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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each team’s outlook. I see seven teams as having a shot at the tournament. UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

MWC Favorite

San Diego St: The Aztecs are the prohibitive favorite in most people’s mind and for good reason. No team can go thirteen players deep quite like San Diego St. The problem is that a healthy college basketball rotation is typically only eight or nine players deep. If your eleventh best player is better than your opponent’s eleventh best player, that typically isn’t going to win basketball games.

But that versatility also makes the team an enigma. SDSU’s season could evolve in a number of ways depending on which rotation head coach Steve Fisher settles on. On the one hand, the team had an outstanding defense last year. And with just about all of last year’s rotation player’s back, San Diego St. could choose to play its veterans and be an elite defensive squad again.

But most people expect the Aztecs to rely a lot on the team’s three Top 100 freshmen recruits Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatem, along with Arizona transfer and former Top 100 recruit Angelo Chol. If those players play, that means more skill, but those fresh faces could hurt the continuity on defense. Moreover, Kell and Cheatem were low-end Top 100 recruits, and those types of players typically struggle with shot selection and turnovers when they first make the jump to the college level.

Furthermore, the returning rotation and incoming recruiting class is weakest at the PG spot, the position of greatest need after Xavier Thames departed. Certainly it helps that the offense can run through Winston Shepard, a superb passer at 6’8”. But San Diego St. will still need someone as a primary ball-handler and lock down defender on opposing smaller speedy guards. D’Erryl Williams played sparingly as the backup PG last year. And incoming recruit Kevin Zabo might not be a Top 100 recruit, but he will compete with Williams for primary ball-handling duties. But somehow a team with unusual depth also has a big question mark at PG.

The good news is that Steve Fisher can play a deep rotation in November and December and simply settle on his most consistent players for conference play. And that’s why my model still loves this team even if the rotation is uncertain. We might not know who the nine man rotation will be, but we can be sure that the winners of the playing time competition will be quality players, ready to take San Diego St. to a MWC title.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Wyoming: A lot of people think Wyoming will be a MWC contender if Larry Nance is healthy and I completely endorse that view. First Larry Shyatt is a strong defensive coach. You might not quite know that from last year’s ranking of 93rd nationally, but the team’s defense really fell apart down the stretch after Larry Nance was injured:

Mountain West Conf. Games Only

Adjusted Offense

Adjusted Defense

W

L

PWP

Wyoming (with Nance)

106.7

97.5

8

5

0.7367

Wyoming (w/o Nance)

103.0

109.8

1

5

0.3241

Nance was dominant on the defensive glass, dominant at blocking shots, and quite good at getting steals for a big man. Another factor on defense might be the team’s depth. Wyoming essentially went with only two big men in the rotation last year, but 6’9” freshman Jonathan Barnes could help. Barnes is still raw, he was a late-growing high school player, but given his athleticism he should provide some key length off the bench.

The bigger question for Wyoming always seems to be the offense. Wyoming struggles to recruit elite athletes, (the team still has no former consensus Top 100 recruits,) and that makes it hard to build a dominant offense. Nonetheless, the starting five looks like it could be very good. Nance is obviously an offensive star (in addition to the defensive stats I mentioned above.) And Josh Adams was one of the most improved players in the country last year. Adams used 8% more possessions when on the floor and improved his ORtg by 12 points. Riley Grabau (42% three point shooter) and Derek Cooke (64% of his twos) were both dominant and efficient. And if former Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson, reinstated from suspension, ever lives up to his high potential, that core could be in the NCAA tournament.

UNLV: Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh might be the highest scoring freshmen trio in the nation. I’m not saying they are better than some of the other recruiting classes. For example, last week I reviewed the North Carolina trio, and I love their skill and potential. But unlike those Tar Heels, because of all the UNLV roster turnover, the UNLV freshmen face almost no competition for playing time.

A lot of experts think the UNLV offense will finally click this year because UNLV will have two true PGs to run the show. Both San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin and Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears have posted great per minute assist rates in their career, and they could finally help a team of talented players reach their full potential.

On the other hand, for three straight years head coach Dave Rice has had lots of former Top 100 recruits on his roster. And yet his team has never had an offense that ranked better than 89th in the nation. His team has never won more than 10 games in the MWC. When you watch a team with eight former Top 100 recruits (last year’s squad) fail to even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble, you start to wonder whether Rice has the X’s and O’s coaching ability to match his recruiting pedigree.

