This piece will be my first looking into the Bigs in the 2017 NBA Draft.
At least beyond the Combo Forwards (Jonathan Isaac for example) that populate the top of this year’s Draft Boards. Yet, Isaac’s not the only interesting college guy who could end up at Power Forward or Center in the league. There’s Robert Williams, Zach Collins, Miles Bridges. Beyond them, there’s players I’m not quite as excited about. Lauri Markkanen, TJ Leaf and Caleb Swanigan among them. But that’s not all.
Indeed, it’s a deep enough position that there are many players I won’t get to in this piece:
Those guys are John Collins (no defense), Isaiah Wilkins (offensive questions and may have trouble guarding small ball players), Ish Wainwright (longshot position switch guy I like), Tyler Lydon (the definition of empty individual stats on defense), Jack Salt (won’t declare), Killian Tillie (ditto), Alec Peters (non-defender who can shoot really well), Chimezie Metu (Low BBIQ), Semi Ojeleye (no specific reason), Bonzie Colson (short for position, probably won’t declare), Tony Bradley (tall for his position, probably won’t declare), Luke Kornet (slow, low upside 3-Pt guy), Bennie Boatwright (not my kind of player), Tacko Fall (could be great situational defender, especially in zones that keep him close to the rim), Gary Clark (won’t declare), Jamel Artis (multiply what it means to be a non-defender times a million), DJ Wilson (should really stay in school), Juwan Morgan (ditto), Kennedy Meeks (floor bound), and Karnowski (ditto).
Still, if you’re really interested in Karnowski, this is a good highlights package.
My favorite things that he does are shoot fireballs and climb ladders to nowhere. Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.
There may be others I’m leaving out. If they declare, I’ll get to them, but for now we’ll stick with the top players, either by consensus or by stats or by my estimation. That’s a group that includes Isaac, Williams, Zach Collins, Mamadi Diakite, Miles Bridges, Ethan Happ, Ivan Rabb, T.J. Leaf, Lauri Markkanen, Dedric Lawson, Johnathan Motley, Jordan Bell, Chris Boucher, Ike Anigbogu, Kevarrius Hayes, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Anas Mahmoud, Justin Patton and three players I don’t think are particularly suited to be Power Players (Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, OG Anunoby) but may have to play a Big position to get the most out of their offense.
Now let’s get to it.
Bigs in the 2017 NBA Draft: Rebounding
1) I’ve highlighted Robert Williams and Zach Collins throughout many of these tables. The reason being is that I haven’t spoken about them much, and it’s pretty clear that both are (or should be) top 14 NCAA guys on basically everyone’s board. Williams is more defense forward. Collins more the offensive guy, who might provide some defensive value.
This is not a consensus viewpoint, but after you get past the Top 2 or 3, I could start to make a pretty good argument for either. Though I’ll probably have them a little bit lower.
2) One thing we have to consider is position and role and how that affects numbers. For instance, in the cases of Jackson, Tatum, Anunoby, Isaac and Bridges, who play PF in college but may end up on the Wing in the pros.
Please notice that Jackson’s numbers on the surface make it seem like he’s a good rebounder. However, he’s relatively crappy at defensive rebounding. It’s a deficit that makes it difficult to consider playing Jackson at Four, unless you are willing to surrender a decent amount defensively. But then, of course, you are also surrendering a decent amount of Jackson’s upside which happens to be on defense.
It’s one of the hypothetical problems with Jackson as a prospect. He’s probably best if you can get him operating vs. Bigger players on offense. But due to Jackson’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, those match-ups are going to difficult to find.
3) This is not to say I don’t like Jackson as a prospect. I do. He’s just very problematic as a Power Forward on the defensive end and has real strengths at Wing. Want more evidence that Jackson leads a lot to be desired as a defensive rebounder? Let’s look at Kansas’s stats on the season. (Per Sports-Reference.com)
Yes, Kansas currently ranks 314th in Offensive Rebounds surrendered. That’s 314 out of 351 teams. And it’s not because they’ve played substantially more games or minutes than everyone. Or more possessions. 28 Games. 5,675 minutes. 73.5 possessions per game. We can compare that to Kentucky whose also played 28 Games, 5,625 minutes, racked up 78 possessions a game and ranks 187th in opponents offensive rebounds surrendered.
Josh Jackson just isn’t very good right now in this one area. Which also makes a straight comparison to Andre Iguodola difficult, since rebounding was one of Iguodola’s real strengths on defense. It’s one reason a comparison to Jimmy Butler on the defensive side of the ball (probably a +1 guy to +2 guy at his apex) is much more viable than a comparison to Iguodola (a +4 or +5 guy on defense at his best). Obviously, that’s still a very good defensive player. Though Jackson is taller than Butler, which might add some value. (He’s not yet as strong, and maybe will never be. Though most players do add strength as they age.)
4) Tatum is another guy who will likely be something of a deficit on defense at Power Forward. (Or perhaps even at best.) However, I think Power Forward still might be his best position moving forward in terms of maximizing his offensive skills. At the Power Forward position, his passing skills (which are average for Wing) are a huge benefit, and he not only figures to have more open catch-and-shoot jumpers but match-ups where he might even have a quickness advantage.
The major differences between Tatum and Jackson, at least in terms of projecting these players as Small-Ball Fours, are Tatum’s jumpshot and Jackson’s potential plus ability at the Point-of-attack on defense. Tatum’s defensive strengths are mostly off the ball. He’s also probably a better rebounder than Jackson. (A caveat: Rebounding against Syracuse isn’t necessarily all that impressive this year. Doing better vs. Florida St. will be a good test. I’d also love a rematch vs. Louisville if that happens.)
5) Notice that Isaac and Bridges are the only two of the five to actually rebound like Bigs on the defensive end. That’s important, especially because rebounding, while not being entirely static, is a somewhat less dynamic skill than shooting, in terms of potential and likely growth. Sure, there is growth sometimes. This growth is also often tied to age and athleticism gaps that diminish as a player gets older, and less to experience.
Usually by the time a player is 20, he has a nose for rebounds or he does not. Mason Plumlee is a good example of this fact.
