This piece has what drafting for fit should mean, why it is important and the reason for which it is not only an acceptable strategy, but perhaps an advisable one.
Though before we get into the discussion, please know this is going to be a mostly conceptual argument. One, I’m making now because it relates to the next piece I want to write, which will focus on Kamar Baldwin, and college basketball’s other potential Patrick Beverley All-Stars. Or in terms of skill:
- Off-ball players.
- Shooting, dribbling, and passing ability for Size/Position/Role.
- Decision making.
- Real ability as Point-of-Attack defenders, especially on smaller initiators.
Or in the case of the college players we’re going to talk about, if not yet ability, at least the potential for all these attributes. In terms of NBA guys that means not only Patrick Beverley, but George Hill, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart (minus shooting), and once upon a time both Kyle Lowry and Eric Bledsoe.
It’s a player-type that’s becoming more valuable and perhaps even more prevalent as primary initiators grow in size. McGrady, Lebron, Giannis, Simmons. These guys often need smaller partners-in-crime to chase the league’s traditional Point Guards on the defensive end. The advantage of this situation being that smaller players are often more skilled. And beyond that, it seems that quite a lot of players might thrive in a secondary role who would fail in a primary one.
Skills That Fit: A Preamble About Position and Role
As a general rule, I’m of the opinion that, if at all possible, basically all college Point Guards would be better as Off-Ball-Wings in the Pro Game. Now of course that’s not true for the most exceptional players: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook (who was actually mostly a college Two). However, for most of the players beyond that level of play, like Kris Dunn (lacks point guard decision making, turnover prone, and inconsistent off-the-dribble shooter), Tyler Ennis, etc . . ., having the chance to play off ball may allow them to add legitimate value to a team. Whereas playing PG pretty much dooms them to mediocrity or worse.
This same phenomena is often true of other positions as well. For instance, Kyle Anderson, whose been playing SG and SF, to decent effect on defense and to not much effect on offense. At least according to metrics.
However, Anderson’s positional advantage on offense, given his foot speed, would ultimately be as PF in a role similar to that of Draymond Green. A role where he can make decisions in man-advantage situations and have the game unfold in front of him. It’s also possible the positional switch would allow him to get more time to shoot as well. Though the Spurs roster pretty much eliminates any chance we’ll see Anderson in that position, at least in the neat future.
Aldridge, Gasol, Lee, Bertans, Dedmon play next to him. Meaning we get to see Anderson play next to Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, but usually not both. And very often, neither. (Lineup Data per Sports-Reference.com.)
Remember this when looking at ORPM. These offenses still hum as the Spurs ORtg when Kyle Anderson plays on offense is 111.4. It’s not as good as the 115 ORtg when he’s off it, but isn’t some of that probably due to the fact of what has to happen to a Spurs line-up to accommodate Anderson at a Wing Position.
Inevitably the Spurs take out one of their key perimeter offensive players. Guys who provide legitimate floor stretch, and in the case of Leonard, legitimate play-making. Players who could play next to Anderson if he was running at Four. So perhaps, Anderson’s seeming offensive failure is partially a product of line-up construction, as much as it an indication of Anderson’s abilities.
Remember how much better Boris Diaw got when the NBA stopped pretending he was a SG and began to play him at PF and C. Better yet, remember Draymond Green, when he was toiling away on the Wing, years one and two of his career. Nearly 70% as a SF.
Look at Green’s advanced numbers.
The first few years look suspiciously similar to those of Kyle Anderson, whose been playing 70-90% on the Wing.
Big defensive impact, when put into situations where his foot speed doesn’t hinder him. (Green doesn’t really have this problem except vs. Lebron level athletes, so it’s clearly one advantage for Draymond.) Somewhat negative offensive impact, at least compared to his teammates. But that’s an attribute that might change dramatically if Anderson were merely allowed to play up a position.
