Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Previewing The 2014 NBA Draft

It's that brutal time of the year.

The NBA Draft? Nah, that's kind of fun. I mean the run-up to the NBA Draft.

As with all things, there's a sensible middle ground. When I criticize Chad Ford-type draft analysts for being too impressed by how high guys can jump or how good they look in workouts against chairs, the typical pushback I get (on twitter at least) is that potential and athleticism matter and you can't just pick the best college players. And my response to that is: Yeah. No kidding. Nobody anywhere thinks Doug McDermott should get drafted before Andrew Wiggins just because he was better in 2013-14.

But at the same time, college performance matters, too. Throw out straight-out-of-high-school guys and European guys, and ask yourself how many guys you can think of who were non-elite college players yet who went onto become elite NBA players. You can have all the athleticism in the world, but if you can't translate it into quality play in college, why are you going to magically translate it into performance in the NBA? Particularly if you're buried on the end of the bench?

Every year there are one or two lottery guys who just tickle the fancy of draft analysts. They jump through the roof, they dominate every drill, and they look fantastic in an open gym... and everything that gets written about them in the run-up to the draft confuses the hell out of everybody who just watched them play actual basketball games in the NCAA. Last year that guy was Alex Len. And this year, we have a tie for the winner of the draft analyst love affair award between Joel Embiid and Zach LaVine. You think "love affair" is too strong of a phrase? Well...
Let's just say, Joel, that if you get some flowers with an anonymous card, we've got a leading candidate.

Anyway, I do these draft previews every year. Here is last season's, and from there you can find links to previous ones. As usual, I'm only going to talk about college players, as I have nothing educated to say about the European picks. So let's do this:

Green Room Guys:


TJ Warren - The full list of Green Room invites appears to be here. Warren turns 21 years old between the draft and the start of the regular season, which is a concern, but he did improve significantly between his freshman and sophomore seasons, so he doesn't appear to be close to peaking yet. If you didn't watch a lot of ACC basketball, you might not have seen Warren much prior to the NCAA Tournament. But be assured that what you saw of him in March was what he did all season long. The 37.3% of his team's shots he took while on the floor were third most in the nation, and he managed to do it efficiently (a 54.8 eFG%) and while physically dominating his opponents.

Warren is far from a sure thing. He's not a prolific rebounder, so he might have a bit of a "tweener" body. But he's a guy who, if he was on a more prominent team and fit better into media narratives, could easily be talked about as a Top 5 pick. He has superstar upside. Anywhere outside the top ten he'll be a good value. And right now, many are projecting him out of the lottery altogether.

Marcus Smart - It's funny that Smart ended up here since he was one of the most overrated players in the nation as a freshman. But narratives can be powerful, and the perception that he hasn't progressed blew up with all of his flopping and the shoving incident. But let's debunk these in reverse order. The shoving incident was dumb, but he's a very young guy and he had a momentary lapse in judgment - there's nothing else that we know about him that makes him seem like a troublemaker or thug. Can't give up on a kid over one small incident like that. As for the flopping... did you see Lebron and Dwyane Wade in the playoffs this past season? Elite NBA players flop. And as for the idea that he didn't progress? Well, between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Smart shouldered a significantly larger fraction of OSU's offense while shooting better, scoring more efficiently, assisting on more baskets and dropping his turnovers. But other than that...

Outside of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, Smart is the surest commodity in the draft. You can plug him into just about any NBA starting lineup right now. If he goes anywhere lower than third overall (which he surely will) he'll be a good value.

Aaron Gordon - Because he's not a big scorer, Gordon is unlikely to ever be an NBA superstar. He gets compared to Blake Griffin, but I think that's just because he physically looks like Blake Griffin. He even wears the same facial expressions as Griffin. But their games are very different. Griffin was a much bigger college scorer. But Gordon is a fantastic defender, and he clearly has NBA size and athleticism. But even if Gordon probably will never be 1st team All-NBA, I'd bet on him starting in the NBA for the next dozen years. And that will make him a good value late in the top ten, which is where he's projected to go.


Joel Embiid - The thing with Embiid is that it looks like he might plummet in the draft now that a stress fracture was announced last week, which is a bit bizarre. His back injury this past season should be seen as a much more significant red flag than a freak foot injury. Maybe it's all a case of recent-ism.

