Apr 17, 2014 8:08 PM EDT
In a society where patience has gone out the window and only instant gratification matters, the poor play of the 2013 rookie class has many ready to write them off entirely. But while there isn’t an Anthony Davis in the bunch, this year’s draft had plenty of good young players who, for a variety of reasons, were not ready to make an immediate impact in the NBA. With so many freshman and sophomores taken in the lottery, the draft is a long-term project anyway.
If you look at this year’s lottery as a whole, one thing stands out. If a team is good enough to contend for a playoff spot, it’s hard for a rookie to get minutes. If a team is bad enough to where they can afford to give rookie a bunch of minutes, he will be putting up inefficient numbers on a bad team. From a statistical perspective, it’s hard for a rookie to be impressive in either situation. Chalk it up as a learning experience for all these guys.
1) Anthony Bennett: Pretty much nothing has gone right for Bennett since he was the surprise No. 1 pick last June. The GM who drafted him has already been fired, while shoulder surgery in the offseason caused him to show up to training camp out of shape. It was hard for him to find minutes on a Cleveland team that thought it was contending for the playoffs, and when he got on the floor, he didn’t do much besides hoist up a lot of shots and play abysmal defense.
The first thing he needs to do is get in better shape, since there aren’t many 6’8 260 forwards in the NBA. He has the talent - in college, he showed a rare combination of explosiveness, ball-handling and shooting ability for a 6’8 guy. The biggest challenge for him is learning how to impact the game without having the ball in his hands. The Cavs guards aren’t moving the ball too much - if you are going to score, you had better rebound, run the floor and move off the ball.
2) Victor Oladipo: Oladipo had a solid rookie season for a Magic team that had nothing but time to develop him. Going forward, the question is whether they commit to developing him as a PG or move him off the ball. While he has the length and athleticism to swing between both guard positions, he averaged only 4.1 assists on 3.2 turnovers as a rookie, an indication of a player not comfortable creating offense for others. Who they draft with their two lottery picks in 2014 will say a lot.
3) Otto Porter: Like Bennett, Porter hit the trifecta for a rough rookie season. He was drafted to a team with playoff aspirations, he had multiple veterans ahead of him on the depth chart and he got injured in training camp. He essentially took a redshirt season as a rookie, which isn’t the worst thing for a 20-year old who needs to put some weight on his frame. Porter has plenty of skill, the question is whether there will be minutes and touches for him in Washington next season.
4) Cody Zeller: The unexpected emergence of Josh McRoberts consigned Zeller to a small role as a rookie, playing 17 minutes a game behind McRoberts and Al Jefferson upfront. Like most rookie big men, Zeller needs to put on weight in the off-season in order to survive in the NBA paint. His 73 percent mark from the free-throw line is a good sign - he needs to be an outside-in 7’0 who plays in the high post and uses the threat of the perimeter jumper to open up the drive.
5) Alex Len: Like a lot of the guys in this year’s draft, Len was the victim of his NBA team exceeding expectations as a rookie. Instead of playing for draft position, the Suns ended up in playoff contention until the last week of the season, leaving little time to develop a raw 20-year-old lottery pick. Len is big (7’1 255), athletic and reasonably skilled and he’s five years younger than Miles Plumlee, which tells you how patient you need to be with young centers.
6) Nerlens Noel: After tearing his ACL toward the end of his freshman season at Kentucky, Noel was never going to have a big rookie season in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers took him as a long-term project and kept him off the floor the entire season. Noel showed plenty of promise at Kentucky, but he was also incredibly skinny as well as very raw on the offense. Larry Sanders didn’t start turning the corner in the NBA until he was 24 and Noel is still only 20.
7) Ben McLemore: McLemore wasn’t in Kansas anymore as a rookie, as he went from a featured role in Bill Self’s offense to scraping for shots next to Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. He’s got the stroke and athleticism to be an excellent SG in the NBA, but he has a long way to go in terms of shot selection and not too many guys to learn from in Sacramento. Going forward, he needs to focus on defense and moving the ball and the shots will come (hopefully).
8) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: Caldwell-Pope got plenty of opportunities in the dumpster fire that was the Pistons season, but he didn’t do all that much with them. With Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith clogging up the paint, Caldwell-Pope had to serve as one of their main floor spacers and he shot only 30 percent from three-point territory. Like the rest of the Pistons, he would benefit from unwinding the logjam upfront and playing with more shooters around him.