This makes Anderson a player I would target in a trade. Since the pay-out would probably be minimal, thus also the risk. Indeed, it’s a move that could work in the favor of an NBA offense in multiple ways, not only because Anderson’s skills might now be able to play on an NBA court, but because it allows the coach to add more players with legitimate perimeter skills to the court. We’ve all seen, it’s perimeter skills that are driving most of today’s NBA offense.
So why am I talking about Draymond Green, Kyle Anderson, Kris Dunn, George Hill and Patrick Beverley?
Because the established players are the ultimate “Skills That Fit” players. While the younger guys have the potential to be so, if shifted into an offensive role that benefits their abilities. (Of course, success is always a question until it’s occurred. But I’m pretty much of the opinion that before the Wolves trade Ricky Rubio, maybe they should try playing Kris Dunn next to him . . . )
So what exactly do I mean by “Skills That Fit”? I mean to speak of players who possess skills that fit not just a particular team, but would fit almost ANY team in the NBA. That is, they possess at least some of, and in the best cases, all of these six skills.
- Shooting off the catch.
- Shot selection/Decision-making.
- Ability to play average to plus defense.
- Defensive versatility. Either provided by, or afforded by. (Think how Beverley allows Harden to guard weaker offensive players.)
- Ability to Pass for Size/Position/Role.
- Ability to Dribble with respect to offensive role.
These are skills that allow the player to play off-the-ball on offense and contribute in multiple ways. Not just as finishers but as players who can progress the offense. On defense, they allow the coach some match-up flexibility, while being able to provide some kind of positive impact. No team would want to be without such players in ancillary roles.
Thus, when we say drafting for fit, rather than considering the positional make-up of an individual team, we should perhaps be considering the skills of the player. After all, the roster composition of teams change dramatically around their core group of stars. Sometimes over a very short period of time.
Which is to say, it’s unpredictable. But players with these six skills are going to fit into almost any offense and into almost any defense. And there are even situations (like Klay Thompson vs. Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard or any number of players beyond Top 9 or 10 guys in the league) where the player with “Skills That Fit” allows his team to build more highly functioning offense/defense combinations than the guy who all the metrics agree are better. Sometimes a considerable amount.
We’ll discuss this more below, since Klay Thompson is by far the best example of a player, whom the metrics place as somewhere between the 40th and 100th best guy in the league. And the league rightly takes to be a lower tier all-star.
Yet, if the league were to do a full redraft, I’m going to argue that Thompson is probably the 13th best player to build a team around. (Just speaking of present day value, I’d put him behind only Lebron, Curry, Paul, Lowry, Leonard, Green, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Giannis, Embiid and Anthony Davis.)
The point, that being the 13th or 14th or 15th best player to build around is different from being the 13th or 14th or 15th best player overall. As Thompson’s unique set of abilities become most valuable when placed on a team with other stars.
Or if we were to say that sentence another way:
Thompson’s unique set of abilities become most valuable when placed on a team with a legitimate chance to win a championship. Whereas any average team would likely do more for their Wins-Loss totals with players like Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Paul Millsap or DeMarcus Cousins.
And so now we have the basis of argument of situations when “Drafting For Fit” might make more sense than “Best Player Available.” The primary keys being how insanely good Klay Thompson is at finishing possession, how his gravity as a shooter stretches the floor and opens up opportunities for other players to succeed, how well his offensive skills work playing off a primary creator, that he takes nothing off the table, and that he’s not only the best, but pretty much the only player of his kind.
Not the only two-way shooter. There’s Danny Green of course. Maybe a couple of others. But the only two-way shooter who is an offense unto himself. That scarcity drives up his value, not only since it makes what he offers Golden State unique, but in that uniqueness the Warriors also have a definitive advantage over the rest of the league. There’s just few teams that can leverage such a player to deliver real value on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
How This Might Work Through The Lens of My First 2017 Draft Ranking
Before I get to the ranking, it’s important to note that it’s not so much important where we are now, but where we end in June. And we’re six months away from June. There’s still a lot of time for things to change. Still, at the top of the draft, I’ve seen enough basketball now that some feelings are beginning to solidify.
