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Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Small Forwards

Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects coming back to school next season continues with the small forward position, a position which has become increasingly difficult in recent years. With floor spacing the name of the game in the NBA, it’s very hard to hide a small forward who can’t shoot 3’s. The problem is there just aren’t many 6’7+ players with the length and athleticism to match up with NBA small forwards who also have the skill-set to drain 25+ foot shots.

A small forward who can’t shoot 3’s has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, it’s become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - there’s no such thing as a role playing SF who can’t stretch the floor at the next level. Going into next season, there aren’t many players coming back to the college game who can play the SF position in the NBA, but there are even fewer who can shoot 3’s.

If there’s a role model for these guys, it’s Kawhi Leonard, who went from a 29% three-point shooter at San Diego State to 38% with the San Antonio Spurs. You just don’t see a player make that transition too often. For every Leonard or Lance Stephenson who become better shooters, there are a dozen D-League wing players who are a three-point shot from making millions of dollars in the NBA. If there is another Chip Engelland out there, he could be a very rich man.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona - RHJ started to come on strong towards the end of last season, moving into the starting line-up when Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury. Arizona had some floor spacing issues playing him with Aaron Gordon together, so he should have a much bigger role as a sophomore, with Gordon off to the NBA. From a physical standpoint, RHJ is as talented a player as any in the country - a 6’7 215 ball of fast twitch muscles with a long wingspan.

The most intriguing thing about his game is his passing ability, which he didn’t always get to showcase as a freshman, when he was more of a secondary option. However, he’s an excellent ball-handler with a great feel for the game, who had 6 assists against UNLV and 5 against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. If he can develop a three-point shot over the summer, he could be a Top 5 pick. Even without one, RHJ could have a long career as an Andre Iguodala type player.

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin - Dekker, like most of Bo Ryan’s players at Wisconsin, passed up a chance to be a first-round pick to come back to school as an upperclassmen. As a junior, he will be expected to team with Frank Kaminsky and lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. NBA scouts have little patience for older players who stay in school and plateau - to remain in the first-round pick conversation, Dekker will need to have a Big Ten POY caliber season next year.

At 6’7 220, he is a solid all-around player with surprising athleticism, who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds a game on 47% shooting as a sophomore. While he doesn’t have ideal size for an NBA SF, he should have a long career at the next level as a versatile player who can swing between both wing positions. After playing off the ball in his first two seasons, Dekker should be given the opportunity to create more shots for himself and others as a junior.

Alex Poythress, Kentucky - At 6’8 240, Poythress projects as more of a PF, but there won’t be many minutes for him at the position at Kentucky, where he will have to fight for playing time with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee. Poythress has the athleticism and shooting stroke to play on the perimeter, but he has the tendency to float and not impact the game when he’s playing too far from the basket. He’s still only a junior, which makes him an old man in Lexington.

Branden Dawsen, Michigan State - At 6’6 225, Dawsen is a freak athlete who plays much bigger than his size. If the NBA doesn’t work out for him, he might want to think about the NFL. The question for him is simple - he doesn’t have the size to play in the post in the NBA, like he does in college as an undersized 4, and he doesn’t have the skill-set to score on the perimeter. If Dawsen could shoot 3’s, he would be a first-round pick. Without a jumper, though, it will be difficult.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State - After being seen as a possible one-and-done player coming out of high school, Nash has turned in a solid college career at OSU. With Marcus Smart and Markel Brown gone, Nash will have to carry a huge offensive load as a senior. At 6’7 215, he has an elite first step that makes him a very difficult cover as a stretch 4 in college. However, to play in the NBA, Nash will need to develop a three-point shot in his final season in Stillwater.

Other names to watch: Troy Williams (Indiana)

The Worst Game Of Aaron Gordonís Life

Five minutes after the game was over, and I’m still shaking. The game between Wisconsin and Arizona was insanely intense. For whatever reason, I decided to watch this game by scouting every play Arizona’s Aaron Gordon made. Since Gordon’s reputation is that he makes a bunch of plays that don’t show up in the box score, I decided I would track him from the opening tip to the closing horn of the Elite Eight match-up. Here are my notes:

The biggest thing I noticed in this game is that Gordon loves playing defense much more than he loves playing offense. When you look at his body language, he just lives for the defensive end of the floor. On offense, he set screens, he moved to the open areas of the floor, and he had a couple of crisp passes to get his teammates inside baskets. But his heart was not into playing methodical half-court offense. Conversely he just floats on defense. He makes every defensive movement with a constant spring in his step.