Here are Plumlee’s advanced numbers from Duke. As an age 19-Freshman, he’s relatively terrible as a defensive rebounder. Only 15.2%. (Around 5 per 40. Similar to Josh Jackson or OG Anunoby.) As an age 20-Sophomore, Plumlee makes a big improvement, but then is relatively static throughout the rest of his career.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect either Jackson or Anunoby to get better here, but would give Anunoby the advantage. Just due to age. It’s another notable difference between Jackson/Anunoby and Kawhi Leonard, to whom each player is sometimes compared.
6) We’ll continue to look at Isaac as we go through these tables, but one thing I want to point out is that it’s Isaac’s defensive upside that makes him such a good prospect. He has plus potential on offense too, but the thing that makes him perhaps special is that he has plus offensive potential AND Robert Horry type upside on the defensive end. He’s not as smart as Horry. But he’s also not as stiff in the hips (Horry was fine but not as fluid as a guy like Marion) and might have better hands. (Horry was good there too.)
When you consider potential Team Fit, likelihood for a certain player type to contribute to a real contender, and defensive potential, it’s easy to find Isaac in the top three of the draft. It’s not because of risk. Any prospect whose offensive potential is almost totally dependent on his jumper being successful carries a fair amount of risk. It’s because of his potential +5 to +6 upside.
7) Robert Williams is another example of a player whose role likely affects his numbers. Williams often plays on the Wing in a zone or at Small Forward, despite being Texas A&M’s best interior defender and best player period. The reason being that Billy Kennedy wants to get Tonny Trocha-Morelos and Tyler Davis on the court as well. Those guys are both 6’10″and somewhat slow-footed, whereas Robert Williams can really move his feet.
Vertically he’s much, much less explosive than Ben Wallace.
When we’re talking about Ben Wallace, we’re talking about a guy who at the age of 20 probably belonged in a conversation with guys like Vince Carter and Dominique in terms of getting off the ground quickly and with power. Williams is good. But in that respect he’s not Wallace.
However, he’s also three inches taller (measured 6’9″ in 2015) and likely longer (7’4″ wingspan in 2015). Beyond that, there are similarities when we are talking about raw speed and Williams ability to move his feet from side-to-side. (Check Williams on PJ Dozier in the Texas A&M match-up vs. South Carolina.) It’s the reason why I went out of my way to piece together Ben Wallace’s Per40 numbers from Virginia Union, as his numbers from college are not available in one place. Whereas, at least in terms of size, Williams probably compares better to a guy like Larry Sanders (6’10”, 7’6″ wingspan).
Notice that Williams compares very well to Larry Sanders as a rebounder. However, when we consider the fact that he’s sometimes playing out of position, Ben Wallace may indeed be a better comparison. Since it’s difficult to tell just how good Williams might be. And the same goes in terms of blocking shots.
8) That’s not to say Williams is without flaws on defense. This video by Mike Schmitz dissecting Williams play vs. Arizona, one of his worst defensive games of the season, reveals a fair amount of them. Especially on defense.
Lack of hustle and awareness. Those are potentially damaging attributes for a Big Defender. In games I’ve watched Williams, his awareness has actually been much better than displayed in this video. As well as his activity in the half court. Lots of deflections, blocks. Though one attribute I don’t like is that he doesn’t generally sprint in transition when getting back on defense. That one attribute can be the difference between Williams being an average defender who switches, rebounds and get blocks shots and a potentially elite one. The difference being how NBA teams take advantage of delayed fast break situations.
Hopefully this is a conditioning issue. It’s impossible to know if Williams lack of hustle/awareness are because of conditioning or mindset. Yes, awareness can also be tied to conditioning, since we don’t think nearly as well when we are tired.
(Okay, so not all of Williams awareness issue are probably due to conditioning. He’s genuinely raw and unschooled. But all of the mistakes in this Arizona video could just as easily be the types of mistakes a player makes when he’s tired as the types of mistakes a player might make because he’s intrinsically low effort or IQ. And it’s impossible to know which.)
9) One deficit can affect multiple phases of the game, whether its strength, cardiovascular conditioning, a lack of a jumper or an average handle. It’s one area of evaluation that I think we have trouble with, since we don’t always make the necessary connections. And it’s important to notice because these situations (the kind where a player can solve a single problem and add value in multiple areas of his game) are often the key to noticing which player’s have more upside.
Draymond Green is a good example. Part of the reason why he’s improved in the NBA is simply because he’s in much better shape and is actually much more athletic than he was in college in any number of ways.
Here’s Draymond at Michigan St.
Here’s Draymond now.
This is actually one of the areas of evaluation that creates cognitive dissonance. Not just determining how one improvement might affect a player’s ability over multiple areas, but in terms of determining which players have such a weakness in their prospect profile.
Five I’d nominate off the bat. De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac and Jarrett Allen: Strength. Robert Williams: Conditioning. Malik Monk: Handle.
10) Back to Robert Williams. Notice that Williams isn’t really similar to Sanders or Wallace as an offensive player. He’s much better at putting the ball in the basket than Wallace or Sanders. And also a substantially better passer than both. (The jumper is flat but also has some potential.) That makes Williams potentially much more valuable on offense.
Perhaps a smaller Tyson Chandler (who became an excellent passer in Dallas, despite the fact that we never really see it in the numbers), or if a guy like Nerlens Noel had better hands, as reasonable upside comps. Which is to say, Williams is a guy who might legitimately add value on both sides of the ball. And lots of it on defense.
11) I included Diakite and Hayes here because they are very underrated. Both should definitely return to school, but both are seriously talented defensive players who might get substantially better as they mature physically and gain experience.
12) Don’t be surprised if Florida gets to the Final Four. The team has holes on offense, namely what happens when they don’t make three pointers, but their defense is real.
13) Zach Collins has very solid rebounding numbers. It’s also possible they are somewhat suppressed. Not because he overlaps a lot with Karnowski or Tillie or Johnathan Williams in particular, but because everyone of them is a more than solid defensive rebounder. And then there’s Nigel Williams-Goss as well, who scores an over 16% Offensive Rebounding Percentage. There’s only one rebound per possession, and that fact may be enough to turn a very good rebounding total into an elite one for a Freshman. It’s something to consider. Gonzaga has zero problems securing defensive boards from what I’ve seen.
