Monday, December 05, 2011

Musings on the NBA Draft Prospects from the Kentucky-North Carolina Game

What a game of college basketball on Saturday at Rupp Arena, as Kentucky edged North Carolina 73-72. And what a concentration of prospects on one floor with six of the Top 13, and 10 of the Top 40 on Chad Ford's Big Board, and a full eight players who Jonathan Givony projects as Top 11 picks in his Mock NBA Drafts for 2012 and 2013.

Of course, that kind of talent concentration created a unique opportunity to evaluate these prospects in matchups against other elite talents. As such, I wanted to take a moment to play the role of dilettante draft evaluator and offer my observations on the many Wildcat and Tar Heel prospects, coming out of Saturday's classic in Lexington.

In general, my feeling about the potential 2012 draft class is this: I think there is a deep pool of about ten players who could potentially be Top 50 or so guys in the NBA, but I don't know if there are any players who are Top 10 guys. I question how high the ceilings are for even the top guys in the draft, several of whom played prominent roles in the Kentucky-North Carolina game.

Obviously, it's still very early, as many of these guys are freshmen who've played but a handful of college games. I suspect a lot will change between now and March, but here are some early-season thoughts on prospects from the big game at Rupp:

ANTHONY DAVIS
Anthony Davis was the ultimate headliner of the game, as his wingspan proved to be just a fraction more impossible than John Henson's on an impressive game-sealing blocked shot in the final seconds. Even after a game in which he scored just seven points (3-6 FG, 1-1 FT), Davis still seems to be entrenched as the consensus choice as the no. 1 overall pick for 2012.

I have no doubts that Davis is an elite defensive prospect, but when I read quotes like this, from a scout in a recent Chad Ford blog post, I have to ask if Davis is being overvalued:
    "Davis is the only person in this draft who I'm sure can change a franchise.... Davis is the only sure thing to me. He has such a unique game. He'll be a great pro."
Again, I have no questions about Davis' D, not when he's averaging a somewhat-bananas 4.5 blocks in 27.5 minutes per game, plus 1.4 steals and solid boardwork, to boot. But I'm still trying to discern for myself if he is, to use a shorthand, closer to KG or Marcus Camby as a prospect; is he a true franchise-changer - an All-NBA 1st or 2nd teamer - or more of a borderline All-Star type?

My concerns can be summed up like so: I never see him create offense in the halfcourt. Against Kansas, Davis had six field goals, five of which were dunk finishes. Against St. John's, Davis had six field goals, comprised of four assisted dunks, one assisted layup, and one tip-in. Against North Carolina, Davis' three FGs consisted of one nice post move, one spectacular finish of an alley-oop, and one assisted lay-in.

The main reason that I suspect Davis may be overvalued is actually narrative-based, relating to his point-guard past. Davis famously experienced a seven-inch growth spurt in one year which transformed him from a marginal Division I prospect into the consensus no. 1 pick he is today. He is, as the lore now goes, a big man with point-guard skills, because he spent most of his career as a young guard.

The problem I have with that is this: I have yet to see this narrative translate into actual playmaking ability on the floor. Davis is averaging 1.1 assists per game, as has one assist total in 99 minutes in Kentucky's three games against decent teams (Kansas, St. John's, North Carolina) so far. He also had just 2 assists in 73 minutes in the three main high-school postseason all-star games last year (McDonald's All-American, Nike Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand Classic), in which he played very well overall, averaging 20 and 9 plus three blocks.

Obviously, it's still very early, and Davis is still growing into his new body. He has plenty of good tools - he's smart, has really good hands, shooting form that's good enough to suggest he can eventually knock down outside shots, and already has some decent post moves down low.

But as of now, I have questions about whether Davis is a guy who can create a bucket for you in the halfcourt of an NBA game, and I really wonder if he's a playmaker at all, or if that's just a function of narrative that's actually a crock.

Davis certainly doesn't look like an All-NBA 1st or 2nd teamer to me based on what I've seen so far. He looks more like a Camby than a Garnett. Don't get me wrong, Marcus Camby is a guy who's had a long, productive career, winning a Defensive Player of the Year award, and probably deserving to make a couple All-Star games even though he never has, but I'd guess that "lower-tier/borderline All-Star" is more than teams and fans expect to get out of a no. 1 overall pick, and out of Davis.