Gordon’s biggest contribution early in the game was pushing the ball in transition. Arizona’s game plan was to try to attack before Wisconsin was set. And that meant not waiting to get the ball to a guard to take the ball passed half court. When Gordon got the offensive rebound or picked the ball up off a deflection, he dribbled and attacked.

Obviously, most people are going to look at his stat line offensively and say he had a terrible day shooting the ball. But that isn’t really fair. I only noted four particularly egregious offensive efforts. First, early in the first half, he went around a weak screen and settled for a three at the 45 degree angle. It wasn’t a good shot because Arizona could have run the offense and got a better look.

Second, near the end of the first half, he grabbed an offensive rebound near the three point line and put up a somewhat crazy underhand scoop shot. Third, at some point in the second half, Gordon tried to play Nigel Hayes face-up out at the three point line. But Gordon swung the ball out wide as if looking for a cross-over. And Hayes simply reached out and took the ball away for a clean steal. Finally, there was a possession at 6:18 of the second half, where Gordon looked exhausted as he jumped short on a finger-roll attempt.

But other than that, most of Gordon’s looks were strong. At 12:44 of the second half he put up one of the softest floaters you will ever see, but it bounced around the rim for three seconds before rolling off. It was that kind of night for Gordon.

The real reason Gordon will want to burn the game tape is what happened on the defensive end of the floor. First, I want to talk about what happened in three straight situations starting near the 8:30 mark of the first half. If you are an Arizona fan, what you are going to say happened was that Nigel Hayes used three straight chicken wing elbows to get around Gordon, and the refs allowed it. For the second of the three incidents, clearly that would be correct. Hayes put his elbow into Gordon’s back, Gordon fell over, and Gordon was called for the foul.

But on the other two possessions, Gordon was just beat. The first was baffling. Gordon had perfect position, but Hayes somehow swung into a face-up, and beat Gordon along the baseline leading to points. There was a slight elbow when Hayes went up for the lay-up, but I have no idea how Hayes beat Gordon initially along the baseline. That was a truly spectacular play. The third incident was just a classic post move by a skilled big man, beating Gordon into the lane.

Now, given that Gordon was struggling to guard Hayes, you wondered perhaps if he would have better luck on one of Wisconsin’s other big men. And Gordon was put on Frank Kaminsky in the second half. At this point the commentators went into apologist mode. When Kaminsky straight up beat Gordon, starting from 12 feet out and backing him in for a lay-up, Marv Albert said that “Gordon was trying to avoid a second foul.” That was ludicrous.  A few possessions later, Gordon contributed his patented help defense to stop a drive, but that meant he left Kaminsky wide open for a three which Kaminsky nailed. Moments later, Kaminsky caught a simple post-pass and put it in over Gordon’s head. Gordon simply could not defend Kaminsky in this game.

And when Gordon switched to Sam Dekker, it was no better. Near the 5:07 mark of the second half, Gordon tried to stay with Dekker, but got lost on a screen, and Dekker got a lay-up.

There were two good possessions of defense that are worth mentioning. Near the 9:45 mark of the second half, Gordon had a fabulous second effort recovery to block a Nigel Hayes shot. And near the 6:30 mark of the second half, he played Kaminsky straight up in the post, and by holding his ground, he allowed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to come over and block the Kaminsky shot.

But even without watching Hollis-Jefferson intently, I could tell Hollis-Jefferson was having a far better day than Gordon. For 37 minutes, Aaron Gordon was having the worst day of basketball in his entire life. He couldn’t make a shot. And he couldn’t guard anyone.

And then something happened. Despite everything that had gone wrong, Gordon didn’t give up. He kept fighting. And he started making plays. Near the 2:30 mark, he caught the ball in front of Kaminsky, and made a beautiful move along the baseline for a lay-up.