9) Trey Burke: Burke broke his finger in the preseason and by the time he returned to the lineup, the Jazz season was essentially over. No rookie in this year’s class walked into more responsibility than Burke, who played 32 minutes a night in Utah and had the ball in his hands most of the time. He made the players around him better - averaging 5.6 assists on 1.9 turnovers as a rookie - he just needs more help on the offensive end from whoever Utah drafts this season.
10) CJ McCollum: Another lottery pick whose rookie season was short-circuited before it got a chance to get going. Damian Lillard and Mo Williams do everything McCollum does but better and the Trail Blazers were contending for a homecourt advantage in the playoffs for most of the season. Williams is likely gone in the off-season, but with Lillard entrenched in Portland, the question is whether McCollum is going to play next to him or be his backup.
11) Michael Carter-Williams: One of the real surprises of this year’s rookie class, Carter-Williams had the 76ers flirting with respectability in the first few months of the season. Once they dumped Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, leaving Thaddeus Young as the only proven NBA player in the rotation, things got real bad real quickly. No rookie was going to fix that mess and a 6’6 PG with his athleticism and floor vision has a bright future ahead of him.
12) Steven Adams: The Thunder drafted the 20-year-old Adams as a project, so the respectable numbers he gave them as a backup center were a pleasant surprise. He’s a genuinely massive human being with excellent athleticism who isn’t asked to do much on the offensive end. Of course, it also helps to be replacing Kendrick Perkins. Oklahoma City is a notoriously patient franchise - they are probably grooming Adams to be the starter when Perkins contract is up in 2015.
13) Kelly Olynyk: After a dominant showing in Summer League, Olynyk was hit with a taste of reality in the NBA. While he put up good offensive numbers and he rebounded the ball well coming off the bench, he was never really in contention for ROY. The question is how he fits with Jared Sullinger upfront - does Boston need two offensive-minded big men who can’t move their feet on defense? There may not be minutes for them both long-term.
14) Shabazz Muhammad - Like fellow rookie Gorgui Dieng, Muhammad spent most of his first season with the Timberwolves from the bench watching the playoff push. In the limited minutes he did get, Muhammad showed one thing did translate from his UCLA days - this is a guy who knows how to get his FGA’s. Per-36 minutes, he took 17 FGA’s and made them at a 46 percent clip. Muhammad may never be a great defender, but he’ll be getting buckets off the bench for a long time.
Apr 10, 2014 5:43 PM EDT
Ever since a back injury prematurely ended his freshman season, Kansas center Joel Embiid has been out of sight, out of mind when it comes to NBA draft discussions. Embiid, who declared for the draft on Wednesday, is far from a finished product, but he would dramatically improve every team in the lottery. There’s no one else on the draft who can replicate his impact on both sides of the ball. Embiid is the No. 1 prospect in 2014 and it isn’t really close.
Embiid had good statistics for a freshman - 11 points, 8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.5 assists and one steal a game - but they don’t fully capture how dominant he was. His biggest problem was foul trouble, which is what you would expect for a guy who started playing basketball three years ago. His per-40 minute numbers were outrageous - 19 points, 14 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.5 blocks and six fouls on 63 percent shooting. He’s a 19-year-old center with a 28.2 PER.
When Embiid was in the line-up, Kansas looked like one of the best teams in the country. Without him, they looked like a team that was replacing four senior starters and a lottery pick (Ben McLemore). Their tailspin at the end of the season coincided with Embiid’s absence. They went 3-3 in their last six games, including a loss to an NIT team (West Virginia), struggling with a 15-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tourney and losing to a 10-seed in the second.
Andrew Wiggins, his more celebrated teammate, had 41 points in the game against the Mountaineers, but he wasn’t making his teammates better. Without Embiid, Kansas couldn’t control the tempo of the game or protect the rim, allowing West Virginia to get the game going up-and-down and race out to a 50-38 halftime lead. Wiggins took 18 shots in that game, but he had only two assists on four turnovers. That’s not the ratio you want from your best player.