14) Swanigan is the elite rebounder in college basketball this year. Unlike many other floorbound giants, he also has pretty good basketball IQ and excellent effort which he sustains throughout the game. I don’t think he’ll be much of a defender at the NBA level, but rebounds and effort will to a certain extent make up for his potential deficiencies as a rim protector. At least to a certain extent.
15) Ethan Happ, Ivan Rabb, Johnathan Motley are three other guys to consider here. All three can board. It’s probably the number one place where each is likely to add value moving forward. That’s not to say each doesn’t have other strengths, especially Happ. For one, they are all better passers than you’d expect.
Bigs in the 2017 NBA Draft: Assists
1) Here we have a list suggesting to us that many of this year’s Big prospects are pretty decent passer. Substantially more than usual. I’d say this is undoubtedly true. Of course some of them are guys who would have certainly been Wings twenty years ago. Guys like Miles Bridges and Jayson Tatum.
(Teams may still play either one there, though I do think it would potentially be a mistake in terms of maximizing the value of these players. At the very least they should get a chance to fail at PF on defense, since they could be huge offensive pluses at the position.)
Still, others are guys like Robert Williams, Johnathan Motley and Ivan Rabb. OG Anunoby is a pretty decent passer, even if he rarely gets a chance to show this ability, largely because he lacks others offensive skills.
2) I do think these numbers overrate Patton’s ability a fair extent. Or rather, I’d sell on him as passer. He’s young and he does get a decent number of assists. But there’s at least a pass or two a game of which I have no idea what he is seeing, or why he tried to make it. In addition to that, his passes often lack accuracy. He could improve, but I’m not sure if it’s the best bet.
His major attributes are likely his elite efficiency, very good shot selection, and his decent ability as a help defender, where he occasionally makes reads and blocks shots. However, he’s inconsistent there and a horrible rebounder. I’m probably going to be somewhat lower on him than consensus. That’s not to say Patton is without some clear-cut NBA skills. Just not one of my favorites.
3) As we can see from Paul Millsap, it is possible for guys to improve as passers. Though it happens rarely. Millsap is much more the exception than the rule when it comes to continued improvement, as he’s improved on basically every facet of his game since college, except perhaps rebounding. Dribbling, passing, play recognition, defensive versatility, shooting the basketball. You name it. If we could understand the unique qualities that allow a guy like Millsap to improve in ways that only apparent superstars do, we’d be a lot closer to solving the draft.
4) One guy whose passing was very impressive in the one game I saw was Cameron Oliver. (5 assists against Boise St. February 22.) He made several cross court passes from the opposite post that displayed genuinely good vision and good ball movement besides. Very confident. Falls asleep sometimes on defense, but otherwise high energy and will run the court in both directions. Excellent timing and athleticism on blocks. Only 6’8″, but if that height it correct, I’m guessing he’s going to measure out with around a 7’2″ or 7’3″ wingspan. (Just guestimating.) That performance put him on the first round map for me.
Another thing to note is that he throws the lower half of his body out on his jump shots, and yet he’s still shooting 39.4% on the season. This is likely a correctable flaw that could lead to much better consistency. Unlike most big men with a post game, he seems equally comfortable on the perimeter shooting the basketball. Very confident in his jumper.
5) Here’s a highlight package of Oliver dominating Fresno St last season. (I did not see this game.)
Here’s Oliver dunking the ball read hard.
Here’s Oliver feasting on UW’s Bigs.
5) Now, back to the the table at hand and Paul Millsap comparisons:
Ethan Happ is very much like the player Millsap was in college. Less lift, less explosion, and a frame probably less suited to add weight without losing athleticism. But college Ethan Happ has one big advantage over college Millsap. Ethan Happ is already a good passer, comparing pretty much only to a guy like Draymond Green, at least in terms of passing ability from a Power Position. (Both are still a notch or two below where Simmons was as a Freshman.)
I don’t know if Happ can continue to improve, and no matter what the college stats say, he’ll need to do so. Not only in terms of his offensive game where, like Millsap, he’ll need to add a jumper. But in terms of his defensive game in which he’ll need to find a better way to deal with bigger bodies (poor games vs. Purdue and North Carolina as examples) and to improve in guarding actions that take place on the perimeter.
Those are some very good reasons for Happ to return to school, but if he declares and I’m running an NBA team, he’s been too good a college basketball player not to be worth a pick at some point. I’d much rather spend a 2nd round pick on Happ than a 1st round pick on a majority of the other Bigs available. Especially perhaps because I think Happ is better than any number of them.
6) Dedric Lawson has run up some ugly scoring numbers versus good competition. (1-11, 4-12, and 6-13 vs SMU, 1-9 and 8-18 vs Cincinatti , 3-11 and 4-14 vs UConn-Brimah, 6-15 vs. Oklahoma, 7-17 vs Ole Miss and Ohio St., 4-9 vs. South Carolina) You can find a lot of results like those, but one good thing, at least in terms of the 2016-17 season, is that he often still finds a way to contribute as a passer. There’s been three or four games (SMU, UConn and Temple twice) where he doesn’t really contribute anything positive, but in most he’ll find a way to create something for teammates. Eight assists vs. South Carolina. Four vs. Oklahoma. Three vs. Ole Miss.
Still, Lawson should try to experience some real college success before declaring for the draft. He’s in a mediocre conference and on a mediocre team. He’ll never be athletic for his NBA position. For that kind of guy to succeed long-term, he’s going to have to be overwhelmingly skilled. From that perspective, Lawson has some advantages. And given that he’s still only 19, he still has time. Even if he comes out after his senior year, he’ll be an age 22 rookie. And a year or two extra in college could make a huge difference in terms of his success down the road. If he solidifies a jumper, continues to improve as a playmaker and a defender, he might really be something. Despite his disadvantage in terms of raw foot speed.
7) Swanigan, Motley and Leaf. All three could be above average playmakers rolling off of screens. Especially for Swanigan and Leaf, who are more convincing and more versatile as scorers and at a younger age. Both are only 19.
Indeed, passing ability in relation to the offensive versatility that might allow each player is being underrated right now. Markkanen may legitimately be ahead of both right now, because his shooting stroke is that clean and that quick, but the fact that the other two players are projectable in more than one phase of the game does make their projection potentially much closer four and five years down the line.