1) Markelle Fultz reminds me of a more athletic Kyrie Irving with rebounding ability. But Fultz could be quite a bit better than that if he either commits to playing defense, or improves his feel as a passer. And both outcomes are still definitely on the table. Beyond these, the biggest question is just how true the jumper is. I’m pretty sure it’ll be good. But is it 35-37% good, or plus 40% good?
2) Logically, Markelle Fultz is the clear number 1 pick. He looks like what we expect a number 1 pick to look like. Intuitively, I think Lonzo Ball ends up the most impactful player in the class, especially in terms of potentially affecting a championship team.
Part of it is that the best player in a draft, given a certain baseline of skill and athleticism, is almost always the smartest, most competitive player. (Ball scores very high in both.) Part of that comes from how elite his positive skills are, and how perfectly they fit when placed in the context of a team competing for a championship.
Ball is the ultimate “Skills That Fit” player. (I believe he’ll play plus defense if placed in an off-ball role that suits his skills. Perhaps considerably so.) In the context of an average team, it’s possible Fultz adds more wins. And he may even become a Harden-level impact guy. But given that a team competing for a championship either needs Lebron or two legitimate star-level players to compete for a championship, part of the argument trying to differentiate Fultz from Ball seems a straw man.
That Ball will never be the go-to bucket-getter. The thing is, on any championship level team, Ball will never be. He’ll always be accompanied by at least one guy who can fulfill that role, if not three or four in the case of this year’s Golden State Team. Even with Lebron, Kyrie raised his offensive and defensive level the last five games of last year’s Championship series and played like a Top Order Star.
To win a championship, it’s never just one guy. Keeping this fact in mind, it’s possible that what Ball offers is just more unique than what Fultz does.
What Ball presents is just an incredibly unique situation to build around a guy who’ll make the skills of any player he plays with make sense. Beyond just making their skills make sense, that accentuates their offensive strengths. Especially given the fact that most players need to shoot the ball to add value to their team.
That is perhaps the most important point. The Sixers being competitive and winning games when T.J. McConnell starts is not some accident. It’s not just Embiid. It also has a lot to do with the way that McConnell sets his teammates up to be successful.
Here we have the top passers in the league since TJ McConnell has been starting Sixers games and getting real run. Synergy er game numbers, arranged by Potential Assists. (Thank you NBA.com.) Now, there’s a lot to talk about, but one thing is how assists very much underrate McConnell’s direct contributions as a Passer. A fact that was consistent with his 2015-16 play as well.
You see, how only Mike Conley is nearly as low in terms of the conversion rate of the assist opportunities he creates. That’s a little because of week-in, week-out luck, and a lot because of the quality of these player’s teammates. But another thing to note is how many points McConnell generates per assist. His 2.35 number over this stretch is very much inline with any player not named James Harden, and a bit better than Westbrook, Rubio and Conley.
It’s not a long enough stretch to be anywhere near truly meaningful, but this is the kind of thing we should be looking at, at least in part, in order to determine the affect a player’s passing can have on the game. And McConnell is short, borderline athletic version, sub-standard shooting, of Ball. (And that’s giving McConnell, a lot of credit for vision, which is just not on the same level as that of Ball.) If a borderline NBA athlete with similar attributes can be this impactful in the NBA, even with okay or mediocre teammates + Embiid, imagine what an actual NBA athlete who can pull up from 30 feet and can shoot off the catch might do.
3) De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson. The gap with these two prospects doesn’t make much sense to me. Jackson is the better defensive prospect. Fox is likely the more impactful offensive one. And Fox is quite a bit more likely to shoot from the field. Especially from the mid-range, where he already looks pretty decent.
Shooting the basketball, especially for this kind of prospect, is kind of a crapshoot. I mean, it’s a legitimate question even for guys who shoot well in college. And these guys struggle. But I think it’s best to view both prospects through the lens of Joel Embiid. Not to say either will be as impactful, but either guy with a consistent jumper is a Big-Time NBA player. Likely Top 15 guy. Perhaps the best player from this class.