HARRISON BARNES
Speaking of players I think are overvalued, let's move on to Harrison Barnes.... Barnes seems like a great kid, and I really want to believe in him, but I just haven't seen signs that Barnes will be a truly elite NBA player in more than a season at North Carolina, and felt that way again after watching his matchup against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This summer, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted this: "An NBA scout gushing over Harrison Barnes battling KDurant in Chicago last night. 'Top pick in the next draft -- by far.'" It makes me wonder what I'm missing, because I don't see Barnes as anywhere near a guy who projects to Durant's level.

To me, Barnes' main strength is knocking down outside shots - and a willingness to do so in pressure situations - but I have major concerns about the fact that he doesn't seem to do much else well. I rarely see him get to the rim (Barnes shoots just 48% on two-point shots), he is a middling rebounder, and a downright poor passer.

Let me say that again, because it's a facet of Barnes' game which I don't think is discussed enough: he is a terrible passer. Awful. He has six assists in eight games so far this season, and his A/TO rato has dropped from a subpar 1.4/1.9 to a dreadful 0.8/2.5 to date this year. But beyond the numbers, I offer my observations that Barnes doesn't seem to see the floor well and rarely seems to make productive passes, so-called hockey assists or passes which put the Tar Heels in a better position to score.

All of this was on display vs. Kentucky. Barnes scored 14 points in 24 minutes, powered by 4-5 shooting on threes. But he made just 1-7 on twos, and had just two rebounds, zero assists and zero FTA, and never made it to the rim once all day. To be fair, Barnes did have a turnaround jumper move in the low post which looked pretty smooth and promising, and got him good looks vs. Kidd-Gilchrist, and the ball just bounced out on him a couple times.

I've seen the Joe Johnson comparison for Barnes a few times, which seems like a reasonable ceiling for Barnes, though I'd note that Joe has averaged 4.5 assists for his NBA career, with a high of 6.5. Of course, NBA assists are handed out more freely, and it's worth nothing that Johnson's career A/TO ratio in two years at Arkansas was just 2.4/2.5, so it can be improved, but even those pedestrian assist numbers are well ahead of Barnes. But again, I see Johnson - a lower-tier All-Star - as Barnes' ceiling. I don't see him as an All-NBA 1st/2nd teamer, and I don't think he should be going no. 2 in the draft.

MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seems like the opposite of Barnes in some ways. He's a guy whose floor game is outstanding, but whose major weakness is that he is not a consistent scorer or shooter. Kidd-Gilchrist was the leading scorer (17) and rebounder (11) in Saturday's game, and I thought he was the key player for Kentucky in powering a second-half run after gutting his way through a separated shoulder.

I thought that Kidd-Gilchrist gave Barnes fits with his strength and athleticism. I think that he's superior to Barnes as a defender, a driver, a rebounder and a passer, though it's worth noting that MKG's early numbers at Kentucky don't back up my observations (which include watching Kidd-Gilchrist multiple times in high school). Kidd-Gilchrist averages just 4.4 FTA and makes just 51% of his twos so far, and his A/TO is just 1.5/2.6, though he does average 7.1 rebounds in 29 minutes (as opposed to 5.6 in 29 minutes for Barnes career).

Still, I'd point to plays like the gorgeous alley-oop he threw to Davis to spark Kentucky as an example of Kidd-Gilchrist's court vision. And with his athleticism, size (he's listed at 6-7/232), strength and toughness, I think that Kidd-Gilchrist will be an elite wing defender in the NBA. It's a little weird, most young players seem behind the curve on defense, but like Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist seems far more advanced on defense than offense (including filling the defensive stat sheet with more than a block and a steal per game).

But how just high should a guy like Kidd-Gilchrist go in the draft? It certainly gives one pause when he puts up a stink bomb like his 5-points-on-1-of-7-FG job vs. St. John's. Again, it's tough for me to project Kidd-Gilchrist as an elite NBA player if he can't score consistently. But man, I just love the way the kid plays the game and his versatility on both ends - there's a Pippenesque feel to his game, but of course, he's a long way from being able to produce offense like Scottie. I liked Kidd-Gilchrist better than Barnes coming into Saturday's game, and still feel the same way now.