It’s much harder for a big man to rack up assists than a perimeter player, yet Embiid and Wiggins both averaged the same number on the season. When Wiggins gets the ball on the wing, he’s putting his head down and making a straight-line drive at the rim. When Embiid gets the ball in the post, he’s collapsing the defense and moving it back out. Even though he’s far less experienced, Embiid showed more court awareness than Wiggins this season.
For all the talk of Wiggins’ athletic ability on the defensive end, Embiid averaged only 0.3 fewer steals a game, despite spending most of his time in the paint. A great interior defender, as the second line of defense, is far more valuable than a great defender on the perimeter. Just by standing in the middle of the lane, Embiid covered up a lot of mistakes on the defensive end and made everyone better. There’s no way for a guard to replicate that kind of impact.
When people talk about the draft, everyone brings up Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. At the same time, you don’t hear many people talking about taking Evan Turner over Derrick Favors or all the teams that passed on Andre Drummond. The media would like you to believe that basketball games are won and lost by which team’s perimeter players can hoist more shots and “impose their will” on a game, but that isn’t the case.
If you make a list of the best centers in the NBA, you will start to notice a trend - they all play on really good teams. Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan, Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut are all centerpieces of good teams. The only good center on a bad team (DeMarcus Cousins) is the exception that proves the rule - he’s the rare center who doesn’t play much defense. If you paired him with Embiid, it would be a serious problem.
It’s no coincidence that Gasol, Noah, Duncan, Hibbert and Bogut all made the second round of the playoffs last season. The other three centers? Tyson Chandler, Chris Bosh and Kendrick Perkins. Unless you have LeBron James or Kevin Durant, you had better have a good center. In case you were wondering, there aren’t any 6’11 235 SG’s with a 7’4 wingspan or 6’9 270 point centers in this draft. Embiid is the one guy who brings instant credibility to the team that drafts him.
Embiid makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball. He’s the rare 7’0 who has a chance to be an elite defensive player and an elite offensive player. He has the physical ability to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the skill-set to be indefensible in the low post. In terms of his ceiling, Embiid is more fluid offensively than Howard, more athletic than Gasol, more skilled than Hibbert and Bogut and much bigger than Noah. His ceiling is Tim Duncan.
There are a lot of parallels between Duncan and Embiid. Both picked up the game later in life - Duncan was an elite swimmer in the Virgin Islands, Embiid grew up playing volleyball and soccer. As a result, neither picked up the bad habits that plague modern big men. They aren’t trying to play point guard or shoot a bunch of 3’s - when you are bigger, faster and more coordinated than everyone you face, you don’t want make the game any more complicated than it has to be.
That’s the most intriguing thing about Embiid - he’s a 19-year-old still growing into his body, yet he’s already bigger and faster than most NBA centers. He won’t come in and dominate his competition as a 20-year-old, but he will be able to hold his own. Even if I had a center on my team, I would draft Embiid and make him a PF, just like Duncan. He’s fast enough to play on the perimeter and he shoots 69 percent from the free-throw line - he’s capable of playing out of the high post.
Andrew Wiggins is a great prospect, but there are super-athletic wings who can’t pass the ball in every draft. If Embiid never gets better, he is a more offensive-minded Tyson Chandler. An NBA team doesn’t get a chance to draft a 7’0 with his ability very often - there aren’t many drafts where Embiid wouldn’t be the No. 1 prospect. He’s the only player in this draft I would seriously consider tanking for. If the doctors clear him medically, you take Embiid without thinking twice.
Mar 24, 2014 1:38 PM EDT
When Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker played each other in the first week of the season, it looked like the start of something big. The NCAA was supposed to be a formality for the two freshmen stars, a one-year layover before the NBA draft. Duke and Kansas were supposed to meet again in the Final Four, not lose in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Wiggins and Parker, for all their talent, have a long way to go. The road to stardom is not smooth.
In many ways, they were both were victims of the hype machine that has enveloped the sport. As freshmen, they were first-team All-Conference selections in two of the best conferences in the country. Wiggins averaged 17 points and six rebounds a game on 45 percent shooting while Parker averaged 19 points and nine rebounds a game on 47 percent shooting. Nor were they putting up empty stats on bad teams - Kansas had a 25-10 record and a Big 12 title while Duke was 26-9.