Fresno St and Colorado St.: On paper, Fresno St. feels like the better team. They finished two games better in the conference standings. Fresno St. returns 69% of its minutes vs 54% for Colorado St. And when you look at the starting lineup, Fresno St. feels like it has more household names. But the numbers actually suggest this is a pretty tight race, and let me see if I can explain why.

First, my model loves Fresno St.’s backcourt. Oklahoma St. transfer Cezar Guerrero joined the team last year and became a high volume scorer and passer. This year the team adds Texas transfer Julien Lewis. And while Lewis may have been part of some dysfunctional Texas squads, he was always an efficient quality scorer. Throw in returning efficient starters like Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson, and the Fresno St. perimeter is very good.

Fresno St.’s paint presence is sorely lacking. 6’9” forward Alex Davis had a low ORtg and was a terrible rebounder last year. Braeden Anderson might be back after a car accident cost him last season, but he has never posted reliable numbers. And that means Fresno St. might have to consider using a pair of freshmen big men.

Colorado St.’s backcourt is also very talented. Daniel Bejarano and JJ Avila were two of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the country last year. And transfers will also boost Colorado St.’s cause. You might not be familiar with Arkansas Little Rock transfer John Gillon or Southern Illinois transfer Dantiel Daniels. But their projections are outstanding. They were both efficient and prolific per minute scorers in quality leagues before transferring to Colorado St. and that’s a good sign for their future performance. Throw in another efficient starter like Joe De Ciman, and Colorado St.’s perimeter should score plenty of points too.

Colorado St. also has a huge weakness in the frontcourt. They will be hoping that JUCO recruit, Daniel Mulamba is ready to play major minutes at the D1 level next year. Offensively, my model says the matchup is a draw.

Thus what it comes down to is which team is expected to have a better season defensively. Fresno St.’s defense was better by 2.3 points per possession last season, and Fresno returns more minutes. That would seem to cut in Fresno St.’s favor. But when you dig deeper, that advantage dissipates.

Advanced stats suggest that teams have very little control over the free throw percentage of their opposition and very little control over the three point percentage of their opposition. And Colorado St.’s opponents killed the Rams by knocking down free throws and threes at an above average rate last year. Meanwhile Fresno St.’s opponents struggled massively at the three point line. Here’s how each team’s points per possession defense was impacted by these factors that are mostly beyond their control:

Team

Impact of opponent FT% and 3PT% on PPP defense

Colorado St.

+1.5

Nevada

+1.1

New Mexico

+0.7

Boise St.

+0.4

Air Force

0.0

Utah St.

-0.2

Wyoming

-0.6

San Jose St.

-0.7

Fresno St.

-0.8

UNLV

-1.2

San Diego St.

-1.2

Essentially the ENTIRE difference in last year’s defensive performance between Colorado St. and Fresno St. was opponent three-point shooting and free throw shooting.

Returning minutes would still seem to tip things in Fresno St.’s favor, but not necessarily. While Fresno St. loses one of the best rebounding guards in the country, Colorado St.’s losses include a couple of big men who were terrible rebounders and who played much smaller than their size would indicate.

This matchup may come down to the men on the sideline and my model slightly favors the veteran Larry Eustachy over Rodney Terry. But the reality is that it could go either way. And if things break right, either of these teams could make the NCAA tournament.

Boise St: Sometimes a team’s fortunes depend entirely on its conference peers. In 2012-13, the MWC did well in the non-conference, Boise St. had opportunities for Top 100 wins, and they snuck in with one of the last bids to NCAA tournament. In 2013-14, the MWC struggled in the non-conference, and Boise St. didn’t even play in the NIT. Boise St. was a little worse on defense, and they went from one game over .500 in the conference to exactly .500. But even if the post-season outcome was substantially different, it was pretty much the same team. They were a guard-oriented offensive juggernaut in both years.

The best news is that Leon Rice’s success is finally paying off in recruiting. After turning 2 star recruits like Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic into scoring stars, those seniors are now being joined by 3 or 4 star freshmen recruits. This year’s recruiting class is led by Chandler Hutchinson, a player that both Scout and ESPN’s recruiting services loved. Throw in a JUCO big man addition like Kevin Allen, and Boise St. looks like an offensive juggernaut with some defensive issues once again. Whether they can make the NCAA tournament may well depend on how well the MWC plays in the non-conference schedule.