JOHN HENSON and TERRENCE JONES
While guys like Davis and Barnes were the big headliners coming into Saturday's game, it was two players with freakish wingspans, John Henson and Terrence Jones, who were probably the most impressive players in the first half.

Henson may have helped his draft stock as much as anyone. The potential to be an elite defender has always been there (he's averaging about 10 boards and more than three blocks, like last year), but his expanded offensive repertoire was quite impressive on the big stage in Lexington. Henson looked comfortable knocking down midrange jumpers and showed some post moves including a lefty hook. All in all, he just looked more comfortable and fluid on offense. Still, he only shot 4-11, and needs to play well offensively on a consistent basis, but if he can, I can finally see why Henson may deserve a Top 5 pick (given how strong his defensive potential is).

Jones was sensational in the first half, showcasing the versatile inside-out game he has at his best en route to scoring 14 points. But he didn't necessarily give his draft stock a boost because his performance only raised the same old questions about why he doesn't play that way more consistently. Sure enough, Jones disappeared in the second half, going without a point on 0-3 FG, all of them three-pointers, which is not a strength of his game. It's hard to think Jones warrants more than a late-lottery pick based on his inconsistency.

MARQUIS TEAGUE and KENDALL MARSHALL
Thanks to Chad Ford, who was kind enough to re-tweet my moment of inspiration when I tweeted during the game that "Teague's body + Marshall's head might = CP3. Teague's head + Marshall's body might not even be a D-I player." And really, that's the crux of what really makes it hard where to place these guys on a draft board.

Marquis Teague was atrocious in the early-going, making about seven terrible decisions before the first TV timeout, but he settled down a bit, and somehow only had one turnover on the day. Still, his shot selection was horrendous (he shot just 3-11 on the day, 0-4 on 3s) and seems to have a long, long way to go as a decision-maker.

Kendall Marshall, on the other hand, had about four passes which displayed world-class court vision (which seems to be average for him), including a thoroughly gorgeous cross-court in the final minute to set up Reggie Bullock for three to close Kentucky's lead to 73-72. It was also nice to see Marshall knock down a couple threes, but shooting percentages remain very low, and questions about his athleticism has been raised anew after he's been torched on defense early in the season.

I tweeted earlier this season that I'd take Marshall over more-athletic guys like Teague or Myck Kabongo in a heartbeat, but I'm wondering if that's wishful thinking. I absolutely love watching Marshall, but he does have some glaring deficiencies, including physical ones, whereas point guards can learn how to cut down turnovers. I'm not sure that he'll ever be an NBA starter, but for now, I'm keeping him above Teague as a late first-rounder on my mythical draft board because I've never been impressed by Teague in multiple viewings in college or high school.

TYLER ZELLER
Tyler Zeller somehow ended up with pretty decent numbers on Saturday (14 points on 4-9/6-6, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, but 4 TOs) even though he seemed to be in duress on the low block all day long.

I was surprised that Kentucky played Zeller with such aggressive NBA-style double teams in the low post, given that it opened up space for Carolina on the perimeter - it seemed like Kentucky's no. 1 defensive objective was to stop Zeller.

Zeller seemed to struggle against Kentucky's tough D, having trouble making his moves fast enough to beat the double, or having enough strength to operate against or pass out of the doubles effectively. All told, it was a reminder that Zeller is what he is - a player who does not have a terribly high ceiling, but who is suitably reliable and fundamentally-sound to potentially develop into a rotation player. Somewhere in the first round after the lottery seems about right for him.

JAMES MCADOO and P.J. HAIRSTON
I feel like I'm already eating crow for suggesting that I thought James McAdoo was the best prospect in the class in my review at the end of last season. McAdoo clearly wasn't ready for the big stage of Saturday's game. Givony currently has McAdoo at no. 2 in the 2013 Draft, and indeed, it's probably a good idea for McAdoo to spend another year at Carolina in a more primary role.

