I don't consider myself a big comic book guy. When I was a kid, I watched cartoons and knew a little about DC and Marvel, but those fandom days quickly passed me by. One of the names from those cartoons has always captured my curiosity, though: a former Superman villain named Mr. Mxyzptlk. The odd name is enough to jump out, but it was his powers in the cartoon that were so baffling. He was an imp that could manipulate anything and everything, and do virtually anything imaginable.
Mr. Mxyzptlk's weakness was in how he was constrained -- his powers were limited by restrictions, most of which he created for himself. Many of the restrictions were silly and nonsensical, but he was bound to them nonetheless. I think of him as the villain who couldn't color outside the lines, but had every capability to do so.
The modern game of basketball requires a creative eye to harness the powers of those who don't fit neatly into a conventional box. There are players whose games are so unique and blend together rarely-combined skills. It would be a shame to constrain them with restrictions and make them easily beatable.
So we'll try a look at a few of the more unique guys in this class: those who can virtually do anything, but whose biggest threats to realizing their potential are the constraints they currently or potentially face.
Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall
22 years old. A really strong upper-bodied 6'11". Sandro Mamukelashvili, also known as Mamu, is somewhere between a point center and a stretch-4. He plays with a joyful, highlight-centric, creative streak that really can be compared to Nikola Jokic. He gets so much joy in making unbelievable passes and manipulating defenses that he's one of the most fun players in college basketball.
Mamu gets a ton of his value as a passer in four different ways. First, the pick-and-roll, where Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard has been bold enough to modify their offense so he can be a handler. They'll run 4-5 pick-and-rolls (Mamu plays mostly the 4 for the Pirates), or inverted ones with smaller guys setting them. He's demonstrated proficiency here: he creates 1.273 PPP (98th percentile) out of the pick-and-roll. As a scorer, he can go past bigs to the rim with enough burst, and has the power to bully smaller guys who switch onto him:
The threat of mismatch scoring is what opens up the passing windows, either out of the PNR or elsewhere.
That leads to the second area he's used frequently: the middle of the 2-3 zone. Like most great passers, Mamu is stationed at the heart of the zone, where he can pick defenses apart and find cutters or shooters. He's quick at reading or anticipating openings, keeps the ball high above his head and is enough of a threat to shoot that he can't be ignored. Zone creation skills there often mimic some short roll traits and show potential for the next level.
The third area Mamu is used a lot: spotting up. He is shooting 35.8% on catch-and-shoots this year, so he's a threat when standing on the 3-point line. What Mamu does well is recognize when to make the extra pass or when his teammates cross-court will be open. As a pick-and-pop threat, he understands the third man defender and reads well when to shoot or make an extra. He delivers cross-court darts from overhead skip passes and manipulates the low man. He's just a really, really fun passer.
Fourth is out of post-ups, most of which come off UCLA screens or dribbling into the post for a matchup he likes. That's where the Jokic comparisons are sloppy. The Nuggets big man is slow, prodding and unable to be moved. Mamu wants to play with pace, and is best with another big man. He's more of a wraparound artist to his open teammates in the dunker's spot than any college 4-man I've ever seen.
âPut it all together and Mamu is a delight to watch:
Despite the joy, there are utility questions about Mamu's fit. If you put him at the 5 in the NBA, his post-up passing changes. He likely doesn't have the threat in the dunker's spot to pair with. He's perfectly capable of finding shooters and cutters around him though, so a really creative offense with movement (think of how the Sacramento Kings or Golden State Warriors rotate around post touches) could augment his skills.
It also may open up the door for him to be more effective out of the PNR. Smaller guys onto him on switches -- and bigger guys on his teammates. He's smart enough with angles and burst to force switches and manipulate defenses. He's a guy you can play through for stretches. At the 5, he'd be solid in the pick-and-pop, where he's currently 6-for-14 on the year.
The worries would come on the other end. Mamu isn't terribly strong for his height and is a much more perimeter-oriented guy. He needs to be in the right defensive scheme and surrounded by the right teammates on that end as much as he does on offense.
Because Mamu is already 22, it's hard to imagine a team taking the risk on his unorthodox talents in the first-round. But he's a great fit for some teams if they maintain their playing style throughout the next few years: Sacramento, Golden State, Charlotte, Chicago, Toronto, New Orleans and Atlanta.
Scottie Barnes, Florida State
I've written about Barnes in longform before, so let's not beat a dead horse. He's a superb physical specimen who is a good passer in open spaces and a mismatch handler on the wing. But he's not a scorer. He's still only 2-11 on dribble jumpers, which isn't ideal for someone who wants the ball in their hands to be a creator.
The jist of the article is that Barnes is too talented not to figure it out. He's a really, really good passer, a unique athlete and has the finishing ability to bully guys to the rim.
I'd love to see Barnes in a system where he gets the ball on the move a lot. Think about how Billy Donovan is using Patrick Williams, another FSU guy, with the Chicago Bulls this year. He starts in the corner, slides along the 3-point line and gets a pitch in the middle of the floor for a rim attack. The movement offsets the need for the pull-up because it makes it easy for him to read his man: if he goes under, it can be a jumper or weave into another handoff and screen; if he trails, turn the corner and get to the rim in one bounce.