Anyway, I've talked about this plenty, so I'm going to repeat myself here, but the Joel Embiid Phenomenon this past season was a narrative blown out of control. Andrew Wiggins was hyped up as the greatest prospect since Lebron James, meaning that there was no way that there wouldn't be media narrative blowback anytime he had a down game (everybody has down games, but nobody has each one dissected more than Wiggins). And part of the blowback was the over-hyping of his teammate. Embiid was a pretty good player, but via Ken Pomeroy, here were his top freshman statistical comps: Tony Mitchell, Eric Moreland and Joel Bolomboy.

An additional concern is that Embiid played smaller than his height as a freshman. He repeatedly struggled against teams like Texas, Baylor and Florida that had NBA-sized big men, while he piled up his best performances against undersized teams like Iowa State and Oklahoma State. There's a big difference between looking good in the paint against 6'7" guys and against 6'11" guys, and in the NBA you're not going to see much of the former.

I feel like the Joel Embiid Crazy is summed up by this tweet, which isn't coming from Skip Bayless or Chris Broussard, but from ESPN Stats & Info:
If you really believe the worst case scenario for Embiid is Yao Ming, who made 8 All-Star games, 5 All-NBA teams and averaged 19 points per game over his NBA career, he's a no-brainer #1 overall pick. But that's not the real worst case. The real worst case is Sam Bowie. The fact is that Embiid ticks every "draft bust" box. He's 7-feet tall, he's super raw, he struggled most against NBA size, he's media hyped and he has a significant injury history. Ask yourself: How many raw 7-footers with injury history have ever gone top ten in the NBA Draft and paid off? I can't think of one. But I can think of a lot of busts.

Zach LaVine - The thing with Joel Embiid is that as much as I think he's going to be a bust, at least he was one of the two or three best players on one of the best teams in the nation. Zach LaVine was something like the sixth or seventh best player on UCLA. Meh. If you draft him, be aware that he's almost guaranteed to play in the D-League as a rookie. He's just so incredibly far from being a quality NBA player.

Ask yourself why all the draft analysts who harp on one or two down games that Andrew Wiggins had never mention that LaVine averaged 4.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game over six Pac-12 and NCAA tourney games, or that he had at least as many fouls committed as points scored in four of their final seven games. Yet every mock I've seen lately has him going before TJ Warren, who as a sophomore absolutely carried NC State to an NCAA tourney win? Please. Take the Warren, leave the LaVine.

Rodney Hood - Hood was a very overrated college player, too. He scores a lot, and he's a good shooter, but he's a 6'8" guy who doesn't rebound and is a poor defender. It's ironic that Jabari Parker gets hammered all the time for being a zero-defense guy, yet Parker is a defensive monster compared to Hood. It's pretty tough to play in the NBA if you're 6'8" and don't rebound or play defense. To overcome that, you need to be an explosive scorer, but Hood is more of a jump shooter. Only 18.9% of the shots he took from the field at Duke were at the rim. Late in the lottery, you can do a lot better.

Late 1st/Early 2nd Round Guys:


PJ Hairston - I'm going to put a little bit of an asterisk here because I haven't seen Hairston play a game in more than a year. It's possible that his training went off the rails during his year of ineligibility. But Hairston was an incredibly efficient scorer for North Carolina as a sophomore, showing dramatic improvement in all aspects of his game. He has a nice outside shot and he can also beat his man off the dribble and finish at the hoop or draw fouls. There are enough question marks that you'd want to lay off him in the first 15 picks, but he'll be a really nice value late in the first round.

Kyle Anderson - Anderson is a hard player to figure out because he doesn't fit into any mold. He's a 6'9" player who looks so slow when you watch him run, yet he put up the stats of an elite point guard. When you watch him play, he seems to glide as he moves in apparent slow motion past his man to the basket... yet he always beats his man to the basket. He needs to fall into the right situation, but if he gets a coach who knows what to do with him and how to fix his flaws, he has the raw potential to be an NBA star someday.