But the jumper is a place where we find uncertainty. Just as Embiid’s injury history gave us uncertainty. Indeed, it might never worked out. But what should have been obvious at the time is certainly obvious now, no player in that draft warranted passing on Embiid. Even with the downside risk.
The Bucks should have Giannis and Embiid. And wherever they were picking in the draft likely could have found their way to Brogdon. Brogdon, Middleton, Giannis, Embiid. Or Jabari Parker . . .
The downside risk isn’t even that great. If the players don’t succeed, it’s almost a win-win. The team struggles again as well, gets another shot at the lottery and puts themselves into the best chance to find a star level player.
4) Jonathan Isaac. I still don’t think he shows that much offensive feel, even with his recent stretch. He’s much better when playing off the ball and being put into situations to succeed than when initiating offense. But I’m believing more and more in his shot, even if Isaac’s not yet consistent when he stretches it to the college three. And I love his energy, his hands, and his defensive versatility. The feet aren’t anywhere near elite, but he’s tall and he tries.
In many ways, he reminds me of the player we were expecting Harrison Barnes or Marvin Williams to be before they stepped foot on a college basketball court. That’s Jonathan Isaac. Only he’s 6’11”.
5) So why do I bring this up? Well, the first four players are all, if things go well, primary perimeter initiators. The most valuable players to an offense. The drivers of success. It’s important to note that while it’s beneficial if such players have skills that fit, it’s by no means a necessity.
Lebron James, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Russell Westbrook, even Michael Jordan, all are among the best players to ever play this game, and for most of their peak careers, none of them had a 3-Pt jump shot. Two of them couldn’t even make shots consistently from the mid-range.
Didn’t matter. The initiator just has to be able to get to his spots. Those areas of the court from which he can inflict the most damage on the defense. It’s the other players on the team who have to have skills that fit around them. So when we’re talking about “Skills That Fit”, we’re mostly talking about secondary and tertiary offensive players.
We’re talking about Jonathan Isaac. And Isaac ticks almost all the boxes.
- Shooting off the catch? Check.
- Shot selection? Check.
- Defensive ability? Check.
- Defensive versatility? Check.
- Passing for position? It’s a real question, but he could provide floor stretch if he plays Four, which has similar benefits to an offense.
- Dribbling for role? Most likely, that’s a check too. Even if we see Isaac sometimes struggle vs. smaller players.
That’s your argument for Jonathan Isaac over Josh Jackson or De’Aaron Fox. You couple the risk-reward jump shooting, with the fact that Isaac might be a particularly good player to build around, even in situations where he perhaps doesn’t end up the most valuable, and there’s a clear argument to get as high as 3. So long as he continues to play well.
Then the question is, not just if Isaac’s skills fit, but just how good do you think he’ll be in each area? Josh Hart possesses skills that fit as well, but there’s a reason he’s not in this discussion.
6) There’s several wunderkinds I’ve not yet ranked. Smith, Jr. would almost certainly be next. Just because of his initiation skill. Though one thing that bugs me is that we’re still waiting for Smith, Jr. to have a good game versus competition (team or individual). There’s still time for him to improve and Smith, Jr. definitely has the tools, but vs. good teams we see too many plays like these:
That’s an excellent picture and diagram by Mike Gribanov (@mikegrib8). Trying to score over two guys at the rim with four Wolfpack players open.
Derrick Rose wasn’t great at this point of the season either. And Smith, Jr. right now compares pretty favorably to Jay Williams or Kyle Lowry or Reggie Jackson or any number of others that got very good on offense, but there’s legitimate reason for concern. Especially when there’s not much pushback on defense.
7) After that I’m not really sure who to rank next, and there’s plenty of questions we won’t be able to answer. The biggest one, is there a point guard waiting somewhere in Malik Monk if he can tighten his handle? I think one potential reason we see so many pull-ups after dribbling moves that get Monk open is simply that his handle really slows him down. He has quick hands, but he dribbles high and doesn’t control the ball very well. Another reason might be that Calipari yells at him if he tries to dunk the ball and the misses, or hangs on the rim for half a second and gets called for a ridiculous college technical.
