Needle in a Haystack
The Knicks have 3 picks in the upcoming draft, but aren't thought of as being in the range to get a star. Is that a fair assessment? I examine today.
Good morning! The Knicks begin their second full week off today, but we’re just picking up steam. The playoffs are in full swing, and being ever diligent, today’s newsletter examines the goings on to see what tidbits the Knicks can pick up from afar.
As always, if you’re not a full subscriber, feel free to change that now:
On to the news…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Impending restricted free agent Josh Hart said on his podcast late last week that he heard Tom Thibodeau went to bat for him ahead of the 2017 Draft, noting that “he could see” himself being a Thibs type of player.
This was prior to Thibs second year in Minnesota, when he ended up trading the 7th pick (along with Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn) for Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick. Presumably, Thibs wanted Hart at 16.
After that sound bite, impending unrestricted free agent Kyle Lowry, who was a guest on the pod, chimed in: “I love Thibs, Thibs is my favorite. Thibs is awesome.” Giddy up.
🏀 With Lakers’ assistant Jason Kidd having pulled out of Portland’s coaching search last week, the Blazers have turned their attention to Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina/USA women's coach Dawn Staley, Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni and Spurs executive Brent Barry.
This is notable simply because Kidd was reportedly Damian Lillard’s preferred candidate, although Dame allegedly likes Billups as well. The situation bears monitoring, to say the least.
🏀 Last but not least, congratulations to Julius and Kendra Randle, who are expecting their second child! Take it from me guys…having two is exponentially more difficult than one. Thankfully Mr. & Mrs. Randle can probably afford a good nanny.
📍 Needle in a Haystack 📍
“You win, or you learn.”
If you listened to any of Tom Thibodeau’s postgame press conferences this season, you probably heard this popular Thibsism, especially after losses. It was his way of reminding the players that there was value to be had in every game, regardless of the outcome.
Unfortunately, they did a little too much learning to end the season, dropping three straight for just the second time since January. Now, as the team embarks on a vital offseason, the hope is that not only have the coach and players learned a thing or two, but the front office as well.
I wrote a lot last week about the challenges now faced by Leon Rose and his staff - about the importance of marginal upgrades, how the modern timeline for teams is more condensed, and ultimately why star trades are less a choice than a gift you don’t give back.
This week, I want to shift the focus a bit to the draft and free agency, starting to look at how (or even whether) the moves the Knicks make in those two areas can improve their chances of landing that elusive top banana. Today, I’m going to look at the draft, and in particular, whether there’s any rhyme or reason to the superstar-level players that fall far farther than they should.
On that note, let’s do a quick check in on which players actually fall into that “lead dog” category by analyzing who has dominated this postseason, including the play-in. If we use the criteria of everyone who’s averaged at least 22 points and three assists per game, in descending order of scoring, we get this top 19: Steph Curry, Luca Doncic, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard, Ja Morant, Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, Trae Young, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Tobias Harris, LeBron James, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
Going by the eye test on the shot creation abilities of each of the above, this feels like a fairly representative list. After all, these playoffs are the ultimate reminder that generating offense from scratch really is all this sport comes down to at the end of the day. If we want to take it a step further though, we can use some other hallmarksto help rank these players from top to bottom (with all stats before last night’s action):
Floor spacing: Curry, Lillard, Mitchell and Doncic are the only players to average over four made 3-pointers per game. Harden is at 3.2, and everyone else is three or fewer.
Elite play making: Six of these 19 players have averaged over eight assists per game: Luka, Dame, Trae, Harden, Ja and LeBron. Giannis is next up at 5.5.
Foul drawing: Five of these 19 players have over seven made free throws per game: Tatum, Embiid, Lillard, Young and KD. Harden is at 6.7 and everyone else is 6.2 or lower.
Overall efficiency: Three of these 19 players are head and shoulders above the rest, with effective field goal percentages above 62: Harden, Kawhi and Embiid. KD and Dame check in next right around 59, and then Luka and Mitchell are near 57.
Availability / Games Played: Curry bowed out in the play-in, Harden has been hurt, and several other top performers are already eliminated. None of this is really their fault, but them’s the breaks.
It’s also worth seeing whether guys who are elite in one area do “just enough” in another. For example, Donovan Mitchell averaging “only” 5.1 assists is fine when he’s scoring at will, just like the 1.4 threes per game made by Joel Embiid are enough to do wonders for how opponents guard him.
