As an 18-year-old in his third professional season, Usman Garuba is playing 17 minutes a night on a 19-1 Real Madrid team in ACB League. He's one of the best rebounders and defenders in the league already. At some point, scouting really should be this simple: a young player is insanely productive within his role on a professional team. He'll be the same in the NBA.
Yet the concerns about Garuba's shooting, as well as a lack of uptick in offensive production, are driving him down draft boards. Sam Veccine has him in the second round; Mike Schmitz of ESPN has him 17th on his big board.
I'd argue that both are too low. Garuba's insane defensive IQ and impact are undeniable at this point, with 82 career games, solid growth and versatility perfect for the modern NBA. I'm not here to necessarily provide optimism for Garuba's offense and the lack of shooting -- it is a concern. But I'm here to tell you that, with how borderline-dominant he is on the defensive end, it shouldn't stop him from being a top-seven pick in this year's draft.
First... The Offense
Garuba is career 50% from the free throw line, including 12-28 this year. He's 16-52 (30.7%) from 3, which isn't really as encouraging as the numbers might indicate. He has some real mechanical flaws, including thumb placement and lower body mechanics when backpedaling. He's a line-drive shooter who doesn't get much lift or give himself a chance to clear the front rim.
The struggles on the perimeter are apparent. For someone so athletic, instinctual and bursty on the defense end, Garuba plays really mechanically on offense, very stiff and uncertain of what to do outside of a few specific situations.
Real Madrid finds ways to mask some of Garuba's true strengths. He plays mostly as a 4 there, next to Walter Tavares, and with other bigs like Trey Thompkins and Anthony Randolph on the roster, there are very few moments where he's a 5. In the NBA, where there's a little greater emphasis on speed and length as opposed to pure size, Usman could get a larger share of his minutes at the 5.
The value in him comes from being able to play both defensively at an extremely high level. At the NBA level, he'll need to improve as a face-up driver and jump shooter to play long stretches at the 4.
What I like most about his functionality at the 5 is that it helps unlock his best offensive traits: interior finishing, offensive rebounding and short roll playmaking. In the NBA, those happen at the 5, not at the 4.
As such, I formally propose viewing him as a 5 as a prospect. His wingspan is long enough to make it work. Sure, he won't be Rudy Gobert, but with 3.3 slocks per 36 minutes, he's proven active enough on defense that we know he'll make an impact. The offensive help of putting him in short rolls often, making him a baseline catch-and-finish prospect and giving more spacing around him only bring out the best in him offensively.
There are plenty of guys who fall into this category. Trayce Jackson-Davis from Indiana has played in a shitty offense all year, Day'Ron Sharpe from UNC has all the athletic traits to do better in a pro system. Tons of them are already in the NBA, and long minutes are hard to come by. The guys who successfully earn the ability to transition to the 5 are the ones who prove they can anchor a defense.
âThat's exactly what Garuba has done thus far...
A Defensive Whiz Kid
When a high-IQ, high-impact undersized big prospect is around, resist all urges to compare him to Draymond Green. Draymond is, in all likelihood, the most brilliant defensive player of my lifetime. It's like trying to compare any wing volume scorer to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant... not a great decision.
If there's one guy who might merit those comparisons on defense, it's Garuba. He plays a very different style: he's bigger and more of a power athlete/ rim protector than Draymond. Garuba will block a few more shots and lock down 5s with greater frequency. He's not quite as switchable on the perimeter as Dray. But he understands rotations, especially emergency awareness situations when he can cover up a breakdown of his teammates. That's the Draymond-like trait.
There's a certain level of violence in all of Garuba's cuts and movements on defense. He plays with hustle and covers a lot of ground quickly. He backpedals and slides with his arms up, allowing the wingspan to be used in passing lanes, to discourage dump offs or easily contest shots. His angles and footwork are pristine when guards try to attack him downhill while guarding in Drop coverage. He'a active in space, reclaiming the mental advantage over his opponent so handlers pick up their dribble too early or make the kick that Garuba wants them to.