Both also have either athleticism or size that Markkanen does not. (Leaf looks a lot like a young David Lee but with more developed offensive game. Athletic in similar ways, not just because they are both white. Whereas Swanigan has a 7’6″ wingspan, which to go along with his consistent effort on that end, does give him some chance to be decent. The fact that Purdue’s defense is really good for college is also another potential marker, suggesting he might be slightly better than we expect if his team can keep him from guarding in space too often. Though that’s becoming an increasingly more difficult proposition for Big Men.)
8) Jordan Bell is a guy I want to note. I’m going to talk about him a lot later in this piece, as he’s a guy who’s been underrated since he was a Freshman. That’s especially true now that he’s turned himself into a 49% shooter on mid-range jumpers and a 70% Free-Throw Shooter. (This table doesn’t incorporate his last game against Colorado.) It takes a lot of work to go from where Bell was as a Freshman (13%, 52%) to where he is now. If I’m buying on a player improving unexpectedly in the future, I’m buying on a player like Bell, who has shown he has the work ethic to do it in college.
To go beyond that, Bell is a smart player. He’s been a major league Assist guy (at least in terms of position) since he was a Freshman, and always good in Assist-to-Turnover ratio. That shows up on defense too, where Bell is kind of like a poor man’s Robert Horry. Perhaps not as vertically explosive or as long, but he gets up quick and almost always knows where he should be. Not the most fluid athlete in the hips, but he might be good enough given his other strengths.
9) Bell’s one of the more likely guy to be this year’s T.J. McConnell. No, he’s not a Point Guard. That’s not what I’m saying. Rather in that, Jordan Bell, like T.J. McConnell before him has pretty much always put up numbers and results, and yet everyone continues to disregard him in terms of his pro potential. Sometimes those guys turn out to be really good players. In addition, Bell, despite being undersized, answers a lot more athletic questions than McConnell. It’s worth seeing if Bell can continue improvements in his jumper. He’s an elite college player in several respects.
10) Passing is one area where Zach Collins simply isn’t very good. It’s likely going to restrict him to finishing plays. That’s been kind of a career killer (in terms of becoming more than average) for guys like Derrick Williams or Michael Beasley. But Collins is legitimately 7’0″ tall. A Center who merely finishes plays isn’t necessarily ideal. Shaq, Duncan and Robinson certainly offered much more than that. However, that player can still offer considerable value on offense, especially if they are high efficiency and don’t turn the ball over.
Bigs in the 2017 NBA Draft: Assist-to-Turnover Ratio
1) Yes, turnovers are perhaps something of a concern for Collins. However, I do think this number somewhat overstates the issue for Collins. Why? One, because he plays relatively low minutes and thus variance comes a lot more into play. Two, because turnovers haven’t been a problem recently, and it’s highly possible it took Collins a little while to get his feet wet.
Of course, almost all of Gonzaga’s good competition came earlier in the season. That might be something of a damper on this hypothesis. But Collins has had 3 games vs. Top 100 teams in Conference play (two vs. St. Mary’s, one against BYU) and committed 1 turnover in 55 minutes. 55 minutes isn’t a lot to go on, but we likely get to see Gonzaga play at least one more game against St. Mary’s and, at a bare minimum, 3 or 4 games in the NCAA tournament. I’m betting that if Collins has real turnover issues, we’ll get to see them again at some point.
2) Anyone familiar with my writing knows I’m not a big fan of Lauri Markkanen. That’s the player as a whole. However, Markkanen does have real strengths that make him very likely to be an NBA player for a long time. The shooting is the obvious one. The fact that he never turns the ball over is another one.
A .8-to-One Assist-to-Turnover ratio despite averaging barely an assist per 40 minutes is impressive. (The assist part not so much.) It’s likely a real skill, and as we’ve seen how having an elite finisher can sometimes suppress team turnovers in the NBA, I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if that is also the case for Markkanen in the future.
3) Power players operate on different scales than others in terms of Assist-to-Turnover ratio. 0.7-to-one is pretty good. Approaching 1-to-1 is excellent. The guys better than that are getting into a range at the Power Forward position that is potentially special. Especially because all three of them are 19 or 20.
One thing I’d suggest looking for in terms of draft picks, even the ones picked later in the draft, is if the prospect has at least one elite skill (in terms of college production.) Virtually all of the guys I like have at least one. It’s just much more difficult to become a star by being above average at everything, and even those guys (like Paul Millsap) were generally elite at something in college. Happ, Lawson, and Leaf are elite in terms of creating plays while taking care of the ball.
4) Leaf also is likely elite in several different scoring actions as well. Post-ups, mid-range jumpers, trail three-point shooting. One thing to note however is that he hasn’t been at his best versus elite competition.
Here’s a group of games (thanks to Sports-Reference) featuring some of Leaf’s worst games of the season, in terms of rebounds, getting shots off, making them. Oregon and USC especially. Though one should note that Leaf was much better versus USC in the rematch, completely dominating them. (A good sign.)
As for the Oregon and Arizona games, especially in terms of rebounding, these are not without worry. Both teams have players with NBA potential all over the court and as such, we should take the results somewhat seriously. In the case of Oregon, it’s possible we are talking more about the brilliance of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher than any particular deficit of TJ Leaf. We should expect all but the most elite 19 year old Freshman to struggle a little with potential NBA caliber defenders.
Bigs in the 2017 NBA Draft: Defense, Part 1
Steals Per 40
1) Steals are important indicators of intelligence, awareness and athleticism. Anytime you see a power player in Shawn Marion country. Take note. Yes, I am speaking about Ethan Happ. 3+ steals per 40 is a lot. It’s especially a lot for a PF or C.
2) Two steals per 40 is still an excellent sign, especially when the player can also rebound. This year, that’s pretty much just Jonathan Isaac and Jordan Bell.
3) Please note, I’m primarily talking about these players prospects at PF or C. I mean no disrespect to Josh Jackson. Really, I’m just suggesting it would be unfortunate if he ended up as a Small-Ball Four.