Lastly, we can turn to advanced stats to sort who’s been the best of the best, and use composite rankings of Win Shares per 48 minutes, Value Over Replacement Player and Box Plus / Minus to help arrange these guys as well. Only seven players rank in the top 12 for the playoffs in each of those metrics: Kawhi, Harden, KD, Dame, Trae, Embiid and Mitchell.
Using everything at our disposal, here are my personal rankings for offensive postseason performers so far, as well as where those players were drafted:
Looking at it another way, here are all the draft picks used to select these 19 players, in order: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 13th, 13th, 15th, 15th, 19th, and 41st. That’s nine top-3 picks, four picks from 5-10, five in the teens, and Nikola Jokic all the way down at 41.
As I detailed last week, while the Knicks likely don’t have the ammunition to trade up into this year’s top five without giving up something they really don’t want to lose (i.e., RJ Barrett or at least one future unprotected pick), it’s at least possible that they can trade up into the bottom half of the top 10, and quite reasonable that they can trade up into the high teens.
Part of the reason this year’s top-five is so impenetrable is because it’s the rare year where the projected top-five picks were almost the exact same players that topped the previous year’s recruiting rankingsgoing into the season. In other words, talent evaluators can be doubly sure that their initial impressions were validated:
While this may seem like it should be a regular occurrence, it’s actually quite rare. For example, last year’s preseason top-five recruits on ESPN’s top 100 were James Wiseman, Cole Anthony, Isaiah Stewart, Anthony Edwards and R.J. Hampton. Those players ended up being drafted 3rd, 15th, 16th, 1st and 24th, respectively.
The closest thing to as much overlap as we’re seeing before this draft was three seasons ago, when the top five recruits were Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter Jr, Deandre Ayton, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr, who ended up going 2nd, 14th, 1st, 6th and 7th, with MPJ’s slip to 14 due mostly to injury. Even then, you had Trae Young pop into the top-five from a preseason rank of 23 and Trevon Duval drop from preseason 6th to going undrafted.
Which gets us back to this top five. Given how unprecedented and difficult this year was from a scouting perspective, teams will value the relative safety that these five players provide even more than they normally would. That said, as we can see from 2018, just because the top of a class stays relatively stable from preseason to draft day doesn’t mean that those five will wind up being the best players.
In addition to 2018, there are tons of examples of players who were at or near the top of their recruiting class, went on to justify that rank in their lone college season, and ended up being relative disappointments (or outright busts) regardless:
In other words, the Knicks (and any remaining fans who wish Leon Rose would have tanked away this season) shouldn’t be too heartbroken about not being able to crack this top five.
Will a future primetime playoff performer emerge from that quintet? Probably. But it’s more likely that no one from this top five emerges to join the NBA’s elite than it is multiple players will. Check out how our top-19 shakes out by representation in the top-five picks per draft year:
The only draft year with multiple top-five picks represented in our pristine nineteen is 2018, with Luka Doncic and Trae Young. If we take away the draft years prior to 2006 (because 15 years is really all anyone should expect star-level production, and LeBron James - picked first all the way back in 2003 - is an alien), we get seven other draft years with one top-five pick showing out this season and seven more draft years with none.
In other words, the odds are that roughly once every two years, you’ll get a player taken in the top five who emerges as a big time playoff performer.
That leaves the nine players who weren’t top-five picks that are having outstanding postseasons. At this point, I want to turn our investigation back to recruiting ranks. Here’s where each of those nine ended up getting picked compared with their final high school recruiting ranking:
The only player who was ranked higher than his eventual draft pick was Tobias Harris. With (Jim Gandolfini voice) all due respect to him, but he’s pretty clearly the 19th most important player on our list, and the one who doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the crew.
He’s also one of just two players from this list that came out after his freshman season, with Devin Booker - the only other top-40 recruit - being the other one.
Every other college player from this grouping - Dame, Steph, PG13, Mitchell and Kawhi - spent multiple years in college after failing to make the top 40 in their respective recruiting classes (and in the case of Lillard, Curry and George, failing to make the top 200).
But what about other players like Harris - guys who were highly ranked recruits but were relative disappointments in their lone college season? Surely the talent must have shone through eventually in some of these cases, right?
To find the answer, I went back through every draft class from 2009 until 2019 and looked for the following: top-10 recruits who ended up being drafted at least nine spots below their recruiting rank, but were still taken in the first round.
Why did I limit it to players still taken in the first round? First, because I wanted to include players who at least did well enough in college for an NBA team to feel comfortable giving them multiple years of guaranteed money, and second, because the list of one-year guys from the last 12 years who were top-10 recruits and didn’t get taken in the first round is not pretty. The lone exception: Gary Trent Jr, who was the No. 8 recruit in 2017, came out after a year at Duke, and was taken 37th. But his issues wasn’t so much poor play as being the 4th guy in a stacked Duke recruiting class that included Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr and Trevon Duval.
