"Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."
For scouts, looking at their pas evaluations is essential practice. Prospect grading is some combination of art, science, research and luck. The luck aspect can always factor in, where externalities or unforeseen developments derail or stymie a player's growth. Still, relying on luck is bad practice, especially when trying to come up with guidelines for how to engage on the science and research aspect. You either win or you learn, so let's look back and learn.
I once foolishly put Malik Monk as the number 3 on my board in 2017's draft class. Ahead of him were Markelle Fultz (a mistake nobody can be blamed for with his unforeseen circumstances) and Lonzo Ball, whose size and playmaking IQ were fully displayed at UCLA. Monk sat just behind those, ahead of a Jayson Tatum (4th) whom I worried about torpedoing possessions with inefficient shots and a De'Aaron Fox (6th) who couldn't shoot in half-court settings. Monk was nine spots higher than Donovan Mitchell (12th).
Investing in human beings means human error is prone to occur. Just as an NBA lottery pick needs the right situation to succeed, the person needs to be right in order to realize their potential. While an outside observer who isn't privy to personal connections with these players, interviews or character witnesses, my evaluations have always gone on feel for skill and what the tape says.
It's hard to know whether talent, personality or both have derailed the first three years of Monk's career. He's started only one game, performed really poorly when given opportunities and was suspended this March for violating the league's anti-drug policy. The suspension was open-ended and for "more than just marijuana", which makes the 'what if's' around Monk's on-court production secondary to his health and well-being. If he has bigger issues going on in his life, let's all hope he addresses them in a meaningful way.
Nevertheless, I'll press on from a film and skill standpoint. How can we be sure Monk's play is due to poor mental health and other factors, not just the fact he didn't perform well as a pro? As such, this piece will serve as equal parts reflective about his Kentucky experience and optimistic that he's ready for a leap forward this year and could be a trendy candidate to see an uptick in production. The latter coming to fruition could serve as some vindication for the type of pro I believed Monk could always become.
Over the last few seasons, Kentucky guards have seen an absolute star-bound trajectory in the NBA. Devin Booker is one of the league's best young scorers. Jamal Murray isn't far behind after an incredible step forward this season. Miami Heat rookie Tyler Herro showed more cojones in the postseason than the other two demonstrated in Year One. John Calipari has a knack for churning out great scorers, hidden in plain sight amongst talented teams where the need to blend in masked some of their elite skills.
Booker was a reserve, but the other two played fairly-prominent roles within the Wildcat offense. Their statistical profiles were all fairly similar, especially when you adjust Booker's numbers to a per-minute comparison.
There is a fourth player in this time period who filled the shooting guard role at Kentucky on a prominent level: Malik Monk. Monk, who played during the 2016-17 season immediately after Murray, was the SEC Player of the Year. His teammates, De'Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, were second-fiddles in the offense to him. None of his numbers were inefficient and stack up favorably to the other Kentucky guards of the last decade.
A better handler than Murray and better shooter than Herro in college, there isn't anything astronomical that stands out about Monk's collegiate production that would have predict he would be the bust of the four. He was a 2nd-Team All-American and Wooden Award Finalist. He led the SEC in points while being third in eFG%. He topped the conference in 3-point percentage and looked every bit the sniper whose skills carried over to the pros.
Kentucky enjoyed success that year, too. They went 32-6, tops in the SEC and lost in the Elite 8 to eventual Runners-Up North Carolina. While outshined by Fox in the NCAA Tournament, Monk didn't play too great. He averaged 14.8 points on 37.5% shooting - a bit of a cold streak which reared its head against Carolina. Still, I'm of the frame of mind that one poor performance isn't enough to derail a prospect unless there was something illuminating about how the player was defender. In Monk's case, he just missed shots at the wrong time.