Mitch McGary - This is a risky pick, of course. Back injuries for big guys are something that can ruin a career. But of course, Joel Embiid had one, too, and you're going to have to use a really high pick to get him. Later in the first round, if you have a chance to get a guy who has NBA All-Star potential, you absolutely have to take him. Remember, McGary was going to likely be a top 5 draft pick a year ago. He's physical, he's a strong rebounder, and he's an effective finisher around the rim. He might end up a bust, but late in the first round that's a risk you've got to be willing to take.

Khem Birch - This is another "upside" pick, which if you haven't noticed the trend, is what I think NBA teams should be picking late in the first round and into the second round. At his size, Khem Birch needs to develop a mid-range jump shoot to be anything more than a defensive specialist, but he's a big time defender with NBA size and length, and he's a strong rebounder as well. Think of him as a poor man's Serge Ibaka, and remember how Ibaka quickly turned into an elite player once he developed a mid-range jump shot.


Jordan Clarkson - If you're a poor outside shooter who hasn't improved your shooting in three seasons, you need to be elite at something else to become an NBA point guard. But what is Jordan Clarkson elite at? He's not even much of a passing point guard either. He'd make a better shooting guard than point guard if he could shoot, but he can't. Seems bizarre to use a first round pick on him when a guy like Shabazz Napier could easily still be on the board.

Jerami Grant - Most mocks have Grant very narrowly behind his college teammate Tyler Ennis. Huh? Ennis has a significantly higher ceiling and has proven to be an elite college point guard. Grant's reputation seemed to grow because of the mistaken media narrative that Syracuse fell apart when he missed a couple of weeks. Jerami Grant is a solid player, but he wasn't an elite college player and he doesn't have an elite skill. He's a 6'8" guy who doesn't shoot well, yet who will likely never be physical enough to play in the paint in the NBA. Ennis deserves to be a borderline Top 20 pick. His teammate does not.

Patric Young - It's weird to think of a four year player at an elite program as a "workout guy", but that's what Patric Young is. He looks fantastic - he's the most physically imposing player in college basketball jogging out of the tunnel. But he's just never been elite, and he never improved much over his four seasons, meaning that there's little hope for a dramatic improvement from him in the NBA. Most mock drafts seem to have Young going in the early second round, and that's just an uninspired pick in that location, in my opinion.

Everybody Else:

Jordan Bachynski - Once you get past the lottery, you're probably not getting an NBA starter with your draft pick. So you want to go with upside guys, or else you want a guy who has a clear NBA skill. And Bachynski is the latter. He's never going to be much of a scorer, but he might have been the best shot blocker in the nation this past season, and at a legit 7'2" he's likely going to be able to continue that in the NBA. Bachynski is a guy who probably will play 10-15 minutes per game in the NBA, and late in the second round that's excellent value.

Bryce Cotton - Cotton doesn't have the profile for a guy you want to draft. He doesn't have superstar upside and he doesn't have an obvious NBA skill (he's very good at everything, but not elite at anything). The fact that he was a four year player at Providence (and honestly it felt like he played for six years) means that you'd generally lay off of a guy like him. But first of all, Cotton was very young for his year. He's 21 years old, and younger than Mitch McGary. Second, Cotton is such an incredible basketball player. He never sat on the bench, and gave maximum effort at all times, absolutely carrying a Providence team that had very little of anything else. If anybody in his situation can find a way to adapt and become a useful NBA rotation piece, I'd bet on Cotton. He's worth a flyer in the latter half of the second round.


Johnny O'Bryant - Is O'Bryant supposed to be an upside guy? He didn't improve much over three seasons at LSU. He's only 6'8.5" in shoes, yet he has no outside game and isn't much of a paint scorer. And he's not a great rebounder or defender either. He's a big, strong guy, but that means a lot more for 6'8" guys in college than it does in the NBA. I just don't see what anybody sees in Johnny O'Bryant as a prospect.

James Michael McAdoo - There was a running joke I had going the past two seasons, which was to watch out for the announcer of every North Carolina game to say that this was a "disappointing" or "sub par" performance from McAdoo. There were maybe one or two games in his entire career that you didn't hear it. In a sensible world, these repeated disappointments would cause the media to lower their estimation of how good McAdoo was. But they didn't. McAdoo was not a particularly good college play and he has no specifically elite skill either. You look at him wearing a uniform and he physically looks like he should be a superstar, but he's not.

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