Don't get me wrong, there were some glimpses from McAdoo on Saturday, with some impressive rebounds and a good passing sense in the post, but his shooting looked absolutely horrendous on a couple bad misfires. The two-hand shooting style looked atrocious, but McAdoo did knock down 3-4 threes in the McDonald's/Jordan Brand game, so he can hit the shots. I'm still high on McAdoo in the long-term, but he certainly doesn't look like a lottery pick with the way he's playing now.

Try not to be scared, I mean this in the best way, but I think P.J. Hairston has some J.R. Smith in his game, with a combination of deep shooting off a quick release and athleticism (even if he's not as explosive as J.R.). Hairston scored 11 points in 14 minutes on 4 shots, firing in 3-4 threes without hesitation off his quick release. Givony has Hairston going no. 10 in 2013. As with McAdoo, it probably makes sense for Hairston to come back in a more prominent role next year, and those two will certainly be major prospects to watch if they do so.

Whew, we've already written about *10* guys who have great shots to go in the first round, and there are still more guys worth talking about, like Doron Lamb, Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and Darius Miller. 14 guys or more from this one college game could end up playing the league. Just crazy.

What an amazing collection of prospects, and what a fun game to watch. Let's hope we get a rematch in New Orleans at the Final Four.

7 Comments:

At 7:39 AM, Anonymous mr eggplant said...

"Marcus Camby with better health" is still better than half of the number one picks of the past 15 years. Is 15-12 and a DPOY candidate (where I think he'll be after he fills out) worth the number one pick? I think so. And he could be even better than that if his jumper and post moves significantly improve. As for the fabled "point guard skills", I noticed UK isolated him against Tyler Zeller several times at the top of the key, and he didn't even try to beat Zeller off the dribble, instead passing back to a guard every time.

Also, I agree with you completely about Harrison Barnes.

This draft class does seem to be overhyped. There are some very good prospects (I like Thomas Robinson, Henson, Gilchrist) and I haven't seen Andre Drummond play yet, but Davis is the only one I've seen that looks like a legitimate future all-star to me.

 
At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You noticed the two-handed stroke from McAdoo too, huh? I don't know why that doesn't get mentioned anywhere, although maybe I have to ask myself why it should be batted about around the internet. It puzzles me that McAdoo uses a different stroke from the line from--a conventional I must add-- than he uses from the field. Still, two hands? Why? There is so much smoothness in his personality and his parents played basketball in college, where would this two-hand shooting come from?

Kidd-Gilchrist reminds me more of Iguodala than Pippen, right down to the unconventional shooting stroke. As hitchy as it is, it does seem to go in fairly regularly. If he can become an average shooter, one who is at least capable of knocking down open shoots, he could have a similar career to Iguodala. I think Iguodala a more explosive athlete though.

Agree with you on Barnes. I've certainly seen improvement and additions to his game from last year. He's incorporated a fake jab step to wrong step his defender and create space. He's also gotten very good at running, catching and shooting, which he didn't do last year and which most NBA scorers don't do well besides those who specialize in it like Ray Allen and Rick Hamilton. But his ballhandling still hasn't improved nor has his playmaking. On his playmaking, I would add that because he and every other perimeter player pass into the post so much in UNC's system, that when it comes time to create on his own, he might not be in the mindset to look for others. He doesn't appear selfish.

 
At 4:53 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent write up. However, with all those names mentioned, yet nothing about Kyle Wiltjer? I know he didn't play much in this game and he is still proving his strength and D to Coach Cal. He hasnt been getting much run against the big boys of Kansas or NC. What is your opinion on him? Does this very skilled by unathletic Canuck has a career in the NBA?

We Canadians need to know....

 
At 1:38 PM, Blogger JTjarks said...

Totally agree on this -- Kentucky and UNC are DEEP with guys who will be good NBA players but I'm not sure they have any All-NBA players, although obviously w/Davis a 7 inch growth spurt in one summer is going to take a while to get used too.

In terms of players w/top 5 potential I like Baylor (Quincy Miller, Perry Jones 3) and UConn (Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb).

Washington (Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten) really impressed me when I caught them against Marquette, I'm baffled as to how they are 5-5 right now.

 
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