4) There’s nothing to be ashamed about for a PF/C managing 1 steal per 40. It’s not Nerlens Noel country, or even Joel Embiid. Still, none of Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan, Derrick Favors, Tristan Thompson and Paul Millsap averaged more than 1.3 steals per 40 before their age-21 season. (Only Millsap had such an NCAA season.) Jordan managed only 0.4 steals. All became quite good at defense in the NBA.
Blocks Per 40
1) Yes, Robert Williams, Kevarrius Hayes, Zach Collins and Jordan Bell have question marks. These guys are all pretty good defensive prospects.
2) The blocks also bring up one of the question marks for Happ, since he’s not especially mobile. What happens if the league continues to downsize and Happ has to play Center? Is he left without a defensive position? At least in certain match-ups. And can he punish those guys on the offensive end?
It’s difficult to answer wholly in the affirmative, especially when we consider some of those downsized guys are substantially bigger than Happ. Guys like Giannis or Lebron James.
Special intelligence and effort are worth a gamble. This question suggests why a guy like Happ, with otherworldly numbers, is in fact something of a gamble.
3) I tend to not like Bigs who can’t protect the rim at all. Guys who can’t make up for their opponents mistakes. That is to say, Lauri Markkanen and Caleb Swanigan.
Stocks Per 40
1) The top of this list is a pretty good place to be. We can see by Draymond Green checking in at 3.7 his junior year that it’s by no means necessary. But if I had to bet on defenders in this class at Big positions, it would be the guys skirting 5 Stocks or better plus Jonathan Isaac and possibly Cameron Oliver.
2) Dedric Lawson puts up numbers across the board. People are wondering about a good athletic comparison that fits his skill-set. How about a slightly smaller poor man’s Kyle Anderson?
Kyle Anderson still isn’t very valuable on offense and rarely plays for San Antonio, but we also very rarely see him at Power Forward. That’s the position which allows his strengths to become unique attributes.
3) Let’s talk some more about Jordan Bell and why he might be a good gamble.
Here we have table showing us some players that, at least on the surface, Jordan Bell compares to statistically. I’m talking about Shawn Marion and Robert Horry, though the latter player is a much better comparison than the former. The main reason being that Shawn Marion is just a much more fluid athlete than Jordan Bell.
4) What we see with the Horry and Bell comparison is that neither Bell nor Horry were big-time scorers years 1-3. Bell, admittedly started way behind Horry, and at the same age is still behind, considering Horry was younger as a senior than Bell is now. (I’m specifically talking about shooting the basketball.) So it’s not a perfect comparison. Horry had more offensive game at a younger age, was possibly more explosive and most likely longer as well.
However, this highlight video from the NBA draft is basically a tape of things Jordan Bell is good at. Blocked shots. Finishing on the break. I’ve even seen Bell on a breakaway, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him go coast to coast. (You can see Horry’s handle was functional but nothing special.)
Here’s another video. Defense and finishing.
And here’s a much more in depth scouting video from DraftExpress.
I don’t know if there’s a perfect comparison for Bell, but a poor man’s Robert Horry who might grow as a shooter is perhaps a good place to begin.
5) Bell isn’t the only player who seems potentially somewhat similar to Robert Horry and Shawn Marion. Though I’ve previously compared Jonathan Isaac to a bigger, more athletic and defensively inclined version of Marvin Williams or Harrison Barnes, (as stated above) Marion and Robert Horry are two other potentially interesting comparisons for the kind of player Jonathan Isaac may be in the future.
6) It’s interesting to note the gap between Horry, Isaac, Marion, Bell and everyone else on this table, at least as far as statistics go. Anunoby, Jackson, Thornwell, Tatum are close in stocks. Miles Bridges is close in rebounds. But none of them are close in both. Horry and Marion are two of the greatest Power Forwards ever, so it’s not a knock not to be close. It’s just to suggest once again, you are probably giving up something defensively if you are playing these players at a Power Position. In most cases, the ideal small ball players are guys like Giannis, Green, Kirilenko, Garnett, rather than actual Wing sized players.
7) Caleb Swanigan and Lauri Markkanen are really low here. There’s a heuristic that suggests players scoring less than 2.0 stocks per 40 minutes are highly questionable NBA players, if NBA players at all. I don’t buy into any statistic or heuristic that totally, but if the player also has major eye-test questions as with Swanigan and Markkanen, having such low stocks might suggest a real issue in terms of athleticism or awareness on that side of the floor.
8) As we’ll see below, Purdue’s defense is actually really good with Swanigan. While that doesn’t alleviate all the concerns, it does at least have us question what our eyes and heuristics are telling us. With Arizona being much closer to an average defense now than they were out of conference, Markkanen has no such push-back from the statistics. He can be decent positionally, but I’d expect defensive concerns to be exxaggerated at the next level, especially if Markkanen ever gets to big league playoff basketball.
9) Motley falls below this heuristic as well, but he’s always been a 3+ guy before this. If you look at the individual statistics, they suggest that Motley has traded blocks and steals for rebounds. Perhaps more importantly, Baylor’s defense has had a major uptick in effectiveness.
Those individual Defensive Ratings are relatively representative of the kind of defense Baylor has been on the whole this year. Also, unlike Arizona, Baylor has been much more consistent across all competition. We can see this if we really look at numbers in the context of competition.
Arizona currently ranks 33rd in Defensive Rating whereas Baylor ranks 29th, but Arizona has the 66th ranked strength of schedule, whereas Baylor is 5th. Not only has Baylor faced better opponents on the whole this year, they’ve faced them more consistently, whereas Arizona’s relatively lofty Defensive Rating is much due to feasting on cupcakes earlier in the season.
10) Motley also happens to be much more athletic than the other two players.
2017 NBA Draft Bigs: Shooting
Let’s look at 2-Point shooting.
And Three-Point Shooting.
1) Zach Collins is the only 2017 player to rank near the top in 2P%, 3P% and Free Throw Throw Percentage. It might be partly due to competition (though he has also scored efficiently vs. Top 100 teams), but it’s not due to low usage. (25% overall.)