What I wanted to see was how high pedigree players who showed some promise in their lone year of college fared after falling in the draft. I’ll get to why in a bit, but first, here are all the players by year (and if you’re interested to know what was being said about them before the draft, check the addendum at the end of the newsletter, as I’ve compiled some notably lines from their Draft Express profiles):
Jrue Holiday - Recruiting rank: 4th, Draft pick: 17th, Freshman stats: 27.1 MPG, 8.5 PPG, 3.7 APG, .450/.307/.726
Byron Mullins - Recruiting rank: 5th, Draft pick: 24th, Freshman stats: 20.3 MPG, 8.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, .638/.000/.559
Avery Bradley - Recruiting rank: 1st, Draft pick: 19th, Freshman stats: 29.5 MPG, 11.6 PPG, 2.1 APG, .432/.375/.545
Tobias Harris - Recruiting rank: 7th, Draft pick: 19th, Freshman stats: 29.2 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, .460/.303/.753
Marquis Teague - Recruiting rank: 8th, Draft pick: 29th, Freshman stats: 32.6 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 4.8 APG, .412/.325/.714
Shabazz Muhammad - Recruiting rank: 2nd, Draft pick: 14th, Freshman stats: 30.8 MPG, 17.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, .443/.377/.711
James Young - Recruiting rank: 8th, Draft pick: 17th, Freshman stats: 32.4 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, .407/.349/.706
Myles Turner - Recruiting rank: 2nd, Draft pick: 11th, Freshman stats: 22.2 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, .455/.274/.839
Tyus Jones - Recruiting rank: 4th, Draft pick: 24th, Freshman stats: 33.9 MPG, 11.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, .417/.379/.889
Skal Labissiere - Recruiting rank: 2nd, Draft pick: 28th, Freshman stats: 15.8 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, .516/.000/.661
Henry Ellenson - Recruiting rank: 5th, Draft pick: 18th, Freshman stats: 33.5 MPG, 17.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG, .446/.288/.749
Harry Giles - Recruiting rank: 1st, Draft pick: 20th, Freshman stats: 11.5 MPG, 3.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, .577/n/a/.500
Bam Adebayo - Recruiting rank: 5th, Draft pick: 14th, Freshman stats: 30.1 MPG, 13.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, .599/n/a/.653
Michael Porter Jr - Recruiting rank: 2nd, Draft pick: 14th, Freshman stats*: 17.7 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, .333/.300/.778 (*only three games played due to injury)
Anfernee Simons - Recruiting rank: 9th, Draft pick: 24th, No college stats - IMG Academy
Romeo Langford - Recruiting rank: 5th, Draft pick: 14th, Freshman stats: 34.1 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, .448/.272/.722
Nasir Little - Recruiting rank: 6th, Draft pick: 25th, Freshman stats: 18.2 MPG, 9.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, .478/.269/.770
Keldon Johnson - Recruiting rank: 7th, Draft pick: 29th, Freshman stats: 30.7 MPG, 13.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, .461/.381/.703
If you were keeping count, that’s 18 total players. Here’s the breakdown:
2 All-Star selections (Jrue Holiday and Bam Adebayo); Adebayo seems like a safe bet to make several more before his career is through.
1 extremely promising young players (Michael Porter Jr, assuming his back holds up, and Keldon Johnson)
1 fringe All-Star (the aforementioned Tobias Harris)
2 very solid starters (Myles Turner, and during his prime, Avery Bradley)
3 too-early-to-tell guys (Anfernee Simons, Romeo Langford and Nasir Little)
7 busts (Byron Mullins, Marquis Teague, Shabazz Muhammad, James Young, Skal Labissiere, Henry Ellenson, Harry Giles)
The book on this subcategory of draft picks will get a lot clearer in the years to come, not only when we’ll learn more about some of the young players above, but also when we see what happens with the class of 2020 that includes Cole Anthony (ranked 2nd, drafted 15th), Isaiah Stewart (3rd; 16th), R.J. Hampton (5th; 24th), Jaden McDaniels (7th; 28th), Josh Green (8th; 18th).
So why, pray tell, did I go through all this trouble? Because at 19, 21, and 32, the Knicks are right in range for four players who were preseason top-11 recruits but who were relative disappointments in their lone year of college: BJ Boston (ranked 7th, mocked 30-40), Ziaire Williams (ranked 8th, mocked at 16-20), Greg Brown (ranked 9th; mocked at 22-30) and Josh Christopher (ranked 11th, mocked 25-40).