Nevertheless, while the Jayhawks were a No. 2 seed and the Blue Devils were a No. 3 seed, both teams had serious issues coming into the Tourney. Kansas never got consistent point guard play or outside shooting from their other guards and they had no replacement for Joel Embiid when he went down at the end of the season. Duke had similar holes at PG and C - Quinn Cook lost the PG job halfway through the season and they were starting a 6’9 210 PF (Amile Jefferson) upfront.
The NCAA Tournament, like the NBA playoffs, has a way of exposing every hole on your roster. In their first-round loss to Mercer, Duke could not match up with Daniel Coursey, a 6’10 220 center who had 17 points on 7-12 shooting. Kansas, after barely scraping by Eastern Kentucky in the first round, fell to Stanford in the second. They had no answer for Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell upfront and they shot 5-of-16 from three, allowing Stanford to sit in a zone.
It wasn’t a matter of bad match-ups either - there were systemic issues on both rosters that were going to be exploited at some point in the Tourney. Mercer was run out the gym in the second round by Tennessee, an 11-seed who played in the First Four. Stanford is a middling Pac-12 team without a PG - there’s no guarantee they get by Dayton in the Sweet 16. The issues on Kansas and Duke went way deeper than Wiggins and Parker, so it’s unfair to blame them for the loss.
That said, neither one of them had a good showing in the biggest games of their young career. Parker had 14 points and seven rebounds on 4-for-14 shooting; Wiggins had four points and four rebounds on 1-of-6 shooting. If their teams were going to make the Sweet 16, they needed more from their best players. They needed more points, but they also needed more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. If Wiggins and Parker aren’t scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game.
Charles Barkley talked about it in the postgame show - even the greatest scorers have nights when their shot isn’t falling. Kevin Durant shoots 51 percent from the field this season, which means he still misses every other shot he takes. He was even more accomplished than Wiggins and Parker at Texas, but he lost in the second round of the Tourney as well. Assists are the biggest difference between Durant at 18 and 25 - he averaged 1.3 a game in college and he is at 5.6 now.
A great basketball player makes his teammates better. When Durant is hot, the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t just getting points from him, they are getting points from the other four players on the floor. When Durant is cold, he can focus on drawing double teams and creating open shots for everyone else. That’s how a scorer gets back into rhythm - by letting the game come to them. When you keep making the extra pass, eventually the defense will stop sending help.
That was the problem for Wiggins and Parker this weekend. When their shot wasn’t going in, neither had a Plan B they could go to. If you miss shots, the solution shouldn’t be to keep shooting. That way lies the path of Carmelo Anthony. Stanford and Mercer weren’t AAU teams - they played team basketball on both ends of the floor. No one can consistently beat a set defense 1-on-5 - not Kevin Durant, not LeBron James and certainly not Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins.
The higher the level of basketball, the more individual talent starts to equalize. At the AAU and high school levels, Wiggins and Parker could take over whenever they felt like it. There’s nothing the average 18-year-old basketball player can do to stop a 6’8 200 SG with elite athleticism, or a 6’9 250 PF with the ability to shoot and handle like a guard. At the college level, you can’t beat a good defense with just the drive or the shot; you have to beat them with the pass too.
That’s what the third member of the hyped troika of freshman figured out on Sunday. While Julius Randle only had 13 points in Kentucky’s win over Wichita State, he had a career-high six assists. Instead of forcing the issue against an undersized team that packed the paint, Randle patiently played out of the high post, surveying the floor and hitting open shooters. Kentucky doesn’t win if they don’t go 8-for-14 from long range and Randle’s passing created a lot of those shots.
To win in March, you have to move the ball and play defense. If Kentucky is going to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, Randle will have to shut down Montrezl Harrell, keep him off the boards and take some of the playmaking pressure off the Harrisons. You win as a team and you lose as a team - a basketball team is only as strong as its weakest link. Wiggins, Parker and Randle all had more turnovers than assists this season; they weren’t making anyone else better.
You don’t have to be a great athlete to pass the ball. Passing, more than any of the other phases of the game, is mental. A great passer thinks the game - instead of reacting to the defense, they anticipate it. They see 2-3 moves ahead, making the pass before the other player is even open. They play at their own pace and they play under control; the defense can’t speed them up or force them to take difficult shots. That’s the next step for both Wiggins and Parker.
Wiggins turned 19 in February and Parker turned 19 in March - they are the farthest things from finished products, on and off the court. College is supposed to be a learning experience and neither one is likely to go back to school, so you just hope they learned something in this last year. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know where their journeys will take them, but I can make this prediction - neither is ever going to win an NBA title averaging 1.5 assists a game.