New Mexico: The Lobos return three rotation players from a team that nearly won the MWC title last year, Hugh Greenwood, Cullen Neal, and Deshawn Delaney. All will be relied on more heavily this year. But the only immediate impact player the team adds is Top 10 JUCO recruit Jordan Goodman. And he can’t replace Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Cleveland Thomas by himself. New Mexico simply doesn’t have the depth to compete for a league title in 2014-15. The recent decision of Merv Lindsay to transfer  does not help matters. If the freshmen or JUCO recruit JJ N’Ganga blossom early, the NCAA tournament is a possibility. But if those new faces struggle, this could be a long season.

Building for the Future

Nevada: Nevada wasn’t as good as their 10-8 conference record would indicate. The team was fortunate in close games last year. Six of those conference wins came by four points or less or in OT. Worse yet, the team’s three best players, Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans, and Cole Huff are gone.

There is some good news. Nevada was better in the second half of the season, and it wasn’t just a fluke. After AJ West became eligible, he became one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and his presence really did make the Nevada better. West and Michael Perez will form a formidable, efficient inside-outside combination in 2014-15. But on paper, the rest of the roster looks too weak for Nevada to really compete for an NCAA bid.

Air Force: It is hard to win at the military academies. You basically have to try to win with a bunch of 2-star recruits, and when someone like Tre’ Coggins breaks out, they often leave.The best thing I can say is that 74% of the team’s minutes return, so in general, this year should be trending up.

Utah St: I’ve been a huge advocate of Stew Morril. From 2004 to 2010, he produced some of the best offensive teams in the nation without playing in an elite conference. In 2011, he had one of the best defensive teams in the nation. But things have been trending down since 2011, and this year could be rock bottom. After four senior starters graduated, four of the most important bench players transferred. And thus Morrill is basically starting from scratch with this year’s roster.

San Jose St: As hard as it is to win at a program like Air Force, somehow it is even harder to win at San Jose St. Even if a post-season trip was unlikely, the post-season APR ban just makes recruiting a bigger uphill battle.

And even when San Jose St. tries to build through transfers, it doesn’t attract the cream of the crop. San Jose St. adds two players with ORtgs under 90 at their last school, Pepperdine’s Jordan Baker and San Jose St.’s Frank Rogers. In fairness, Baker was a high volume scorer, and his efficiency is probably not reflective of his overall ability. But it just goes to show that even when San Jose St. tries to build its program through alternative methods, it isn’t easy. But perhaps the traditional way of building a program will work the best. Rashad Muhammad was brilliant as a freshman. And with the typical sophomore leap, he will be worth the price of admission.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

Six years ago the Seattle SuperSonics officially became the Oklahoma City Thunder. While Oklahoma City has proven itself worthy of having an NBA franchise, the circumstances under which the move from Seattle occurred has been a black eye for the NBA. The NBA surely has deep concerns about the black eye, but the black eye remains nevertheless.

Most connected to the NBA agree that Seattle needs to have a team. Emotional arguments for Seattle aside, this article focuses on solely on the financial merits for why expansion makes sense for NBA owners. That’s right, while the fans’ interests theoretically make a difference to the NBA, expansion will only occur if the owners benefit from the additional teams. With that said, let’s crunch some numbers. But before we do this, we need to establish projections for expansion fees and the new TV digital/rights package (going forward, we’ll call this the media rights package).  And yes, we are simplifying here, as in reality there are additional factors involved. But the simplified analysis will sufficiently illustrate the benefits of the NBA owners expanding once the new media rights deal kicks in.

The Math 

High placed rumors suggest that the next media rights package will approach $2 billion per year, which will more than double the value of the existing package. With media rights deals booming across sports, a mind numbing $2 billion per year sounds about right, so that’s the number we will use for purposes of our analysis.  Next, rumors have suggested expansion fees approaching $1 billion per team. If the Clippers can fetch $2 billion, a new team can certainly fetch half that amount. While expansion by only one team is certainly possible, the league would be likely to add two teams. So we’ll go with total expansion fees of $2 billion. 

Now let’s split up the pies. First, the $2 billion expansion fees divided among 30 owners would lead to a one-time payment of roughly $66,667,000 (rounding up for simplicity) to each owner. Next, with two additional teams added (so splitting the pie 32 ways), each team would receive $62,500,000 per year from the media rights deal. With these numbers established, we can also calculate the difference in the amount the existing 30 owners would receive per year from the media rights deal if they choose to add two teams; that number is $4,167,000 less per year. See the table below for further illustration:

Scenario For the 30 Existing Owners

Up-Front Payment (one-time)

Media Rights Payment (per year)

30 Teams, No Expansion

$0

$66,667,000

32 Teams (Two Expansion)

$66,667,000

$62,500,000

So the existing 30 NBA owners would need to decide if receiving an upfront payment of $66,667,000 would justify receiving $4,167,000 less per year from the new media rights deal. Looking solely at these numbers (more in a moment on why we can’t quite do this), it will take 16 years for the payments to even out (i.e. after 16 years, the owners will have taken in $66,667,000 less in payments from the media rights deal, matching what they receive from the up-front payments for expansion).  