Probably the most annoying thing about watching Kentucky because I know it’s just sending messages that are ultimately not good. And often inconsistent. He’s not going to be yelling at the kid if he makes the dunk, or if the college refs treat him like they treat every other kid. You should be encouraging Monk to try to dunk the shit out of the ball. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with college basketball? Why are we not encouraging Malik Monk to have fun and try to dunk over 7 footers from 10 feet away? You’re making a shitload of money off of this. It’s entertainment. Let it be fun.
The Rule We Need In Basketball
No offensive foul can be called if the player is trying to dunk the basketball. Simple. Easy. Effective. If a player is trying to dunk the basketball, get rid of charging. Let the defender try to challenge the play. If the defender’s not successful, move on.
We should be encouraging these plays.
Back To “Drafting For Fit” And the Golden State Warriors
Since Bob Myers has been part of the organization, Golden State has been the single best team at drafting players with skills that fit. That stretches back to the Klay Thompson draft, when Myers was Assistant GM, goes to the Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green when he took over, and stretches to present day, 2016, in which the Warriors acquired Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw.
The Warriors have draft 8 players in that time, and every one of them is arguably such a player. Or at least seemed like he could be at the time. Especially if we make the caveat that we have to judge Defensive Centers by different criteria.
The 2011 Warriors Draft
In 2011, there was Klay Thompson in the first round. Providing shooting off the catch, shot selection, defensive ability, defensive versatility, passing for position and dribbling ability. We’ve talked about him extensively. Besides a few primary perimeter initiators and Draymond Green, he may be the player in the league that best exemplifies this concept.
In the 2nd round, the Warriors selected Charles Jenkins. A player who in college looked to have passing, shooting and dribbling skills, but was a questionable defender. Unfortunately, it turned out he was also a questionable offensive player, at least at the NBA level.
The interesting thing is that the only player on the board that might have better exemplified “Skills That Fit” was Justin Holiday, who went undrafted, and who the Warriors later signed for a short stint.
The 2012 Warriors Draft
In 2012, we get Harrison Barnes, who showed off-the-catch shooting, shot selection, okay dribbling and some defensive promise, both in terms of ability and versatility. He showed almost no passing ability, but when played at Four, there is a floor stretch component that can work in a similar fashion to help make his teammates better.
Then we get a defense and rebounding center in Festus Ezeli. Not the best player, but very useful, at least as a rotation guy, on almost any team, and chosen at the end of the first round.
And finally, Draymond Green, the ultimate “Skills That Fit” guy in the NBA. Since his defensive value in terms of both ability and versatility is so enormous. You add his ability to run perimeter offense while playing Four or Five and you have a truly unique guy.
The 2015 Draft
Kevon Looney. Also, arguably the best player available in terms of pure talent when he was chosen. This is the best case scenario for a pick, when the player with the best long-term fit is also obviously the best long term prospect. End of story.
Three seniors in Norman Powell, Josh Richardson and TJ McConnell plus former Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison (if he can figure out to shoot from distance like he did at Kentucky) might go on to have better careers. Though I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.
Looney very obviously fills the criteria in terms of shot selection, defensive ability, defensive versatility, passing and dribbling for size and role. And he had mixed message shooting numbers, with excellent numbers from three off the catch, mediocre free throw numbers and horrible numbers in the mid-range.
The 2016 Draft
Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw.
McCaw is easy. The shot was something of a question, but it was projectable. Then there’s also some dribbling and passing ability. Decent shot selection. Clear defensive ability. And even the ability to potentially guard multiple positions on defense.
Damian Jones is more the question, since he was pretty soft at Vanderbilt and never had much rebounding of defensive success. That’s not to say he was without skills. One, he had a soft touch in the mid-range. He shot over 40% from there for a reason. So it’s perhaps possible that the Warriors thought Jones’ shot could stretch to the NBA three-point line. And then Jones has a very good frame (7’0″ with a 7’2″ wingspan) and above average athleticism for the position, so there’s a fundamental base where we might for some improvement.