Mar 14, 2014
If you are looking for a high-major team with a middling seed to ride in your bracket, you could do worse than UCLA. Steve Alford has enough NBA-caliber talent to compete against any school in the field.
Feb 27, 2014
Only the best of the best can survive 15 seasons in the NBA, a ruthlessly Darwinian league. With a 16.1 PER and the ability to meaningfully impact the game on both sides of the ball at multiple positions, Vince Carter could fit with almost any team in the league at 37.
Feb 21, 2014
Perry Jones III is a force multiplier, with an impact that goes beyond the box score. When heís on the floor, every line-up he is in is bigger, faster and longer than it otherwise would be. Heís the ultimate role player; he doesnít demand the ball or interfere with the flow of the offense.
Jan 24, 2014
Chris Paul wasnít making Blake Griffin better; he was making him worse. CP3 is a pair of training wheels Blake no longer needs. While everyone focuses on his athleticism, itís his skill and feel for the game that makes him an elite player. If Blake couldnít pass or dribble, he would be Thomas Robinson.
Jan 19, 2014
In the court of public perception, the Knicks have been the victim of the mob mentality and groupthink that so commonly afflicts Basketball Twitter. If Carmelo and J.R. move the ball and play defense, they have a chance against anyone, especially if they get healthy up front.
Jan 01, 2014
The Raptors are a versatile team with lineup options on their bench. They can play Lowry and Vasquez together or go big on the perimeter with Vasquez, Ross and Salmons. Toronto 2.0 puts pressure on the opponent for all 48 minutes.
Dec 23, 2013
When you evaluate under-25 players, skill-set is more important than statistics. And when you look at Lance Stephensonís game in total, itís scary how good he could be. Still only 23, heís already a better shooter than Wade, a better defender than Harden and a better passer than George.
Dec 09, 2013
Julius Randle and Isaiah Austin are still 7-8 years away from the prime of their careers. Randle is better equipped to physically dominate undermanned opponents, but there arenít many of those guys at the next level. And while he is the safer bet right now, that doesnít mean itís a guarantee. Young big men donít necessarily develop on a straight line.
Dec 04, 2013
After a slow start where they experimented with an ill-fitting Twin Towers lineup, the Rockets have found themselves over the last few weeks. They are 9-3 in their last 12 games, a streak that coincides with second-year power forward Terrence Jones moving into the starting line-up.
Nov 27, 2013
Itís hard to beat the recruiting package Miami can put together. Come to South Beach and play for the champs, where you get to be in an uptempo system next to one of the greatest players of all-time in the prime of his career. At this point, it really is like going on the tour with the Beatles.
Nov 20, 2013
The NBA is like the NFL -- people focus too much on the guy with the ball in his hands. As the Knicks are finding out, the irreplaceable guy was the seven-footer anchoring the defense and finishing on the pick-and-roll.
Nov 11, 2013
If this is it, Lamar Odom leaves behind a complicated legacy in the sport. However, the player he could have been shouldnít detract from the incredible player that he was.
Nov 03, 2013
Perry Jones, Jeffery Taylor, Terrence Jones, Will Barton and Quincy Miller are five players from the 2012 NBA Draft taken outside the lottery poised to have a breakout second season.
Oct 10, 2013
Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love are too good to be annually missing the playoffs. Of course, even if they make the playoffs, there is no guarantee that the Wolves, Blazers and Mavs keep their franchise player. If any of them move to the right team, the balance of power could shift.
Oct 04, 2013
The days of the $6 million per year role player may be all but over. Mo Williams, Mike Miller, Beno Udrih and Wayne Ellington are at the forefront of the new market inefficiency in the NBA -- veteran role players from the free agency bargain bin.
Sep 30, 2013
Health is why every deep playoff run is precious; it can be taken away at any time. To figure out which teams will reach The Finals, one question stands out above all the rest: who will keep their stars healthy?
Sep 25, 2013
At an age where most smaller guards are slowing down, Tony Parker is as good as ever. Thereís no real secret to what he does: he takes what the defense gives him and doesnít make the game hard on himself. Thatís how a slight 6í2 31-year-old dominates a sport designed for giants.
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