Turning right back to the numbers, what are we missing here? Any economist would be jumping up and down with this answer - the time value of money.  In other words, $1 today is worth more than $1 tomorrow. Similarly, $66,667,000 today is worth (quite a bit!) more than $4,167,000 a year for 16 years. How much more? I defer to an economist to provide the TVM coefficient, but we’re talking Brinks trucks here. Sure, the new media rights deal will be shorter than 16 seasons, so the payments towards the back end of our hypothetical would change. How much, we don’t know, but it would be premature to assume that the subsequent media rights deal will blow the upcoming new media rights deal out of the water. This is because…

Bubble

That’s right, with franchise values and media rights packages exploding over the past few years, the onset of a bubble may be fast approaching, if not already knocking on the door. Just as media rights deals may face a correction soon (why do you think the NBA is rushing to finalize the media rights package two years prior to its expiration?), franchise values face the danger of a bubble as well. Very few people would agree that the Los Angeles Clippers, while in the nation’s second largest market and tenants in an arena that prints money, are worth the $2 billion price tag that Steve Ballmer has agreed to pay for them. In other words, they’re not the Lakers. Could the prices for teams continue to rise? Sure, that’s possible, but there’s also a reasonable risk that franchise values will face a correction soon (or at the very least, remain stagnant). Circling back to our example, the $1 billion expansion fee floated around per team may not be available to the owners if they wait too long.

Conclusion

In light of the math, the existing 30 NBA owners would be best served to expand by two teams once the new media rights deal has been negotiated. Sure, the full financial analysis in relation to expansion is complex and entails more than just the expansion fee and the media rights package (such as merchandise sales, revenue sharing projections, etc.), but by looking at these two factors, we have the meat and potatoes of the analysis. In the event that the media rights package comes in at an amount different from $2 billion, the expansion fee can easily be adjusted to make expansion worthwhile to the existing 30 NBA owners. They would just need to find that number. The NBA owners who would least benefit from expansion are those who plan to own their teams in perpetuity, since they could argue that the value of the payments they would receive years down the road (think 20 plus years from now), not being split with two additional teams, would overtake the benefit of receiving an up-front payment from expansion.  However, such an argument remains questionable, and the majority of NBA owners do not intend to own their teams in perpetuity. When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the important time value of money principle) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Seattle SuperSonics and a second franchise as quickly as possible. 

Neema Hodjat is the fantasy sports writer for RealGM and a frequent contributor across the NBA, NFL and MLB content. He can be emailed at nhodjat@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @NeemaHodjat.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Things didn't exactly go according to the plan for the Houston Rockets this offseason. In the span of a weekend, they went from having Chris Bosh and Chandler Parsons to neither, all while clearing out their bench. After a disappointing first round exit, the Rockets lost Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin and have only Trevor Ariza to show for it. With Daryl Morey's hot streak the last few offseasons coming to an abrupt halt, the Rockets seem like a prime candidate to regress.

Losing Parsons is a blow not only to their chances next season, but to the odds of getting a third star like Kevin Love. The mechanics of trading his contract would have been difficult, but he's exactly the type of young piece a team like the Wolves would want in a trade. Without Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play. 

Jones has slipped under the radar ever since his sophomore season at Kentucky, when he took a backseat to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a team that won a national title. With his stats depressed in a smaller role, he fell to the Rockets at No. 17 in 2012, the last in a long line of young PF's they drafted in the first round. After barely playing as a rookie, he carved out a spot for himself in the starting line-up as a second-year player, averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds a game on 54% shooting.

Those numbers hardly forecast future stardom, but they were excellent when you consider the role that he had on the team. Jones was the fourth or fifth option on the floor, playing behind Dwight Howard, James Harden and Parsons. As a result, he rarely got to play with the ball in his hands - most of his points came from cutting off the ball, crashing the offensive glass and running the floor. If Parsons had stayed, Jones would never have had the chance to be anything more than a role player in Houston.

If Morey had signed Bosh and pulled off a Big Four, Jones would have been fighting for minutes on the second team, if not shipped away in order to clear salary cap space. Instead, without either Parsons or Lin, there's a huge role in the Rockets offense that will need to be filled. Those two averaged almost 24 field goal attempts a game and Ariza only averaged 11 in Washington last season. Jones, who averaged 9 a game last season, is a logical option to soak up more possessions. 