2) Lauri Markkanen is seen as the better offensive prospect than T.J. Leaf. I’m not sure if this is true. Lauri Markkanen is likely ahead right now, because his elite skill (shooting from distance) fits very well into the way teams wish to play in the NBA, but T.J. Leaf has shot very well in college (except from the Free-Throw line), has legitimate game at all levels AND has passing ability that Markkanen is unlikely to match. It’s highly possible that T.J. Leaf becomes a knock down NBA three-point shooter as well while having a versatile offensive game that Markkanen just can’t match.
3) We hear a lot about Markkanen’s uniqueness as a jump shooting Big. He’s certainly the best one in this class. That becomes especially clear if we take into account attempts per 40 (around 6 3PA per 40) along with 3-Point and Free-Throw Percentages. But even in this class, there’s several Bigs we’d project to perhaps become good 3-Pt shooters. Collins, Leaf and Swanigan are all decent bets. And all potentially provide value that Markkanen doesn’t.
4) Markkanen’s lack of uniqueness becomes more apparent if we remember that Ryan Anderson was Age 19 as a sophomore or that Nikola Mirotic at Age 19 was much better playing for Barcelona than Markkanen is playing for Arizona.
Even leaving out 7’0″ tall Channing Frye, the fleet-of-feet Steve Novak, the misguided grenade launcher, Ersan Ilyasova, and shooting wunderkind Mo Speights, this kind of player hasn’t been especially rare over the past 12 years. And no, it wasn’t Andrea Bargnani’s shooting that was problem, who was also 7’0″ tall. It was all that other stuff he couldn’t do.
5) Don’t let the fact that Lauri Markkanen is 7’0″ confuse you. He’s going to be a dunking practice Big on defense. And it’s quite possible he struggles to get back on defense in transition. (Standing at the 3-Pt line, rather than posting, should help him here.)
Miles Bridges is more likely than not going to be an NBA Power Forward. Lauri Markkanen is going to have to close out occasionally on guys like Josh Langford. I haven’t seen anyone offer a plausible explanation as to how Markkanen is going to pass the sniff test in the NBA. He’s already physically developed. He’s not getting more athletic. If anything, he’ll get slower as he adds weight and bulk, which he’ll almost certainly need to do to play Center against guys like DeMarcus Cousins or Joel Embiid.
There’s more than a decent chance that Markkanen ends up an Enes Kanter level defender at the Center position, but without rebounding. Kanter has managed to rack up negative RPM’s as a Center in every year we have the stat even with rebounds. That’s also playing mostly versus back-ups. -0.67 this year. -1.5 last year. -3.87 and -1.75 the two years before that. And I think RPM actually significantly overrates average and bad defensive Centers, due to the fact that they still tend to get rebounds and blocks.
6) We have to balance a players strengths with their weaknesses. How rare are their strengths? Even with relative scarcity can they make up for the players weaknesses?
One thing to consider is that more and more tall players are going to come into league shooting threes. Guys coming up who resemble Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, all kings of the Long Two-Point Jumper, are going to become Kings of the Three-Pointer instead. Which is to say, over the course of Markkanen’s career, his unique skill is going to become less and less unique. Which will just leave him as Three-Point shooter who can’t do the defensive things these other players can do.
What Do Elite Defensive Bigs Look Like?
Defensive Box-Plus Minus
1) This table is a pretty good indicator of the markers we should be looking at statistically. Notice the guys at the top of table (Noel, Davis, Embiid, Adams) all tend to be pretty good in the NBA. (Yes, I think Towns will bounce back.)
2) Though there is no hard-and-fast DBPM rule. Draymond Green’s defensive upside is matched perhaps only by Noel and Embiid and he falls quite a bit lower in both his junior and senior seasons. Cody Zeller has also become a quite capable defender, if more average for his position than elite. Dwayne Dedmon, on the other hand, has become one of the best defensive Centers in the league. It took a long time (Dedmon is now 27) but with good coaching and teammates, it did happen.
3) One thing to note about Dwayne Dedmon is that he just wasn’t very good as a Freshman. 3.5 Defensive Box Plus-Minus. 18% Defensive Rebound Percentage. Sub 5% Block Percentage. Semi-athletic Centers with physical tools do occasionally take some time to show greatness. This is something to keep in mind with respect to Jarrett Allen, who we’ll see down below. I’m not super inclined to bet on Allen, but if he ends up on San Antonio or Dallas, I’m probably going to be pretty high on his future prospects, as both teams have coaches who really understand how to teach and utilize Centers.
1) What’s misunderstood about this proxy method of judging defense is that the Team DRtg is the often most important part of a player’s score. Firstly, because DRtg and ORtg are contextual stats and we can only really understand them when understanding what the team looked like as a whole.
The second reason is that great defensive players are often part of great defensive teams. They also seldom play for Teams that are truly terrible defensively. Though Draymond Green’s junior year Spartans are right on that borderline.
2) A good example of this is Tristan Thompson. He ranks last by this measure, mostly because he struggles on the defensive glass. Those struggles are important to note, as they have persisted in the NBA, and yet we can still read that Thompson is likely a player of great defensive promise. Why? Because his Texas team has a Defensive Rating of 91.1, which is exceptional in almost any college year.
So we should read Thompson’s score as being significantly better than Andre Drummond’s or Alex Len’s.
3) That being said, great defensive Bigs normally score well by this method.
Defensive Rating (Conference)
1) This number tells us a lot about the level of competition the player played against. There are no hard and fast rules, but Teams in general get worse at defense when they play better offenses. This number sheds a little light on that. Notice that, Zeller, Len, Drummond and Turner all play on defenses that are notably worse in Conference play than as whole.
(Bigs generally put up Defensive Rating’s significantly better than those of their teammates, so we can generally assume the Team’s were worse on a whole.)
2) That’s not to say Zeller was bad. In fact, here we can see one of the deficiencies of DBPM. We could guess, looking at these numbers, that Zeller was quite a bit better on defense as a sophomore than as a Freshman. Yet DBPM suggests he got worse. I think that’s not likely. Especially judging by Zeller’s success in the NBA.
3) Towns’ numbers here don’t seem that impressive, but please remember he played on one of the most stacked Teams ever, and that a 82.4 Conference Defensive Rating is still awesome. Same deal with Steven Adams. An 89.4 Conference Defensive Rating is great.
