in college. It’s because there aren’t many other cases like him. Most players who cannot shoot in college shockingly cannot shoot in the NBA. If you’re sick of talking about, hearing about, and watching ugly shots, this is the post for you. Today, I’m writing about the four players who — along with Markelle Fultz — have the best and most polished shots in the draft. These players range from 6’4″ to 7’0″. One’s a combo guard, one’s a pure shooting guard, one’s a wing, and one’s a big man. The only thing that the four have in common is a good — and potentially great — stroke. In a shooting-obsessed and spacing-obsessed league, I expect all four to go in the first round. How high they go, though, depends on what teams think about their other skills. So I’ll touch on the shooting and everything else, starting with…

It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Malik Monk. He’s jumpy, explosive, confident, and liable to go off for 40+ points. He averaged 19.8 points per game for Kentucky, canned 2.7 threes per game on 40% shooting, and shot 82% from the line while playing off the ball with De’Aaron Fox running the point. He scored 47 points against North Carolina, 31 after halftime against Georgia, 33 against Florida… There’s no doubt that he can rack up a lot of points in a hurry. And while Monk sometimes fell in love with his jumper a bit too much, there’s no doubt that he is also extraordinarily explosive. He recorded a 42-inch vertical, and he embarrassed many a defender in the fastbreak. If he can be taught to cut off the ball a little more, he’ll be pretty much the perfect off-ball player. But that isn’t enough for Monk to be any more than an Eric Gordon or Lou Williams type player; great in small stretches, but not really reliable for 35+ minutes per game and better suited in a bench role. In short: not worthy of a top pick. Is Monk as one-dimensional as Gordon? The problem is that we didn’t really get to see whether he could create for himself or others. Fox and Isaiah Briscoe were Kentucky’s primary ball-handlers, so Monk neither got to distribute nor to create for himself off the dribble (aside from taking contested off-the-dribble threes). We’ve seen this before from Kentucky shooting guards. I’m talking about Devin Booker, who two years ago averaged 10 points per game for Kentucky’s powerhouse, near-undefeated team. Booker was playing with Tyler Ulis and thus was mainly relegated to an off-ball role. He shot 41% from three point range and was universally considered to be the best shooter in the draft, but he fell to the late lottery because of concerns that he was one-dimensional. Two years later, Booker has proven that he can create for himself on a terrible team, and he’s well on his way to being a 5+ assist per game guy in his prime (after averaging just an assist per game in college, he averaged 2.6 in his rookie year and 3.4 last season). He averaged 22 points per game this season and is already one of the best shooting guards in the league.

Do I think Monk is guaranteed to be the next Devin Booker? No. But I think it’s silly to write off his potential as a distributor simply because he only averaged 2.3 assists per game. In fact, from what I saw of Monk I’m confident that he has good court vision. His passing is certainly a work in progress, but from all reports Monk is a hard worker who wants to improve that part of his game. I see no reason to believe that he won’t.

Monk will never be a strong rebounder or a great defender. I haven’t talked about this yet, but he’s an undersized shooting guard at 6’4″ and 197 pounds. He’s laterally quick and athletic enough to keep himself from being a complete liability on the defensive end, but he has to be much more active on the defensive end than he was in college. That inactivity worries me, and if you’re trying to field a defense that can switch on every pick-and-roll and guard everyone from point guards to power forwards, you’re certainly better off drafting Frank Ntilikina than Monk. This lack of defense and rebounding (2.5 rebounds per game at Kentucky) means that Monk doesn’t have the all-around upside of a De’Aaron Fox or Josh Jackson. But unlike those guys, he can really shoot! And we know he’ll keep shooting in the NBA! There’s something to be said for that, and if Monk falls out of the top six or seven, I think somebody’s going to be getting a steal. There just aren’t that many guys with Monk’s type of athleticism and shooting ability. At the very worst, he’s a great role player. He’ll never be an MVP candidate, but in a best case scenario he could be a 20+ point per game player in the NBA. Those are rare.