Conclusion and A Short Note On Other Players In This Draft With Such Skills
Of course, we might think that every team abides by such rules. But it’s clearly not the case when we see one-way shooters like Nik Stauskas, Doug McDermott, Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray chosen high in the first round. Year after year we see this.
Even in a weak draft, players like Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Brogdon, Deyonta Davis, and Chinanu Onuaku slide to the 2nd round while Malik Beasley and Malachi Richardson are chosen in the 1st. And it’s not because the NBA teams choosing these players are trying to find stars. Since Patrick McCaw’s skill-base and two-way play make him far more likely to be on such a path than either Beasley or Richardson.
And we’re likely to see the same phenomenon this year as well. That’s not to say there won’t be players with skills that fit available. There are of course numerous defensive players with semi-questionable but projectable shooting ability. Though I’ll ignore those guys for now, as well as most of our Patrick Beverley all-stars, who I’ll address in my next piece.
But I would like to just mention a couple seniors. First, Josh Hart. I don’t know how good he will be at any one thing, but he does a little of everything, and should be able to be effective on almost any team he might find himself. I’d guess his upside is something like Raja Bell. But I guessed the same thing for Malcolm Brogdon, and it turns out I way underestimated his passing ability. So if I’m under-estimating any such ability with Hart, he could be quite a bit better.
Jeremy Morgan is another interesting player of this type, possessing potentially every skill but dribbling ability. However, he’s already gotten some player this year, so I’d like to talk about a senior no one is mentioning.
That player is Sterling Brown. Shannon Brown’s younger brother. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as athletic. Regardless, I do think we should be watching and talking about him. Firstly, because he can shoot the shit out of the basketball.
Here are Brown’s per 100 numbers (thanks to Sports-Reference.com)
Just sticking to four year players, that’s the kind of shooting profile we see from Robert Covington, Langston Galloway and Hollis Thompson. Though if we dive deeper, Sterling Brown is a hell of a lot better at scoring in the mid-range. Between 41% and 46% the last two-years, with most of his scores being unassisted. Whereas Galloway, Thompson and Covington are somewhere in the 20s or 30s.
And if you watch Brown enough, even though he never forces anything, you do see skills to score in areas that most mid-Usage players don’t have. For instance, Brown is completely comfortable with players on his back, and has no problems turning and firing from that position.
From that standpoint, he reminds me a little of Khris Middleton when Middle was at Texas A&M. He also did not have an overwhelmingly positive statistical profile coming out of college, but had legit offensive skills and ran offense at size.
In Brown’s case, that means he’s listed at 6’6″ and is currently SMU’s best point guard. Even if he won’t play that role in the NBA, it’s a pretty good indication of Brown’s ability to dribble, pass and make decisions. Beyond that, I think it’s possible Brown is more athletic than he at first appears to be, or that his instincts allow him to make plays that most other players with his tools wouldn’t be able to make.
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/j0xGR8OAh3g” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Cincinnati vs SMU. I couldn’t find any highlights with the play I wanted. In that one, Jacob Evans beats Brown off the dribble and Brown recovers to block Evans, who is an NBA prospect in his own right. (Brown was one of several defenders to guard Evans, helping to hold him to his worst shooting night of the season. 1-10. The SMU guards as a whole are pretty good on that end.)
Regardless, these highlights will give a pretty decent indication of Brown’s strengths and possible weaknesses. Begin at around 1:00, in which Brown shows good hands, making a clean strip to deny a fast-break and then goes to coast to coast for the lay-up. (He’s number 3.) After that play, there’s also some three-point shooting and a nice pass or two.
Odds are against him being the next Middleton. Much more in favor of him being the next Hollis Thompson. But if there is another Middleton, it’s likely going to be a guy who in college looks a lot like Brown. Perhaps underwhelming at first look. Yet with understanding of the game and a properly arrayed set of offensive skills that could fit well in an NBA context.