Then with time running down in regulation, he switched onto Traevon Jackson. Jackson has won a ton of games for the Badgers over the last two years by beating his man and getting clean looks. But Gordon forced Jackson into a very tough shot that rimmed off.

On the first defensive play of OT, Gordon was a step behind Kaminsky, but made an amazing play to dive in and steal the post feed. And with 3:34 left in OT, Gordon caught a pass on the perimeter, and buried a wide open three to tie the game. Then at the 2:58 mark in OT, Gordon caught an offensive rebound, and skied for an emphatic put-back dunk.

Gordon wasn’t perfect in OT. He switched onto Traevon Jackson another time and got beat. But Gordon showed the heart of a winner. Despite one of the worst days of his career, he kept fighting and he kept working. And even as I looked at my notes from what was an absolutely horrible afternoon, I didn’t feel like Gordon was exposed. He played a phenomenal offensive team. He played a player in Frank Kaminsky who might have just worked his way into the NBA lottery. And while Gordon will surely be criticized for this performance, if I was an NBA GM and saw a player with as much passion and energy as he has on the defensive end, I would still draft him in a heartbeat.

Balance Remains Key To Winning In March

While the underdogs are the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites take the stage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The cutdown from 64 to 16 isn’t nearly as brutal as the one from 16 to 4. A team might sneak through the first weekend due to a favorable draw, but the quality of play ratchets up quickly the further you go. The talent gap shrinks as the field narrows and any weakness a team has will eventually be exposed.

That was the story on Thursday night, which featured two of the best games of the Tourney - Florida 79, UCLA 68 and Arizona 70, San Diego State 64.

After playing the America East champs in the first round and a middling ACC team in the second, Florida faced the second best team in the Pac-12 in the third.

Arizona, after rolling through the champions of two mid-major conferences in the first two rounds, faced a steep challenge from the Mountain West champs in the third.

The games between the 1 and 4 seeds in the South and West brackets were heavyweight matchups. Florida was the No. 1 overall seed and had won 28 straight games; UCLA had as much talent as any team in the country and was coming off winning the Pac-12 conference tournament. Arizona had a 31-4 record and was ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season; San Diego State had a 31-5 record and had not slipped out of the Top 15. All four teams had multiple NBA prospects.

The Florida game came down to rebounds - the Gators had a +10 margin on the glass, including 10 offensive rebounds. UCLA went into a zone early, hoping to exploit Florida’s inconsistent perimeter shooting. However, one of the problems with zones is that it’s harder to rebound out of them, since none of the defenders have a box-out assignment. So while Billy Donovan’s team missed plenty of shots, going 8-21 from three, they rebounded enough misses to make up for it.

The Bruins had a ton of perimeter talent, but they didn’t have the size and athleticism upfront to match-up with Patric Young (6’9 260), Will Yeguete (6’8 230), Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8 215) and Chris Walker (6’11 220). UCLA started two jump-shooting big men in the Wear Twins, who combined for only 8 rebounds. Tony Parker, their biggest player at 6’9 255, was still a year away - he picked up three personal fouls in only 10 minutes of action on Thursday.

Their weakness on the glass meant the Bruins were playing uphill for most of the night. The 1-on-1 talent of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine fueled runs throughout the game, but they could never close the gap and get a lead. Florida always had an answer, either on the first shot or the second shot or the third. UCLA couldn’t turn them over consistently either, so they were never able to make up the possessions they lost on the defensive glass.

The Bruins were an offensive-minded team that played just enough defense to survive. Against lower-seeded teams like Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, their overwhelming edge in talent made up for their inability to impose their will on defense. However, against an elite team, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you can’t protect your defensive glass. Florida exposed UCLA’s weaknesses in a way their opponents in the first two rounds couldn’t.

San Diego State was the polar opposite of UCLA - an elite defensive team that played just enough offense to survive. When the Aztecs were at their best, they were using their athletic advantage to turn teams over and get out in transition, getting points going from defense to offense. In the half-court, their lack of post play and perimeter shooting made them limited offensively, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to protect their defensive glass.