Luke Kennard is a very, very polished scorer. He averaged 19.5 points per game for a talented Duke team last year, surprising people right off the bat to become (rather than Grayson Allen) the Blue Devils guard opposing teams had to gameplan for. He shot nearly 44% from three point range and nearly 86% from the free throw line. But while his sweet stroke is the best thing he has going for him, it’s far from the only skill he brings to the table offensively. If you watched Duke play two years ago and then last year, you know how much work Kennard put in to his offensive game. As a freshman, he was ok (12 points per game), but he was fairly inefficient and looked more like a G-Leaguer than an NBA player. Last year, in addition to improving his shot he showed an ability to get his lefty shot off from anywhere. His scoring instincts are second to none, as are his footwork and body control. He can pump-fake, side-step defenders, dance around screens, and pull up quickly. Basically, Kennard improved everything he had the capability of improving, at least on the offensive end.

The problem is that Kennard is really going to be hampered by his lack of athleticism. His first step isn’t anywhere near Monk’s, and it’s hard to imagine his craftiness working as well in the NBA. He’s going to struggle to finish in traffic, and he’s definitely going to have trouble turning the corner against NBA defenders. He’s also clearly a guy who focuses on offense, because his effort on the defensive end was nowhere near what it needs to be for a guy with his athletic deficiencies. He’s 6’6″, which should help, except that his wingspan is just 6’5″, which will make him one of just a few NBA players with a wingspan shorter than his height. All of this means that his upside is significantly lower than a traditional lottery pick’s.

Malik Monk’s worst case scenario is probably Kennard’s most likely. And that’s not a bad thing at all. As a mid-to-late first round pick, Kennard will be able to fit in nicely as a scorer off the bench. But he’s not long, quick, or athletic enough to be the same type of shot creator and maker in the NBA that he was at Duke.

I can’t say that I’ve watched much Syracuse basketball these past two years. The Orange have been decidedly mediocre, and their move to the ACC has doomed them to the bottom half of their conference. But they did have that magical run to the Final Four two seasons ago after making the tournament as an undeserving 10-seed. And that run was about the time that I started paying attention to then-freshman Tyler Lydon. Lydon was more of a complementary scorer than a go-to option in his freshman year, but what really jumped out at me was his ability to influence the game on the defensive end. He blocked 20 shots in five NCAA tournament games, including six, six, and five against Middle Tennessee State, Gonzaga, and Virginia in consecutive games. Was that just a flash in the pan, or was is it a sign that Lydon is going to be a powerful rim protector in the NBA? Well, Lydon did average 1.8 and 1.4 blocks per game in his two college seasons. The thing is that Lydon is a Syracuse player, which means he played exclusively zone defense, which means we really have no idea how he’ll fair as a one-on-one defender in the NBA. At 6’10 and about 220 pounds, Lydon’s a bit of a tweener. He’s not big enough to bang with physical power forwards or centers, but he’s way too slow to stick with explosive wings. The answer to my question, unfortunately, is probably that Lydon’s flashy defense in the tournament was more flash in the pan than indicator that he’ll be a shutdown defender at the next level.

As you might expect, Jim Boeheim asked more of Lydon as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. But while he played 36 minutes per game (up from 30 the year before), he didn’t improve as much as I thought he might. The good news is that, with two years of evidence, we can be pretty sure that Lydon is a good shooter. He’s got a sweet, high release, and he shot exactly 40% from three over the course of his two seasons at Syracuse. Keep him camped in the corner, and he can do this all day:

There’s value to that. There’s also value to the fact that Lydon is far from a ball-stopper. If anything improved between his two college seasons, it was his distribution. And Lydon doesn’t just stand in the corner. He can hit from anywhere, and he’s pretty good at relocating after a busted possession or an offensive rebound. But he doesn’t do much creating for himself. His pull-up jumper is almost nonexistent, and he isn’t quick, athletic, or confident enough to consistently drive by guys and finish at the rim. His point per game totals went up, but only from 10.1 to 13.2.