I wasn't the only one to see this kid oozing with scoring potential. There were certainly limitations to his athleticism, finishing and polish creating for others, but the trajectory of his shot-making was hard to deny. ESPN's Mike Schmitz, formerly of Draft Express, had this to say about Monk:aftExpress
While there is no questioning Monk's talent, especially as a shot maker, it will be his ability to grow into a more versatile scorer and all-around player that will determine just how successful he can be at the next level. Plenty of players in his mold have transitioned into competent lead guards in time, but Monk's tremendous athletic ability seems to give him more upside than most if he can grow into an identity as a scoring point guard.
Perhaps the biggest weakness about Monk in college was his finishing. He only shot about 49 percent in the paint at Kentucky, leaving many points on the board. As a score-first combo guard, his need for facilitation improvement went hand-in-hand with the poor finishing. The question went like this: if Monk isn't going to be a great creator when he gets in the lane, he has a smaller margin for error as a finisher. He'll have to score at a high percentage of offset the lack of natural playmaking feel.
Complaints about Monk were that we was "average" in an area his play style would mandate excellence in. A drop-off from converting on only 50.9 percent of his attempts, and with only a 10.8 percent free throw rate in the half-court, would be troublesome for Monk. He didn't project as an elite athlete, was a bit of a tweener who would be small and inexplosive for the 2-guard spot.
Monk did have positive traits as a finisher. He showed a really good first step and got past great SEC-caliber defenders. He was quick off the catch, which typically can give subpar finishers an extra step from those who are behind them. He was comfortable using both hands and loved going to his left for floaters or scoops.
In the areas he fell short as a finisher, touch and explosion were paramount. Monk relied heavily on reverse layups and really ambitious attempts to avoid contact. When he didn't avoid contact, he was really troubled by future NBA players who brought size, strength, verticality and polish to their rim protection tactics.
He wasn't aided by shot selection, either. He only took 13.5 percent of his attempts at the rim -- super low for someone with lead-guard hopes. In retrospect, this should have raised more eyebrows about his toughness, confidence and efficiency at the next level. Chalking it up to "he needs to add strength, he's only 18" doesn't get the job done. But in those moments when he would go to the rim, he would also take some pretty nonsensical attempts, floating away from the hoop and in traffic.
Part of my optimism around Monk revolved around his limited time spent as a facilitator. Guys in college who are not used frequently with the ball in their hands can mean one of two things. One: they aren't great in that area so the coaching staff avoids putting them there. Two: there are other guys who are better in those roles, so the offense works best without them serving that function.
In evaluating Kentucky players with immense talent, I'll always default to believing closer to #2 than to #1. And Monk gave some legitimate flashes that caused me to buy into his usage there. He only took about 5.1% of his usage from ball screens next to Fox (who got a robust 55% of all PNR usage) and Isaiah Briscoe. The excuses for moving Monk to a primarily off-ball role were built-in.
When he did play with the ball in his hands, there were glimpses of good playmaking evident. He prioritized rollers and worked well with Adebayo, throwing accurate and on-time lob passes. He could scan the defense for kickout opportunities. Because Kentucky didn't play a spread pick-and-roll scheme or surround Monk with other shooters, he couldn't possibly show much skill there. The Wildcats were also zoned 25% of the time, further hindering ball screen proof to his skill.
Contrast those two areas, finishing and playmaking, to Monk's NBA career. His 13.5% of attempts at the rim in the half-court in Kentucky has improved -- he was up to 30.6% this year, a giant step forward from the 12.2% as a rookie. Some of that is due to strength gains, some from repetition and consistent messaging around him to get to the rim. Monk is transforming his game, which leads to more optimism he can be good here.
As a rookie, Monk was really bad at the rim. He was contact-averse, thwarted by contact and looked overwhelmed by the length and athleticism of rim protectors. Fast-forward to 2020 and Monk is competent here. He finished 59% of his attempts at the rim, much higher than where he was at four years ago in Lexington. He has more bounce and last-step shiftiness to his game. That first step is still long and explosive, but he's finishing his move and gather with much more control and purpose. He plays off two feet, which I love to see from guys who aren't the most elite athletes on the floor.