Arizona, like SDSU, played elite defense and could play an NBA-caliber athlete at every position on the floor. The difference was they had better shooters and more skilled players in the frontcourt, allowing them to run much better half-court offense. They turned the tables on Steve Fisher’s team - turning them over and scoring points in transition, before the Aztecs could set their defense. San Diego State had four assists on 10 turnovers; Arizona had 14 assists on 7 turnovers.

As long as Sean Miller’s team took care of the ball, they could force San Diego State to stay in the halfcourt and beat them from the perimeter. And with their season on the line, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough shots when it counted - shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. All those misses allowed them to grab 18 offensive rebounds and keep the game close, but the Wildcats pulled away late, forcing a few huge turnovers and getting easy points on run-outs.

While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways. Some nights the shots aren’t falling, so you have to be able to dig in on defense. Some nights the other team can’t miss, so you have to be able to keep up. Just as important, a balanced team can exploit any weakness in the other team’s roster. They don’t leave points on the board.

In a one-and-done tournament, you never know who you are going to play or what type of team you will have to face. Match-ups can be a tricky thing - the Midwest was supposed to be the region of death, but the No. 3 seed lost to the 14 in the first round and the first seed lost to the eight in the second. A favorable draw will only take you so far; eventually you are going to run into a team with the pieces to expose any hole on your roster. That’s why the best teams have the fewest holes.

One of the age-old debates in basketball is whether offense or defense wins championships. The answer is neither - you need both. A team that plays good offense and good defense is going to have the edge over a team that plays great defense and average offense or great offense and average defense. That’s why balance is the key to winning in March. Arizona and Florida were more balanced than San Diego State and UCLA and that’s why they are moving on.

Every Player In The Sweet Sixteen

Time to classify every player in the Sweet Sixteen.

Arizona Looks Loaded

Aaron Gordon isn't putting up other-worldly stats, but he's been doing the little things on an Arizona team that is loaded with the presence of T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Holis-Jefferson.

2013 Holiday Tournaments (Part 2)

In the second of a three-part series, we breakdown the NIT (with a potential Gordon vs. Parker matchup), Maui Invitational, Legends Classic, CBE, Gulf Coast Showcase and the Cancun Challenge.

A Case For Holiday Tournaments Over Bowl Games

With the start of college football right around the corner, some fans may be setting aside some extra cash for a bowl week vacation. But as fun as a trip to the Sun Belt can be in January, I donít think enough sportsí fans appreciate college basketballís holiday tournaments.

2013 Jordan Brand Classic

Golf's credibility problem and the NCAA rule that must also be changed, plus a college-centric perspective on the Jordan Brand Classic.

2013 McDonaldís All American Game Recap

Arizona's latest commit Aaron Gordon stole all the headlines, but I was more impressed with a less-heralded name headed to Washington.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

Grading Doug Gottlieb, analyzing the Syracuse zone, Ohio St.'s under-rated athleticism, and Ramon Galloway's memorable father.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12ís slump over? Is the Big Tenís boom about to come to an end?

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

Notes On The 2012 Jordan Brand Classic

Anthony Davis wanted to wear Michael Jordanís number in this game last year. This year no one chose to wear #23. Maybe people are right when they say this yearís class of high school seniors is missing a larger than life star.

2012 Pac-12 Power Rankings

Washington won the regular season championship, but were ranked fifth statistically in a conference that was bunched together in the top half.

Top NCAA Coaches Of Past Five Years

There are a lot of complicated ways to evaluate college coaches, but in this edition we look at the coaches with the best per possession numbers over the last five years.

Freshmen Bring Hope

Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

Pac-12 Prospect Watch List

The Pac-10 may have morphed into the Pac-12 this offseason, but the extra 24 players hasn't resulted in any surefire lottery players even though there are several sneaky good prospects.

Power Rankings For The Alumni Games

It is hard to imagine a more exciting barnstorming series than a tournament featuring NBA players suiting up again for their college.

Harry Potter And The 2011 NCAA Tournament

Unlike books and films, sports is always unscripted entertainment and the good guys don't win every time. Let's look at how that relates to the schools (beyond UConn) that should celebrate their March success.

Draft Report: Derrick Williams Of Arizona

The NBA doesn't have a lot of scorers in the mode of Derrick Williams, who also is probably the best bet to win the 2012 Rookie of the Year since he is more NBA-ready than his peers.

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