At 6'9 250 with a 35' max vertical, Jones has the physical measurements and athleticism of a lottery pick. If he had come out after his freshman season of college, he likely would have been taken in the Top 5, which would have dramatically altered the perception of him around the league. His numbers as a freshman weren't much different from those of Julius Randle. Jones has elite ball-handling ability for a player his size, a quick first step and the ability to finish at the rim or find the open man off the dribble.

Jones is more of a combo 4 than a stretch 4, so he's not a natural fit with a center like Howard who wants the ball on the block. At the same time, the two form one of the longest and most athletic frontcourt duos in the NBA and they are more than skilled enough to figure things out on the offensive side of the floor. There should be plenty of opportunities for Jones to push the ball in transition as well as attack the lane with the other three perimeter players spotting up on the three-point line. 

As is the case with most young players, Jones has a lot of room to grow on the defensive side of the ball. That was made clear in the playoffs, when LaMarcus Aldridge tore him up in their first two games, averaging over 40 per night. Jones isn't quite as long as Aldridge, but he still has a 7'2 wingspan, so he's more than capable of holding his own at the PF position. Along with Howard, he gives the Rockets two big men capable of defending the two-man game, a huge advantage in a spread pick-and-roll league.

Just as important as any maturation on defense, Jones should have the opportunity to attack guys like Aldridge on the other end of the floor next season. That's one of the best ways to go at a big-time scorer - attack his legs and make him work on defense. With Jones hardly ever being featured in the Rockets offense, Aldridge didn't have to work all that hard against him. People tend to confuse opportunity with talent, especially with young players. There's only so much a guy can do with a usage rating of 18.

If Jones can handle a role as a third option and a featured player on the second unit with a usage rating of 22-23, there is a scenario where the Rockets end up improving without Parsons. With Ariza giving them a second lockdown defender on the perimeter, they would have four elite athletes around James Harden, all on the right side of 30. The bench is an issue, but one of the strengths of Houston's front office has been their ability to unearth NBA-caliber players from all types of unlikely places 

For all the hubbub around Morey's philosophy and approach to roster building, few can doubt his eye for talent. While it looks like he outsmarted himself this summer, his ability to find guys like Patrick Beverley in Europe and Terrence Jones in the end of the first round has left him with room to maneuver. That could end up being the great irony of the Rockets seemingly fruitless search for a third star - they've been frantically looking under every rock when that player has been on hand the whole time.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: ACC

Duke are their favorites and their season will hinge on the play of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, while Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia will challenge.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Daryl Morey, Major Markets & The Fierce Urgency Of Now

Daryl Morey and the Rockets created a good but not perfect enough situation to lure Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. His strategy of flexibility and asset accumulation would work in one of the NBA's major markets.

Interview: Marco Baldi Of Alba Berlin

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Grading The Deal: Carmelo Decides To Stay With New York

The presence of Carmelo Anthony is unlikely to bring a star from the younger generation to the Knicks. Despite his status as a famous and talented player, a franchise in a massive market should have understood the gigantic advantages given to them in the current CBA and aimed higher to build a championship foundation.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James needed to leave to win a title and the Cavaliers needed that departure for him to return to win one for Cleveland. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns unburdened with two rings and with youth around him.

Buying Low On Meyers Leonard

The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.

Re-Signing Kyle Lowry As The Final Piece For Toronto

With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.

Ten College Teams That Will Play Faster

Every summer coaches tend to give interviews and talk about how they plan to play faster the following season, but it rarely happens. Here are 10 teams we expect to actually play faster.

Grading The Deal: Warriors Sign Shaun Livingston

In signing Shaun Livingston, the Warriors fixed their single largest flaw from last season with a player who makes complete sense with their best player.

Team-By-Team Analysis Of The 2014 NBA Draft

With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.

Leroux's 2014 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down which teams had Great, Good, Enh and Bad drafts with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid going in the top-3.

2014 NBA Draft: The Underrated

The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.

2014 NBA Draft: The Overrated

Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.

Top-13 Of The 2014 NBA Draft

The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this year’s draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.

Draft Report: Aaron Gordon Of Arizona

Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. He’s the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.

The Tough Trade-Off

Specialists have recently had a bigger role in the NBA. An underlying factor behind these shifts could end up coming to the forefront with the 2014 draft class: the player’s impact has to be high enough to justify coaches and other players working around their flaws.

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