Pre-Christmas Scouting Tidbits
As the year marches on in the COVID-era of college sports, one thing is becoming abundantly clear from a scouting standpoint: nothing is guaranteed. Games are and will continue to get cancelled. The start-stop nature of the season increases the likelihood of soft tissue injuries. The topsy-turvy results will stem from unequal preparation; winning has to be valued differently.
For draft prospects, that means each game holds significantly more weight on the outcome of their draft stock than in normal times. The pressure is on to perform. There can be very few off-days or struggles.
That does two things: first, it will put scouts to the test for their eye for talent. Instead of waiting for multiple occurrences to see if the same pick-and-roll read happens four or five times a season, for example, they may have to draw a conclusion about the prospect's consistency when only one or two such glimpses exist. They will discern the difference between stat line and NBA impact with less to work with, an arduous task.
The second is that some players will jump ahead of where they should be - especially if there's an NCAA Tournament. We've seen late-risers earn higher draft stocks thanks to timely play down the stretch, and I fear that will be amplified on a season like this. Beware of the late-risers and guys like Malachi Richardson in 2016.
There have been some prospects catching my eyes lately, and I thought it worth sharing them with you all. Some of these are flashes I'm waiting to see more, and some are frustrating performances from guys who need to do better. Only time will sort each into the categories they belong in.
Jalen Suggs turns Iowa into Creamed Corn
At this point, it's pretty difficult not to consider Suggs a lock for top three. He's hitting shots with consistency; he was 5-6 from three in the first-half against #3-ranked Iowa on Saturday, finishing with 7 treys on the night. That shooting we didn't witness before his time at Gonzaga. The stroke is fluid and comfortable. He knows how to level behind screens when guys go under. It is, in my opinion, the most important skill an NBA point guard can have to become elite. It's what has taken Damian Lillard from strong scorer to fringe MVP, and Brandon Roy from competent scoring 2-guard to late-game option.
Suggs reminds me of some fusion of the two. He's so brilliant with the ball in his hands he might be deserving of the volume Lillard commands in Portland. With his size and build, he's also reminiscent of a young Roy, turning on the jets and knocking down tough shot after tough shot.
What Suggs did against Iowa was masterful. He not only drilled the shots they gave him, but leveraged the hot start to create openings for himself and his teammates at the rim:
Suggs, Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley continue to be the guys mentioned at the top three. Cade will be difficult to catch; he's close to a tier of his own. The G-League ignite guys aren't to be forgotten, particularly Jonathan Kuminga. But right now, Suggs is closer to pushing Cade than dropping out of the top three. He'll be an incredible consolation prize to those teams who don't win the lotto and finish runners-up. The consistency of his play (especially his jumper) and how comfortable he already looks running the show on a national title contender are all positive signs that he'll be substance and not just empty stats in the NBA.
Posting Up Deuce McBride
Schools that struggle to space the floor can be difficult barometers for NBA talent. We saw that with Cole Anthony last year at North Carolina; the Roy Williams two-big offense clogs the lane and offers little in the way of translatable PNR reads. A place like Indiana this year, where shooting isn't consistent, can cramp the amount of space a big man like Trayce Jackson-Davis has to make patient interior moves.
No team this year exemplifies the lack of spacing like West Virginia. Two non-shooting bigs in Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. A reliance on hi-lo passes every time down, and no discernible 3-point shooting threats. That's where Deuce McBride, a long-armed combo guard who is great off the bounce in the mid-range, is an auspicious fit and is further hampering and hampered by the offense.
Give Bob Huggins some credit; he's finding ways to manufacture spacing to put McBride in areas he succeeds. One of them caught my eye: a back screen set to throw the lob to the ultra-athletic McBride. If the lob is taken away (mainly by the lack of spacing his teammates afford him by being non-threats away from the rim), McBride will post up his man afterwards, get the ball on the right block and go to work:
So far this year, McBride is 6-6 on post-ups. It's a great part of his game that accompanies the mid-range prowess well and could make him a mismatch scoring option against smaller defenders.
Because McBride knows spacing is at a premium, these are all quick moves, usually one-dribble turnarounds to the baseline, if not drop-step layups. That's a good habit for him to build: get an advantage and take advantage quickly.
I'm not sold on the 42.3% 3-point shooting McBride has notched through 8 games. It's an improved jumper, but it's a small sample size. Everything else is really intriguing: he's an elite defender who notches 1.9 steals a game, is putting up 15 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists, has raised his playmaking frequency without increasing turnovers and is still the same difficult shot-maker he's always been. The development of point guard skills could make his NBA role akin to that of Marcus Smart, where he guards multiple spots due to his aptitude on that end, is improved enough to knock down open looks from deep and can mismatch post little guys when opponents try to hide their littles on him.