If I seem down on Lydon, part of that is that my expectations were so high after seeing the display he put on in the tournament. I expected him to have a breakout sophomore season, but I really don’t think he’s that kind of player. He should be a good role player who can provide shooting off the catch and is a decent passer, but he probably doesn’t have the star potential I thought he might after watching the 2016 NCAA tournament. And given the fact that he’s probably always going to be a tweener on the defensive end, Lydon’s probably not worth more than a late first or early second round pick. Still, he’s a guy who can jump in front of passing lanes, provide some rim protection, knock down open threes, and contribute on the glass (8.6 rebounds per game last year). He didn’t improve his stock much in the last year, but he should still be a solid complementary player.

Lauri Markkanen is seven feet. He’s most comfortable more than 20 feet from the basket. He’s a Finnish basketball player. His dad, Pekka Markkanen, played at Kansas under Roy Williams. He’s going to be the third Finnish player ever to make the NBA, and he’ll almost certainly be drafted in the lottery. If there’s Finnish basketball royalty, Markkanen is it. Of course, almost any 7’0″ 19-year-old who can shoot like Markkanen can would be hard pressed not to be a lottery pick. If Andrea Bargnani proved anything, it was that. Markkanen is certainly not Bargnani. He’s much more fluid and a better athlete; he’s far from a stiff. He can keep defenders honest off the dribble and flashed the potential to be a very good midrange shooter. But his biggest strength, of course, is his shooting. He has a really soft touch and is just a natural shooter, one who rivals the best shooting big men in college basketball history. He shot better than 42% from beyond the arc (and 83.5% from the line) in his lone season at Arizona despite going into a bit of a slump late in the season. Most of his shots came off the catch, but he also showed some ability to create shots for himself off the dribble, another super rare thing for a power forward to be able to do.

On the defensive end, Markkanen was often invisible, which isn’t surprising for a guy who’s so thin. He can’t weigh more than 225 pounds right now, and he’s going to have to bulk up a lot if he hopes to compete on the defensive end against the centers he’ll undoubtedly have to guard. But the team that drafts Markkanen will not be drafting him for his defensive upside. Even when he gets stronger, Markkanen won’t be an asset defensively, and he’ll probably be someone who needs to come off the court more often against small-ball lineups.

Power forwards who can shoot like Markkanen can — as well as anyone in the draft — are destined for at least a long career as a role player. If Markkanen can get stronger, he’ll be better on the defensive end and better at finishing at the rim. Comparing him to Dirk Nowitzki is most definitely a mistake (and extraordinarily unfair to Markkanen), but Markkanen belongs at the back of the lottery.

Here’s how I’d rank these four players:
Monk (just for his all-around upside as a scorer and shot creator)
Markkanen
Kennard
Lydon

NBA Finals Preview

Posted: 06/01/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

It’s been a week since the Cleveland Cavaliers closed out the Boston Celtics in dominating fashion. When there’s that much time between the last game of the Conference Finals and the first of the Finals, people are going to look for things to talk about. I have no interest in talking about most of those topics of conversation — among them MJ vs. LeBron; were the Warriors better than the Cavs last year?; is Durant or Steph GSW’s alpha?; why are the Warriors good even without their coach? — because I think they’re only topics of conversation because of how long we’ve now had between games. I’d rather just talk about the Golden State-Cleveland (The Trilogy) matchup itself.

Another thing I’ve noticed over the course of the last week is that people are so desperate for a good series that they’re talking themselves into a seven game series. I don’t blame them. This year’s playoffs have been at best disappointing, at worst unwatchable. The Warriors are 12-0, and the Cavs are 12-1. In the Conference Finals, only two games ended with a single-digit margin: Golden State’s Game 1 win over San Antonio, and Cleveland’s lone loss. For the Cavs, there were wins of 44 and 33 points. The Warriors won a game by 36 and added to their total of double-digit wins (now 10 in 12 playoff games). Sure, this Finals matchup has seemed inevitable since the beginning of the season, but I expected at least a little more intriguing leading up to June 1. The NBA has never prided itself for its parity, but I’d argue that this year is a new low (or a new high, depending on your perspective). The flip-side of all of this, conventional wisdom says, is that we’re sure to get a hell of a series. These are two titans, playing at the top of their games, both entirely capable of throwing haymaker after haymaker. Both teams are healthy and rested. Given that there are two full days off between most of these games, they should remain relatively rested throughout. My view is that while a long series is entirely possible, I wouldn’t necessarily expect each individual game to go down to the wire. And I don’t think this is anywhere near a tossup. Make no mistake about it: there’s a clear favorite, and a clear underdog. And the team that may or may not have someone who might be the best player of all-time (once again, I’m not interested in doing the LeBron-MJ debate) is the clear underdog. I’m going to run through a list of the matchups/dynamics that will decide the duration and outcome of the series.

