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The Big Mistake: Measurables Vs. Situation

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. 

The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.

So what happened?

Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. 

At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.

Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.

However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.

His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.

Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.

After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.

Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.

At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game. 

Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.

On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.

Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.

Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.

Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?

When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.

In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.

If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.

Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything. 

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Returning Point Guards

With the deadline for declaring for this year’s draft behind us, we now know who will and who won’t be returning to school next season. As is usually the case, the vast majority of players projected to go in the first round ended up declaring. Nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting prospects left in the college game. Even in a draft like 2014, which features a loaded freshman class, there’s still plenty of room in the first round for upperclassmen.

This far out, it’s hard to make any type of comprehensive list of the best players in the 2015 draft. Instead, we’ll be going position by position, taking a look at the best prospects in the college game at each position and how they stack up against each other. This is not a list of the who the best college players are, but of who I think has the most pro potential. These guys are unfinished products - who they are today isn’t necessarily who they will be in November or next April.

We’ll start with the point guard position, which features a familiar dichotomy - the biggest PG’s struggle with their jumpers while the best shooters are undersized. The holy grail are the guys who can do both, but even in the NBA, they tend to be few and far between. The smaller guards probably aren’t going to grow much in their late teens and early 20’s, but the bigger guards can make themselves a bunch of money this summer if they can return with a three-point shot.

1) Delon Wright, Utah - One of the most underrated players in the country. The younger brother of Dorell Wright, Delon burst onto the scene this season, after a lengthy trek through the junior college ranks. At 6’5 180, he isn’t quite as big as his older brother, but he’s every bit as athletic and he has a far more well-rounded game. He was a one-man team at Utah this season, averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1 block a game on 56% shooting.

Wright turns 23 next season, which is a huge red flag for many NBA teams, but his combination of size, athleticism and feel for the game is pretty unique. There’s a lot of Rajon Rondo in his game - his one weakness is his lack of a three-point shot. He’s a reluctant shooter who went 12-54 from beyond the arc last season. If he could consistently make that shot, he would be a lottery pick, but even without it, he will still be a fascinating player to track as a senior.

2) Marcus Paige, UNC - It’s all set up for Paige at UNC. After two slightly down years, the Tar Heels are returning a lot of talent upfront and are bringing in a loaded recruiting class full of wing players. If Paige can be the triggerman for the secondary break offense, they should be right back in national title discussion. And when Roy Williams can put elite talent around a future NBA PG, good things tend to happen. See: Ray Felton in 2004, Ty Lawson in 2009.

At 6’1 170, Paige is undersized for the position at the next level, but he’s a very quick guard with excellent ball-handling ability who can stroke 3’s off the dribble. He averaged 17 points and 4 assists a game on 44% shooting last season, shooting 39% from 3 on 6.5 attempts a game. With a more balanced roster around him next season, he will be asked to be more of a playmaker. It’s almost impossible for a guy his size to start in the NBA and be a shoot-first player.

3) Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s - While Rysheed didn’t get a ton of press as a freshman, his size (6’4 185) and athleticism alone make him a player worth watching. He averaged only 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 42% shooting, but he also didn’t get much of a chance to play with the ball in his hands. With Jakarr Sampson declaring for the draft, that should change next season. If he can come back with a three-point shot, he will start flying up draft boards.

4) Andrew Harrison, Kentucky - After one of the most up-and-down freshman seasons in recent memory, the Harrison Twins both opted to return to school, something few would have predicted nine months ago. At 6’5 210, Andrew has great size for the PG position, but his lack of athleticism puts a clear ceiling on how good he can be at the next level. If he can become a better three-point shooter he should have a chance to stick, but stardom probably isn’t in the cards.

5) Ryan Boatright, UConn - Along with Shabazz Napier, Boatright exploded at just the right time last season, carrying UConn all the way to an unlikely national championship. Generously listed at 6’0 170, Boatright is extremely undersized for the NBA game, but he has the speed and quickness to at least get a shot at the next level. As a senior, scouts will be watching to see if he can make the same type of jump Napier made, in terms of becoming a better floor general.

Other names to watch: Isaiah Taylor (Texas), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Shannon Scott (Ohio State), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Olivier Hanlan (Boston College)

A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

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