4) Still, I find it interesting that Tristan Thompson got quite a bit better here. What that suggests is that either Texas played a very difficult schedule or Tristan Thompson got better defensively throughout the season. Possibly both.
Judging by Texas’s schedule, we can see that the likely answer is both. Texas played Arizona, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Illinois, Southern California, Michigan State, Connecticut and Arkansas out of conference. Many of those were Top 25 or even Top 10 teams. But Conference sledding was no easier with Kansas twice, Texas A&M three times, Missouri and no cupcakes like Sam Houston St.
5) Again, there are no hard and fast rules. If you put too much stuck in this metric, for instance, you’d take Draymond Green as a Senior, but not as a Junior. That would be a mistake.
2017 NBA DRaft Bigs: Defense and Advanced Metrics
Defensive Box Plus-Minus
1) Here I’ve added some players. Diakite, Allen, Harry Giles, Wenyen Gabriel and Anas Mahmoud. And I highlighted the players, based on what I’ve seen are the best college defensive prospects at a Power Position. Please note that I picked them out before I sorted or even looked at Individual DRtg minus Team DRtg. This was by the eye test and because I find the rebounding numbers of Kevarrius Hayes to be suspect. (Or else I would have highlighted him as well. He’s good.)
2) Why do I note find Diakite’s rebounding numbers suspect? He plays for Virginia, alongside any number of an excellent college defenders/rebounders including Bigs like Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt. Also, he’s just a different order athlete. Though very raw. I’d hope both Diakite and Hayes remain in school and continue to progress on both sides of the ball, but they would each be two of the more intriguing players if they did happen to leave. Even if they probably have a fair bit to gain by staying in school.
The same goes for Anigbogu, whose play, and the numbers corresponding, are truly impressive when considering how young he is. Should he go, he’s also quite likely to end up the 14th or 15th man on any NBA team he plays for and perhaps in a developmental wasteland. Think of what’s happened to Noah Vonleh. Would the likelihood of a positive career outcome be better had he stayed at Indiana and learned the game against lesser athletes? I tend to think so, though there’s no way to answer this question.
3) There’s a difference between guys playing Power Forward and guys playing Center. Centers are normally the guys who rack up the 8+ numbers, which happens when they not only put up solid individual numbers but play on good Team defenses. (Defensive Box Plus-Minus is to a great extent a Team Rating.)
4) Jordan Bell is exceptional in either case. As a sophomore he generally played besides Chris Boucher, moving down to a Forward role. He responded by expanding his game in terms of steals.
This year, however, is different. Jordan Bell still sometimes plays next to Boucher, though this happened more often earlier in the season. Now we frequently see one or the other at Center with Dillon Brooks moved to Power Forward. Now Bell is back playing the College Center or Big Forward position, at least a decent amount of the time. Regardless of where he happens to play, his defensive numbers are spectacular.
5) Williams and Collins we’ve looked at before. Collins is not as good a defensive prospect as Williams, but he’s also a non-zero. He rebounds. From what I’ve seen, he has very good timing on blocks. And the team basically always succeeds when he is on the court.
6) Harry Giles and Lauri Markkanen both look like defensive zeros. Giles can rebound but does virtually nothing else. In terms of raw Big Men with some athletic promise, I find Anigbogu and Allen the more interesting players.
7) Jarrett Allen, I talked about above. He hasn’t been good for Texas, but he’s tall, athletic and long, and we’ve seen at least one like player, DeWayne Dedmon, become an excellent Pro defender. (I didn’t mention DeAndre Jordan because Allen’s not in that class of athletes.)
8) T.J. Leaf, not surprisingly doesn’t score well here. Anything below 5 is fairly questionable for a Big.
However, there has been at least a little thought that T.J. Leaf might actually be a Small Forward at the NBA level. Or at least a Combination Forward. Don McClean spoke about it last Saturday while broadcasting the UCLA game. Mike Gribanov wrote about it over a month before.
Sometimes I think that TJ Leaf is secretly a 3
— mike gribanov (@mikegrib8) January 22, 2017
This is a thought I’m not convinced about, though it’s possible his defense hurts a team less at three than at Four, especially in match-ups against stationary Offensive Players. (The majority of NBA teams, including Cleveland, Toronto and Houston, have stationary offensive players which guys as mobile as Leaf can be stashed against. The Warriors are not one of them. The problem is that you can generally only stash one defender, so having a guy like Leaf on a team potentially exposes a player like Steph Curry.)
9) However, I do think Leaf’s skills would play at Small Forward on offense, especially for a team like the Knicks, Nuggets, Spurs or Warriors (Durant, Green) that can play both a Power Forward and Center out on the perimeter. Leaf excels at basically everything on offense. He’s tremendous on Post-ups, out of screening actions (both rolling and popping), spotting up, cutting, running the floor, plus he can dribble a little and actually has passing skills that are significantly better than those of many Wings in the NBA.
Playing Leaf at the Small Forward would involve smaller players in screening actions. The kind of players that are more likely to switch, but not Point Guard is going to be able to guard T.J. Leaf in the post, where Leaf is dominant in college.
He's high % at everything. 99% postups (56 pts), 74% iso (16 pts). Scores more on cuts (105), trans (82), spotup (57), orebs (57)
— Dean Demakis (@deanondraft) February 11, 2017
In addition to the the potential offensive benefits, he’d be an excellent defensive rebounder at the position, potentially allowing a team to mitigate some of the defensive harm.
Given the right situation, moving Leaf down a position is at least an interesting thought. Especially if he’s a non-defender at Power Forward. It’s an offense for defense trade I’d much rather make than playing Lauri Markkanen at Power Forward or Center.
1) Ethan Happ, Zach Collins, Jordan Bell, Jonathan Isaac, Robert Williams and Mamadi Diakite. I think there’s a little bit of luck that allowed the table to turn out like this, but these are certainly the players, along with Kevarrius Hayes, that I’d pick by the eye test as likely to be potential plus defensive players at a Big position.
2) Mahmoud and Boucher also have good arguments, but both are a little skinny. Mahmoud is the better defender in college. Boucher has more chance to have an offensive game, being that he is quite comfortable shooting threes, even if he’s not particularly good at making them.