Can Kevin Love Stay On the Court? 
This seems like a stupid question. Kevin Love just averaged 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game against the Celtics. He shot 53.5% (!) from three. He’s 38/80 from three in the playoffs and has nailed more triples than anyone other than Stephen Curry and Avery Bradley. He’s Cleveland’s third-best player. And yet I’m asking if he can stay on the court?? Well, yes, because we’ve seen this before. Love wasn’t playing this well heading into last year’s Finals, but he had shot 42/92 (45.6%) from three in the first three rounds. Then he put up 17 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1 on the Finals… and then the Warriors played him off the court. He ended up playing just 22.6 minutes per contest, averaging 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. That can’t happen again. Of course, part of the reason that Love’s playing time was limited is that his shot went cold. He won’t keep shooting upwards of 50% from three, but there’s no reason to expect him to sink below 30%. The key is for Love to be solid enough defensively that he is still a net positive for Cleveland. Last year, that was not the case. The Warriors targeted him with pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, and he was too slow to keep up. I expect Golden State to have a similar game-plan this year. The problem for Cleveland is that it’ll be even tougher to hide Love than it was in 2016. Last year, the Warriors always had two players on the court who were basically non-threats offensively. When they went with their big lineup, Love could guard Harrison Barnes. When they went small, Love could guard Barnes or Andre Iguodala. The Warriors now have Kevin Durant, which means there’s nowhere to hide Love when Thompson’s on the court next to him. That leaves the Cavaliers with a few choices, all of which have obvious drawbacks: 1) they can bench Thompson and leave Love on the court, but that costs them Thompson’s elite offensive rebounding; 2) they can keep them both on the court, and, when the Warriors go small, put Love on Iguodala and Thompson on Draymond Green, but that’s just asking for trouble; 3) they can remove Love, which of course removes one of their premier offensive weapons.

When push comes to shove, I’m not sure the Cavaliers will be able to justify having Love on the court for extended periods of time. It isn’t ideal to have Thompson switched out on Steph Curry or Durant, but it isn’t a nightmare. It is suicide to let the Warriors run Love through the gauntlet. Now, if Love keeps performing at such a high level offensively, the Cavaliers will probably have to bite the defensive bullet. But it’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which he doesn’t hurt Cleveland enough defensively to force Ty Lue to pull the plug. And if he doesn’t at least match Klay Thompson as a tertiary scorer, the Cavs are probably toast.

How does LeBron find his rest?
We hear a lot about how crazy it is for LeBron James to play the minutes that he does. Even as the Cavaliers have coasted through the playoffs, James has played 41 minutes per game. But he can do that without suffering a drop-off in production, because he’s otherworldly but also because he finds time to rest when he’s on the court. Sometimes, that means ceding offensive control to Kyrie Irving. Other times, that means playing defense against a relatively weak wing, allowing him to doze and play more like a free safety than a cover corner (like that analogy?). I don’t think James is going to be able to take many offensive plays off against an elite Golden State defense. Irving will get his points, but he won’t coast to 42 of them like he did against the Celtics. Last year, he was able to take plays off on defense by guarding Harrison Barnes for much of the series. This year, I think he’s going to guard Kevin Durant because the Cavaliers have NOBODY else who can guard Kevin Durant. The answer to my question is: he won’t. The follow-up question (does it matter?) is the one we’re likely to see answered at some point in this series. It’s hard to believe that someone can play 45 hard minutes of basketball without showing some signs of fatigue, but if anyone can do it, it’s LeBron James.

