Once you get past Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, there aren’t a lot of sure things in this year’s draft, at least among the American college players. No one else has really separated themselves from the pack and there are a lot of guys who could play their way into the Top-5 during the stretch run of the college basketball season. This year’s freshmen class just isn’t as strong as many in the recent past and the result is a vacuum at the top of the draft.
Teams drafting in that range will be choosing among a group of prospects with some very clear holes in their games, which means the situation they are drafted in, the way they will be utilized and the players they will be put next too will have as much of an impact on whether or not they succeed at the next level as their innate talent level. It’s all about putting players in the best spot to succeed and one of the best ways to do that in the modern NBA is to slide them down a position. The two best examples in this year’s draft are Jaylen Brown of Cal and Henry Ellenson of Marquette, both of whom are widely projected to go in the 3-7 range.
At 6’7 225 with a 6’11 wingspan, Brown would have been a prototypical SF a generation ago. He’s a teenager with the body of a grown man and he has a great combination of size and speed for a perimeter player. He can put smaller defenders on his back and he can blow past slower defenders on the dribble. He’s at his best when he’s out in transition, when he can put his head down, get to the front of the rim and force defenders to guard in space.
The concern with Brown is what happens when the game slows down and he has to score in the halfcourt. Unlike Ingram, he’s not a consistent shooter from the perimeter and unlike Simmons, he can’t thread passes through narrow lanes in traffic. Like a lot of hyper-athletic young wing players, Brown is so used to dominating based solely on his athleticism that he hasn’t needed to refine the rest of his game, something which can be exposed when he goes up against players who are just as big and just as athletic as he is.
The two numbers that should really concern teams with Brown are his three-point shot (28.4% on 3.0 3PA’s) and his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0 assists on 3.0 turnovers). He has a hard time taking advantage when opposing defenders play 2-3 steps off him and dare him to shoot off the dribble and he can’t really impact the game when he’s playing off the ball. It’s getting harder and harder to hide perimeter players in the modern NBA who can’t shoot 3’s - there will always be a ceiling on Brown’s game until he becomes a consistent long range shooter.
The easiest way to get around that is to use Brown similar to how LSU uses Simmons, playing him as a small-ball 4 next to a skilled 5 and three shooters on the perimeter. While he’s not nearly as tall as Simmons, he’s very well built and it’s hard to go wrong in the modern NBA by playing smaller defenders and daring teams to try and score over the top of them. In that sense, Brown reminds me a lot of Harrison Barnes, who has just been a guy when playing as a SF in the NBA but whose thrived when the Golden State Warriors have gone small and played him as an undersized PF.
Barnes, like Brown, is not all that polished on the offensive end of the floor and it’s much easier for him to score when he can take slower defenders off the dribble than when he has to score against similarly athletic wing players. The real benefits, though, come on defense, where the Warriors can play a 6’8 perimeter defender at the PF position who can switch screens, guard multiple positions and clog up opposing offenses by not giving them any cracks to exploit. The league has moved from post ups to pick-and-rolls as the main source of offense in the halfcourt, and you can really see the evolution of the game in the types of players that can succeed at the PF position as opposed to a generation ago.
All you have to do is look at it this way - would you rather have Brown trying to get around someone like Barnes or someone like Henry Ellenson? At 6’11 235 with a 7’1 wingspan, Ellenson is a prototypical stretch 4 and a guy who would have been easy to pencil in as a 10-year starter at the PF position at the start of the millennium. He’s mobile and skilled for a guy with his size and he can stand behind players in the post and then drag them out to the three-point line on offense and take them off the dribble.
The problems for Ellenson come when he is asked to guard on the perimeter. Ellenson really struggled to stay in front of Simmons when the two faced off in a non-conference game earlier in the season and it’s easy to picture a scenario where the opposing team mercilessly runs him off the floor by putting him in screens. The era of the slow-footed PF is coming to an end and it’s unclear whether Ellenson can be a high-level starter at the position in the modern NBA. At the very least, he’s going to have to sculpt his body, get in tip-top shape and commit to getting down in a defensive stance and guarding for 40 minutes.
Playing him at PF would also take away from the biggest strengths of his game, the ability to use the threat of his three-point shot to take slower defenders off the dribble. While he can score out of the post, he’s more comfortable facing up and attacking on the move. The problem is that he’s not all that skilled or fast in comparison to some of the small-ball 4’s that are floating around the next level - he’s shooting 27.7% from 3 on 3.8 3PA’s and he’s handing out 1.8 assists on 2.4 turnovers a game.
If Ellenson is going up against a defender like Brown, he’s going to have a hard time taking him off the dribble. He will have to take 6’7 combo forwards in the post and the problem with that is they will go right back at him the other way and the math says that the pick-and-roll will beat the post-up over the course of the game. It’s an open question whether teams with bigger and slower 4’s can beat smaller and faster teams in the modern NBA by pounding them inside - the results from the last few playoffs have been disappointing in that respect.
Where Ellenson could really thrive is by sliding down a position himself and playing as a small-ball 5. He’s not all that smaller than guys like Jakob Poeltl and Stephen Zimmerman and he’s much more capable of playing out on the perimeter. Just like Brown when he goes from the 3 position to the 4, Ellenson would gain a huge edge in speed, athleticism and skill when going from the 4 to the 5. All of a sudden, he would be the one putting slower defenders in the pick and roll while they would be the ones trying to punish him in the post.
Marquette hasn’t played Ellenson much at the 5 because of the presence of another NBA prospect at the position in Luke Fischer. When they have, though, they have been more dangerous on the offensive side of the ball. According to the numbers at hooplens.com, Ellenson has played 409 possessions without Fisher (as opposed to 1088 with him) and Marquette’s offensive rating jumps from 1.00 PPP to 1.09 PPP when that happens. Having a big man who can shoot, drive and pass at the 5 position stretches the defense to the breaking point and makes the game easier for the other 4 players.
The problem comes on the other end of the floor, where having a smaller and faster defender isn’t nearly as big of an advantage as it is at the 4 position. Centers are still asked to protect the rim and serve as the second line of defense and Ellenson is an average rim protector at best. He’s averaging 1.7 blocks a game, which isn’t bad for a PF but pales in comparison to more traditional C’s like AJ Hammons. With Ellenson in there instead of Fischer, their defensive rating jumps from 0.97 PPP to 1.02 PPP.
The logic of the modern game means sliding 1’s to the 2, 2’s to the 3, 3’s to the 4 and 4’s to the 5, but that starts to break down at the very end of the spectrum. There will always be room in the NBA for the biggest and strongest players in the world and there’s no 6 position to put guys like Andre Drummond. It’s also much easier to exploit a smaller defender at the 5 than at the 4 because you are playing in so much more space. It’s hard to play bullyball at PF when there are four big men clogging up the lane while the other team can always switch their C on you if they have too.
As it stands, neither Brown nor Ellenson has shown the type of elite skill level to where they project as high-level players at their natural positions at the next level. If either is going to be worthy of being a high lottery pick, it’s probably going to come from them sliding down a position and giving their teams an edge in speed and skill. It’s easier to do that at PF than C and that might end up being the difference between the two in the NBA.