His timing as a shot blocker is exquisite. Sure, the 7'2" wingspan allows him to cover ground and meet guys at the rim. But his timing allows him to perfectly meet drivers at the rim despite not being 7'1". He launches up with a great one-two step into his block. He doesn't leave his feet too early or fall for pump fakes too often. The self-restraint and footwork before the play are evidence of massive indicators of elite athleticism and defensive impact.
More than anything, Garuba has this ability to sense when plays are breaking down and a dunk or layup will be open. He'll rotate off the perimeter and slide into those areas. Positionally, this is where I feel worried about pegging him as only a 5-man. If he doesn't play at the 4, he's more of an interior guy playing angles. He does it well, but he'll spend less time on the perimeter. In a non-switching scheme, Garuba needs to be able to roam the perimeter. If he can play with a bigger stretch option on offense -- a Kristaps Porzingis, Lauri Markkanen or Jaren Jackson Jr. -- then the defense has all the options, to switch, stay, and play their 4 and 5 in different areas based on matchups.
Garuba might be better at guarding slashing wings (thicker 3s and 4s who aren't the De'Aaron Fox's of the world who can sprint past anyone) than he is at guarding bigs. The success rate he has at guarding in space is pretty impressive, both against one-on-one drivers or pull-up shooters. He blocks a ton of shots on step-backs. And he does so cleanly enough that he'll do it against taller, better players in America.
Most impressively, Garuba navigates screens really, really well. He doesn't get clipped when chasing shooters around them, and he can contest shots behind screens. It's evidence of great footwork, drive and lateral quickness, areas he struggles with on the offensive end. He's a really odd athlete -- a fluid, violent tank who can go anywhere on one end and the joints that need to be greased like the tin man on the other.
Because of those concerns, I'm not sure if I'd consider Garuba a true switchable 1 thru 5 prospect. But he's a damn near lockdown on-ball defender 3 thru 5, an incredibly smart and instinctual help defender and the perfect size and frame to be a multiple-position defender.
Perhaps the college coach in me is too programmed this way, but I tend to rank elite defensive prospects higher than most. Devin Vassell was 3rd on my board a year ago for the same reason: an elite role player on that end of the floor is rare and valuable, regardless of if the offensive upside is apparent. Vassell has been a low-usage role player in a clear NBA role: stand in the corner and make threes, attack poor closeouts and take care of the ball. He's shooting 39% from 3 early in his career and has been far more impactful than just 5.6 points would indicate.
Garuba's ability to find an offensive role isn't quite as clear. Whereas Vassell is a wing who fits neatly into a 3-and-D archetype, Garuba is a blend between two spots. He's a 5 on offense who needs to be a little less rigid in his defensive fit as a true 5. Fit will be important to him.
But he's... not completely broken. He can turn himself into a solid corner 3-point shooter; 30% on a solid sample is better than other prospects in this year's class. If he's at 36% in the corners, he instantly becomes more versatile and impactful on offense and teams breathe easy for whether he can play the 4.
Because of that possibility, it's hard for me to keep Garuba outside the top-7. Cade, Suggs and Mobley are a pretty clear top-3. Kuminga and Jalen Green are in the mix, as are guys like Jalen Johnson, Scottie Barnes and Ziaire Williams. Garuba is, in my opinion, head and shoulders ahead of Johnson and Barnes in terms of on-court impact. While his offensive ceiling isn't as high, the floor for his offense is already realized -- and it fits into a winning team in one of the world's top leagues.
I understand why Garuba has slid a bit. Offense is what gets guys paid and is pretty sexy. Defense can be taught, and it's easier to get someone to buy into being a defensive specialist. But his level of defensive aptitude, at 18 years old, is insanely high. There's a level of transcendence there, as well as an ability to be fine on offense, that is worth investing in.