Is Andre Iguodala Healthy?
As the fifth member of Golden State’s impossible-to-stop small-ball lineup, Iguodala often gets overlooked. But he’s a super important part of everything the Warriors try to do on both ends of the court. There’s a reason he won the Finals MVP in 2015. He’s also nursing a knee injury, one that kept him out of a game against the Spurs and limited him to 17 minutes per contest in the other three. He’s shooting 3/27 from three in the playoffs, and he also hasn’t looked the same defensively. On defense, he’s again going to be tasked with guarding LeBron at least a handful of times per game. I don’t need to explain why he needs to be healthy to do that. And the Cavaliers are going to leave him wide open and dare him to shoot all series long. If he’s hitting his threes, the Warriors win. If he regains some explosiveness and capitalizes on the space he’s given before kicking it out to an open shooter, the Warriors win. If he’s a total zero on offense and the Warriors are forced to replace him with someone like rookie shooting guard Pat McCaw, things get a lot more interesting.

When Does Klay Thompson Get Going?
Klay Thompson’s struggles have been well documented. He averaged just 11 points against the Spurs after putting up 14 per game against the Jazz. He’s shooting just 38% from the field and 36% from three in this postseason. And even though the Warriors now have Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, they’re going to need scoring from Thompson in this series. Durant’s going to be guarded by LeBron James for at least a portion of the series, which means that it’ll be a lot tougher for him to get a basket when the Warriors need one. And Curry will probably have a game or two during which it’ll seem as if he’s never shot a basketball, although he’s been pretty consistently awesome so far in these playoffs. Thompson’s going to have a favorable matchup, whether it’s Kyrie Irving or J.R. Smith. I mentioned earlier that I think the Warriors have a pretty clear advantage in this series. One of the ways that advantage goes away pretty quickly is if Thompson plays poorly and Draymond Green is ineffective, making the Warriors a Steph and KD team going up against a LeBron and Kyrie team. The Cavaliers want it to play out like that. Thompson and Green can’t let that happen.

Which Cleveland Bench Players Play?
The Cavs really improved their bench mid-season when they added Deron Williams and Kyle Korver. Korver, Williams, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye have each played between 13 and 18 minutes per game in the playoffs. With the exception of Shumpert, they’re all on the court to do the same thing: hit threes. Put Korver, Williams, Frye, and Kevin Love around LeBron James and you have an unstoppable offense. LeBron’s the best player in the league at getting guys open and finding open shooters. That’s why Korver is shooting 42% from three in the playoffs, Williams is 50%, and Frye is shooting 53%. Heck, even Shumpert is 8/17 from three in the playoffs. I have no doubt that the LeBron and shooters offense will continue to work, even against Golden State. But it’s pretty clear that Korver, Williams, and Frye can’t be on the court together. That threesome is giving up 119.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs against much worse offensive teams than Golden State. Frye’s the one who’s likely to lose playing time. It happened in last year’s playoffs too. I still expect him to play a little bit (probably when Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee is on the court for the Warriors), but he’s too much of a defensive liability to be much of a factor in this series. I actually expect Shumpert’s minutes to go up because he’s the only good defender on the bench. But the Cavs will be hard pressed to give him more than 20 minutes per game because they are basically playing 4-on-5 offensively when he’s on the court. Korver and Williams, the new additions, are the real question marks. I don’t expect them to be played off the court, simply because they’re such key parts of Cleveland’s offense when Kyrie Irving needs a break. The Cavs will always have LeBron as an offensive option, but they need a good alternative. When Irving’s on the court, he’s the top alternative. When he’s not, it’s going to have to be threes from Korver and/or Williams. I actually don’t think they’re going to hurt Cleveland defensively too much, because Ty Lue is going to be very careful about when he puts them on the court. Can Korver and Williams guard Ian Clark and Pat McCaw? Probably. Can either guard Iguodala? Probably. Going up against Steph Curry and Kevin Durant is tough, but at least the Warriors don’t have much in the way of bench scoring. That should help keep Cleveland’s bench in the game and the Cavs in the series.