3) Dedric Lawson, considering that he often plays Center and has played mostly a weak schedule (ranked 100). He’s certainly worth a flyer at some point, but seeing as how there isn’t a lot of draft buzz around him, I’d love it if he went back to school and improved on both sides of the ball.
Ethan Happ isn’t particularly athletic either, isn’t particularly tall, has played a much tougher schedule with Wisconsin than Lawson has on Memphis and has generally succeeded to a much greater extent than Lawson.
4) I don’t normally include Personal Fouls in these samples, but they are occasionally important to notice. There are two such occasions. The first, when there are BBIQ questions. The second when there are questions of athletic limitations. That’s where Ethan Happ gets dinged.
5 fouls against Georgetown in 27 minutes. (Jesse Govan.) 5 fouls against Michigan in 30 minutes. 4 Fouls against Indiana in 32 minutes. 4 fouls against Purdue in 32 minutes. 4 fouls against Michigan in 27 minutes. 4 fouls against Northwestern in 26 minutes. 4 fouls against Ohio St. in 22 minutes. 3 fouls against Creighton in 25 minutes. (Justin Patton.) 3 fouls against Marquette in 17 minutes.
Players tend to foul either when they make mental mistakes or when they are outmatched physically. This is a sign that Ethan Happ may be occasionally outmatched physically. Though it should be pointed out that Draymond Green fouled like a pro until he was a senior. Nearly 5 fouls per 40 minutes against all competition.
5) Reading these numbers, it’s clear Mahmoud, Boucher and Hayes belong in the upper group of defenders. At least as it relates to college basketball. They all anchor elite college defenses. (Defensive ratings below 92.5 in all cases.)
6) Ivan Rabb is an interesting case. He looks good by Team Defensive Rating, but we’ll see in a second that’s largely due to a cupcake non-conference schedule. Still, he does seem most likely to be an NBA player.
7) Caleb Swanigan doesn’t score great by this metric, but notice Purdue’s defense is really good. That’s despite playing several non-defenders on the perimeter, like Vince Edwards or Spike Albrecht.
Conference Defensive Rating
1) Here we see Hayes and Miles Bridges jump way up. They score similarly, but looking at the numbers in context, Hayes is clearing the much better defensive player. Florida’s Defensive Rating is nearly 8 points better than Michigan St.
That being said, Miles Bridges scoring well here does speak in his favor. What it confirms is that Michigan St. has faced competition all year and as such, Bridges’ defensive numbers must be judged against that. Considering Michigan State’s lack of depth up front, it’s a number that speaks pretty positively to Bridges at least being able to handle himself as a small-ball Four.
He may not be an impact defender (at least if he doesn’t notably improve his awareness), but he’s not going to be Jabari Parker either. Somewhere around average is a pretty decent guess for how good Bridges could be on defense as a small-ball Four.
2) The same can’t really be said for either Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum, at least if we believe these numbers. Duke and Kansas are winning not because of their defense at Four, but because of their offensive contributions. That’s not to say these players don’t provide some defensive benefit. Both are good at creating events (blocks and steals), but it’s also pretty clear there’s an Offense-Defense trade-off that’s taking place as well.
It’s perhaps not wholly the fault of Jackson and Tatum. Tatum especially plays next to some terrible perimeter defenders (Allen, Kennard). But there are reasons to question if Tatum has a place he can play on defense, especially against better NBA teams, and to be pretty confident that Jackson is going to ultimately be better at Wing than as a Small-Ball Four.
3) These numbers also suggest to us that the defenses of UCLA, Arizona, and California all tanked in Conference play. The Pac-10 does have some good offenses, but they also have junior varsity teams like Washington State University and Oregon State. (If you want evidence that Gary Payton II is really good at basketball, check out what happened to Oregon State in his absence.)
UCLA, Arizona and California all have SOS scores in the low 60s, mostly based on playing strong conference opponents.
4) Dedric Lawson and Zach Collins play for the kind of teams that play the more difficult parts of their schedules early in the season. Their numbers don’t mean the same thing as the numbers of other players on this list.
5) Cameron Oliver has a 5.1 DBPM, a 94.7 DRtg, a 93.3 Conference DRtg and plays for a Nevada team that scores 100.1 overall. Of the trio of Oliver, Lawson, and Bridges that would rate not altogether differently just based on statistics, he’s the most interesting defensive prospect by a good margin. The one most likely to bring value on that end. He’s unlikely to be rated as such come draft time, but he’s legitimately a Two-Way Prospect at the Power Forward position. That should give him a lot of currency come draft time.
I’m excited by him as a player, though I also have to catch up. I’ve only seen one game.
Jonathan Isaac, Robert Williams and Zach Collins are legitimate lottery prospects at Big positions, with arguments to be as high as 3 (in the case of Isaac) and as a low as 14. For what it’s worth, I’m probably higher on all of them than consensus. Josh Jackson is a legitimate early lottery type but not at PF. He’s a wing on both sides of the ball. Yes, he might have some ability to initiate on offense. Though he’s not getting into the lane based on a weave in the NBA.
Miles Bridges and Jayson Tatum are the kind of picks that normally end up relatively high in the lottery. Both are relatively safe bets to be NBA players. Both probably lack real High-End upside without unexpected career growth. They’re somewhere on the Jabari Parker continuum. Parker being the more talented offensive player, Bridges and Tatum likely offering more on defense. That’s a potentially useful player, but it’s also the kind of player that gets overpaid on his second contract.
After those three players, the most interesting Bigs are probably the trio of Cameron Oliver, Ethan Happ and Jordan Bell. Two of those three, should they declare, are probably going to be 2nd rounders at best. (Happ, Bell. I’ll take a flyer on either.) While Cameron Oliver, as a guy with potential on both sides of the ball, is more exciting than many more highly regarded prospects. Those guys might be better bets to have NBA Careers, but they also have deficiencies on the offensive or defensive end which will almost certainly mitigate their value.
I’m talking about Rabb, Markkanen, Leaf and Swanigan with respect to defense. I’m talking about any of several other guys with respect to offense. I’m not going to be surprised if Oliver is better than all of them.
- Stats thanks to Sports-Reference.com and DraftExpress.com. The Ben Wallace stats were fished from around the web, mainly odds articles from Virginia Union’s webpage and CBS Sports.