âThe two-foot takeoffs are a massive reason for his continued improvement:
We started to see Monk turn himself into a well-rounded scorer before the suspension hit. From January 20th to February 25th, a 13-game sample size had him score 17 points per game while shooting 35 percent from 3. He had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, was helping on the glass more consistently (another bugaboo about Monk dating back to his college days is that he rarely rebounds) and had three games of 25 or more.
If that Monk is back, and he turns himself into a guy who can average 17 a game in a microwave scorer role, that's likely the best manifestation of who Monk can be for the rest of his career. If he shoots up to 38 percent from deep, close to where he was in college, that can climb to 18 or 19 a game.
Of course, that's not the production you would want from someone ranked third on an overall big board. Besides the playmaking evidence around Monk as a handler, I was freaking convinced he would be an elite shooter. Elite, Klay Thompson-like shooting. He elevated, had rhythm and was great on the move at Kentucky. I was all-in on him being a focal point off-ball, a Lou Williams-like confidence guy with it in his hands and someone who would average about 22-24 points a night.
Monk was 40-94 (42.6%) off screens, on a really good volume. His 94 field goal attempts off screens were 16th in the nation. Only one Power Conference player, Bryce Alford from UCLA, had greater efficiency on that kind of volume. He did have a tendency to bounce it in situations where he could be catch-and-shoot, but he turned a ton of great looks off screens into beautiful buckets. Kentucky always runs a lot of Floppy action and sends their shooting threats (Booker, Murray, Herro) off screens. Monk looked like a natural in all those ways, reading defenders and nailing shots against tight contests.
His usage has changed a bit in the NBA, and that's an indictment on my evaluation. If he was as elite in these areas as I thought he would be, he'd be used in this way more. His coaching staffs would, over a three-year period, put him in the position to do this more often. I didn't pay enough attention to the consistent balance of his base and how narrow his feet were on the catch. While the overall dip in his shooting is disappointing, those percentages have taken a nosedive off screens (34% this year, 28.8% a year ago and 29.8% as a rookie).
This is, when it comes to my evaluation on Monk, where I missed. If he doesn't have that elite movement shooting trait I pegged him for, his versatility in the backcourt disappears. He's a catch-and-shoot threat, subpar finisher and mundane creator who would need great improvements in those areas to justify high offensive volume. As it turns out, that's pretty much how his career arc has gone.
So where does that leave us now? Waiting to see what Monk pieces together in Year Four. Reports out of Charlotte are optimistic and positive from his summer workouts. Malik finally has added some weight to his frame, getting up to 210 pounds and holding. The added strength brings confidence, as his coach James Borrego has mentioned.
"If theyâre getting knocked on their tails over and over, and not finishing, guess what? Theyâre not going to keep going there. With Malikâs size and strength now, and success last season, heâs more and more confident to go there.â
That same piece in the Charlotte Observer makes note of positive strides to Monk's mentality and professionalism, not just to his body. Veteran center Bismack Biyombo said of Monk, he is "a better listener â less defensive, more receptive to what he can learn from others". Maturity isn't an action but a trajectory, a collection of decisions that are reflective of personal growth and accountability. Only time can redeem Monk, not just a great start over the first six weeks.
There are flashes of optimism that could at least resurrect his career to the point where he earns a second contract. It seems plausible that 2020-21 is a step in the right direction. But to get all the way up to top-three value in this draft class? Pretty much impossible at this point.
It's hard to fully no what has derailed Monk's clear, at least for purposes of learning here. He hasn't succeeded in areas that were foreseen throughout the draft process, and perhaps there are lessons in which skills are important to success. The regression of shooting, which has greatly hindered his output and hindered his (in theory) greatest strength, is a severe and unforeseen development. That in itself is difficult to understand.