The Charles Bassey Potluck
The Western Kentucky product is a guy I liken to that pre-holiday office potluck. Someone may bring a dish that looks appetizing and is reminiscent of a meal you like, but their version of it really doesn't taste the same. Every office potluck you encounter one disappointing meal, one that far exceeds expectations and the safe route (the mac and cheese, usually) that has little ability to bite you in the ass. You learn a lot about people based on which they take and which they provide.
Bassey has about a zero percent chance to be the mac and cheese in any potluck; he's the high-risk, high-reward dish that either turns you onto a new recipe or makes you not want to finish your plate, perhaps tainting what else is on there. Bassey isn't young or offensively dynamic enough to be considered a transcendent big man prospect; the playmaking glimpses are apparent, but the consistency on the jumper just isn't there. As such, in a loaded draft I'd have a tough time advocating him for anything inside the top-25 selections.
Outside of that, it's a boom-or-bust world where fit is important. Much like we saw the Utah Jazz take Udoka Azubuike at 27, Bassey could be the equivalent for a team that needs the rim protecting prospect in the late-first round.
On Saturday in an impressive 73-71 road win over Alabama, Bassey flashed enough intriguing offense that I'd like to go back for seconds. Aside from his usual performance cleaning the offensive glass and slamming home dump-downs, Bassey looked fluid off the bounce, sprinted the floor in transition and took his man to the lane on one dribble.
If he can continue to get to the rim from the 3-point line in one bounce and a long stride, he can be an intriguing play finisher:
Andre Curbelo, Modern Milos Teodosic
It's hard not to fall in loves with guys who take your breath away. Whether extraordinary leapers and athletes who do what looks impossible or lightning gunners like Steph who make shots that nobody even dreams of taking in a game, we're all drawn to their mystique. For me, the most appealing are those passers who see holes before they open and fit the ball into the tiniest of windows.
Andre Curbelo of Illinois deserves praise for the playmaking he's done at Illinois through their first seven games. He upholds one principal I always find important: involve your bigs at the rim. It's a point guard's job to create the highest-efficiency look for his teammates; we fall in love with the kickout-three, but the most impactful shot will always be an uncontested look at the rim.
Through his shake, his eyes and transcendent basketball-IQ, Curbelo has single-handedly gift-wrapped Illinois bigs with dozens of layups. He's a competent passer at making reads out of the spread pick-and-roll, but its how he involves guys at the rim and creates layups that gives me real interest in his professional stock.
The Puerto Rican point guard is another freshman captaining the ship on a top-fifteen team in the nation. In seven games, he's only 3-8 from three, he does not have great finishing prowess at the rim against size (he's really crafty with his packages, but needs a ton of space) and is severely underathletic for the next level. It puts a solid cap on his draft stock.
There have been guys who, through craft, command and IQ, can compensate and stay on the floor. Curbelo might have the opportunity to do that, and the continued development of his jumper is a necessary aspect of that. He competes on defense and isn't a negative there, but a pass-first point guard who doesn't shoot and needs a ton of space to finish isn't exactly first-round material anymore. Curbelo would do himself good to come back to school, work on his body and make those strides in Champaign. He doesn't strike me as a one-and-done just yet.
David Johnson Getting Badgered
It felt like Ashton Kuchar was in attendance at the Louisville-Wisconsin game on Saturday, because the Cardinals got punk'd.
Louisville was atrocious; sure, they were short-handed, but the #23 team in the country shouldn't lose by 38. It was Louisville's worst lost in 60 years. From a scouting standpoint, this game was circled on my calendar once it was announced their leading scorer Carlik Jones would be sitting due to covid protocols. It was the perfect test for David Johnson, a thought-to-be one-and-done prospect a year ago who massively disappointed. The Badgers offered a strong defense, talent and size, while Johnson would get to run the show.
It wasn't a good showing from him; 5-for-13 from the field with four assists and seven turnovers. He looked sloppy overall, and while he went 2-3 from deep, the miss was bad and some of his pull-ups looked out of rhythm. I don't love what he does with his feet when he rises into his jumper, sometimes kicking them out and not having equal balance between his left and his right.
The common theme from these turnovers and decisions: Johnson is indecisive and doesn't separate. His passing turnovers were the result of late reads, not on command or skilled manipulation of the defense that went wrong. He looks like he's guessing, which doesn't bode well when the time and space to make decisions shrinks at the next level.
Furthermore, he's overly-dependent on backing down and using his big point guard body on getting to his spots. When cut off, he takes turnaround jumpers at the lane logo. He doesn't attack gaps in space well enough off ball screens. He's a skilled, big ball handler that doesn't functionally put himself in positions to leverage those skills effectively.
Johnson was off to a better start to the season. He's shooting 37.5% from 3, is rebounding well and had a couple of really nice outings: 17,6 and 8 against Western Kentucky stands out as a bonus. But he cannot follow them up with seven turnover games. He's turned it over four times or more in three of their five games -- he's shrinking his own margin for error.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)