The difference between Barnes and likely anyone else on this list: he's got the makings of an elite defender. Any team that drafts Barnes does so with the understanding that he can guard 1 thru 5 in stretches and is versatile enough to be in any type of scheme or pick-and-roll coverage. The imagination is necessary to implement him on the offensive end, though the defensive prowess he already possesses is what makes him so unique.
Dalano Banton, Nebraska
A 6'9" string bean point guard, Banton has the "do-it-all" tools and statistical profile to garner interest at the next level. His passing is likely his best trait; he's averaging 5.1 assists and only 2.2 turnovers for Nebraska. I think Banton is aided by playing in a 5-out scheme with a true stretch-5, so the pick-and-pop is a real threat, backdoor cutters are frequent for him to find and there is more space for those slips to be successful.
Playing in a system where he finds cutters a ton, Banton shows the chops to be impactful in an off-ball role as a playmaker. But he's only shooting 28.2% from deep (0-7 since Christmas) and has a bit of a hitchy, disjointed stroke. He's a stat-sheet stuffer who doesn't shoot, is best with the ball in his hands and is an underwhelming athlete both vertically and in straight lines.
Banton is a long, slimy finisher. Sure, he lacks burst in large doses, but he knows how to slither past his defender and get into the lane. He's just so, so long and snakes past his man to get to the rim with ease, even though he still doesn't know how to properly harness his length or where his ideal takeoff point should be:
Banton needs to figure out how to get to the rim and past the first line of defense more. He's a really talented pick-and-roll passer who reads the low man well and makes instinctual plays. He uses both hands well, anticipates openings and is tall enough to see/ pass over the top of the D. His assist numbers are somewhat harmed by how many guys on his team either miss open looks or try to cut backdoor when they should stay put and be ready to catch and shoot.
There's a universe where Banton is top-10 in the country in assists this year with playmaking chops like this:
To understand Banton is to acknowledge that he's best in transition. When he can rebound or get an outlet and push tempo, he's great in the open floor. Those quick reads as a passer are readily apparent, and he's better at getting into the lane because he doesn't have to learn how to accelerate. Those wiry arms have a bit of a Brandon Ingram-ness to them, where he's a long strider and has a wide dribble so his moves are even harder to stop in space than in traffic.
The shooting development is necessary for Banton to be the best version of himself. But there's so much raw intrigue here, without even talking about his defense. By the way, Banton averages 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks a game. He's really, really impactful on that end when matched up with smaller guards.
That's the conundrum with Banton. He's so good defensively when he's guarding the 1 or the 2, and offensively plays more like a pass-first point guard who can worm his way in transition. It still feels like he's only scratching the surface, and I firmly believe he'll get snatched up somewhere on draft night as an investment.
There's nothing "between the lines" about his potential.
Trendon Watford, LSU
Standing 6'9" with a 7'1" wingspan, the LSU sophomore is currently averaging 18.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks and shooting 50.6% from the field, 37.5% from 3 (on 2.3 attempts) and taking 6.9 free throws a game. He's the biggest reason LSU is 11-4.
Watford is intriguing because he does everything and is a really good frontcourt facilitator. He's not a rim protector and shot blocker, though, so don't expect to see him as a true 5. There's a little bit of that negative connotation where he's a tweener instead of being multi-positional. Regardless, Watford is a good, impactful basketball player. He firmly belongs on this list because... nobody really knows exactly what to do with him in the pros to get the most out of him.
He's had some games where he's all over the map, including nine turnovers against Georgia and six against Arkansas. He's also been hot from deep, shooting 9-17 on catch-and-shoots this year, a development that is key to unlocking his ability to play either the 4 or the 5.
âIf he continues shooting like this, he'll be a force:
But let's get down to brass tax -- Watford is intriguing because he's a big body who can finish and facilitate. His 3.6 assists per game, 8th in the SEC, catch your eye instantly.
To understand how he produces, we have to understand how Will Wade utilizes him right now. He'll be used in big-to-big pick-and-rolls that he can call for at the end of possessions, or on trailer pitch and sneaky rub screens with a shooter like Cam Thomas to begin a possession. He's great at both, looking to go to his right hand but can back it up with a spin move to get back to his left.
He's a really good PNR finisher, is 12-17 so far with almost every attempt being within eight feet:
When you see his PNR scoring, you get a feel for his fluidity and how he moves. He's not a stiff and gets lower to the ground to create. He's got a good change of pace and change of direction, though his top speed is somewhat slow and he favors floaters or tough euro-step finishes over quick, powerful rim attacks.
LSU puts him at the elbows in Horns formations a lot, where he'll facilitate and read cutters off down screens. His PNR usage is mostly for him to score and not to facilitate (his teammates are 1-6 on his kickouts). He's the guy that's in the middle of the zone when they face a 2-3, a skill we mentioned with Mamu that easily translates to short roll playmaking.
The biggest upside for Watford, in my mind, is how he can be used as a short roll playmaker. There's a lot of live dribble passing evidence that points to him being really strong there, in addition to his middle-of-the-zone playmaking:
For a moment, let's not focus on who or what Watford isn't. That's not the Mr. Mxyzptlk way. Instead, let's appreciate who and what he is and does well. He's a tremendous passer, a big body who moves great for his size, an improving jump shooter and an impactful team defender. If those raw tools are rare enough in stereo (I believe they are) then he should be a draft pick come June.