Can Draymond Keep His Cool And Stay Hot?
Last year, the Warriors were well on their way to winning their second consecutive championship when Draymond Green lost his cool and was suspended for a game. The Cavs won that game and then the next two to win the title. Green is probably Golden State’s third best player, the glue that holds the whole team together. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league, a tremendous rim protector who can also stick with wings for entire possessions. Suspension aside, he was unbelievable in last year’s Finals, averaging 16.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, and a block, along with all the intangibles he brings to the table. As the Warriors learned last year, he’s irreplaceable. And you can be sure that LeBron James and the Cavs know that too and are going to be baiting Green all series long, just as they did last year. Green is such a smart player that it’s hard to believe that he can’t hold it together for a series. But he’s already lost his cool on multiple occasions in this year’s playoffs, and I wouldn’t rule out another blowup at some point in this series. I said earlier that a struggling Klay Thompson would be a quick way to close the gap between these teams. A suspension to Green would be the other obvious shakeup to the series.

Now for the second part of the question. Green shot just 31% from three in the regular season. He’s shooting 47.2% in the playoffs and nailing more than two threes per game. The Cavs are going to leave him open, because you have to pick your poison. If Green shoots 45%+ from three in this series, it’ll be difficult for Cleveland to get it to a sixth game. The safe assumption is that he regresses to his mean — higher than the anomalous 31% he shot this season but probably not much better than 35%.

How Much KD-LeBron Are We Going to See?
As a fan, I’m hoping we get a lot of the head-to-head matchup between Durant and James. LeBron thinks he owns Durant, and for good reason; he beat Durant’s Thunder to win his first championship and his teams have consistently beaten Durant’s. It’s safe to say that Durant will be looking to exact revenge in a big way, and it’s also safe to say that LeBron will be up for the challenge. I actually think these guys will guard each other quite a bit for a few reasons. First of all, nobody else on the Cavs can guard Durant, so when KD starts going off on Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith, Cleveland will have no choice but to put James on Durant. And when Cleveland has the ball, I expect the Warriors to plug Durant on James because the guy they’d normally lean on to guard LBJ — Andre Iguodala — is banged up. Can Draymond Green keep up with James? Is Klay Thompson strong enough? Both of those were rhetorical questions. The Warriors will throw as many bodies as they can at James, but if they need a stop in a crucial possession they should put Durant on LeBron. If KD plays LeBron to anything close to a draw, the Warriors win. If James manhandles Durant, gets him in foul trouble, and gets in his head (all very possible), the Cavaliers have a real chance.

How Quickly Does Mike Brown Go Small?
The Warriors famously discovered the strength of their small-ball lineup in the 2015 Finals, when they desperately searched for a way to beat a Cavaliers team that was without both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and landed on starting Andre Iguodala in Andrew Bogut’s stead. In the ensuing two years, they’ve gone back to starting a traditional big (this year: Zaza Pachulia) and going small down the stretch. Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have both been very patient, going with Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West before ending halves with Draymond Green at center. It’s safe to say that this is not a good matchup for Pachulia or McGee. The Cavaliers are going to torture Golden State’s big men in the pick-and-roll, forcing Pachulia to guard outside the paint. Kyrie Irving is going to get to the rim and get people in foul trouble. And leaving Pachulia, McGee, or West on the floor gives the Cavaliers somewhere to place Kevin Love on defense. If I were the coach, I’d feel the urge to quickly go to Iguodala, Clark, or McCaw. But maybe that’s why I’m not the coach. Mike Brown has to find the perfect balance between small-ball and traditional. I’m interested to see what that balance is in Game 1… and whether it changes throughout the series.

My Prediction: It is very, very hard to pick against LeBron James at his apex. The guy is playing unbelievable basketball, averaging 33/8/7/2.2 steals/1.4 blocks in the playoffs while shooting 57% from the floor and 42% from three. But some challenges are too much for even LeBron. Beating the Warriors by himself in 2015 proved to be one of those challenges. I think this is another. Golden State’s going to make things difficult for James early and often, making him expend energy on the defensive end and forcing him to hit free throws (he’s hitting only 71%) instead of uncontested layups. And it’s worth noting that James shot just 35% from three against the Celtics, a return to around his career average. He’s going to have to be lights out in all facets of the game for the Cavaliers to beat the Warriors. If anyone can do it, it’s LeBron, but I don’t think anyone can do it. I’m torn between picking the Warriors to win in 5 or 6, but I’ll go with Warriors in 5.

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.