On the flip side, you have guys like Davion Mitchell, who topped out as the 59th-ranked recruit four years ago, Jared Butler, who barely cracked the top 100 in 2018, and Franz Wagner, who couldn’t crack the top 100 in 2019. And then there’s Oregon’s Chris Duarte, who’s barely two and a half years younger than Julius Randle and is a former JUCO player of the year.
I’ll be getting more into this latter group of players, plus other less highly pedigreed draft prospects, in the weeks to come, but based on today’s examination, it seems like the group of Boston, Williams, Brown and Christopher might not be where it’s at for the Knicks, at least if they have hopes of finding a true diamond in the rough.
But that doesn’t mean there might not be value to be had. Could one of those players fall into the Bam Adebayo/Keldon Johnson/Tobias Harris camp? I’ll get into that with a deep dive on the most interesting name of the group…tomorrow.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Jrue Holiday: “…didn’t stand out in any one area…played a small role on a very slow-paced team, which he’ll likely tell you all about if his recent interviews are any indication…Holiday shot only 28% from the field on his catch and shoot jumpers, and his .75 PPP on pull up jumpers leaves a lot to be desired as well…he spent heavy minutes off the ball…couple that with his questionable jump shot and you have a clear-cut recipe for disaster…Holiday is the type of unselfish, mature, high-character player who would always come into a new situation being slightly deferential. All that combined led to a somewhat slow start for the west coast product…He is a complete player on both ends of the floor, the type that fits into any system and clearly is programmed to help a team win games…extraordinary role player in his mold (who is not a star)…”
Byron Mullins: “… will have to put in the work in on his own if he's to earn playing time, and thus will have to develop a good deal of self-discipline with his work ethic if he's to reach his potential…Mullens is still a fairly mistake-prone player, which is likely a product of his average basketball IQ. He often looks somewhat absent-minded boxing out opponents and such, and thus ranks as a pretty average rebounder relative to his physical tools. He's also an incredibly poor passer…you'd be hard pressed to find a talent evaluator who wouldn't think Mullens clearly needs another year or two in school to develop. The only thing he does at an NBA level at this point is get open and finish at the basket on the offensive end…”
Avery Bradley: “…had an inconsistent freshman season…shots and production fluctuated wildly from game to game, and he didn’t do much to improve on his weaknesses over the course of the season, though the one thing that remained consistent throughout was his intense, smothering defense…is a somewhat unique prospect in that there really isn’t anyone in the NBA with his skill set, and there are questions about how easily he’ll be able to find a niche…lack of anything resembling playmaking skills or a point guard mentality may be his most concerning attribute projecting to the pros, as it’ll be very tough to play him at the 1-spot without great shot-creators around him…”
Tobias Harris: “…quietly put together a strong freshman campaign at Tennessee, playing his best basketball of the season in March…was expected to contribute immediately at Tennessee, and early season returns were largely positive. Lauded for his versatility, Harris struggled at times to knock down jumpers, but was able to compensate with his high basketball IQ, ability to put the ball on the floor, and touch around the basket…great head on his shoulder that can do a little bit of everything offensively…his jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none skill-set allows scouts to pencil him into a number of different roles offensively, many of which blur the lines between the small forward and power forward positions…”
Marquis Teague: “Teague's 12.3 points per 40 minutes pace adjusted and 49% True Shooting Percentage both rank second to last among all players in our top-100 rankings, as he showed many problems with inconsistency and turnovers throughout the season…the question marks surrounding his half-court offense, specifically with his point guard abilities, make him a player likely to have stock all over the board from different NBA teams…Teague's skill-set remains largely unchanged from high school, as the effectiveness of his game tends to wane the slower the pace is, with his role being much less pronounced in Kentucky's half-court attack….”
Shabazz Muhammad: “…One of the biggest enigmas in this draft, Shabazz Muhammad was prolific, but less than efficient, in a large, abnormal role…Generally speaking, Muhammad is not the most intense player you'll find defensively. His energy level is highly dependent on how he's faring on the other end of the court. When he misses a shot or doesn't touch the ball on a given possession he can be slow to get back on defense…From a NCAA-imposed suspension for eligibility issues, to relatively disappointing play in his freshman season, to an explosive story in the L.A. Times uncovering his age was falsified…Muhammad's freshman season was a real roller coaster ride…”
James Young: “…Seldom called upon to create one-on-one or on the pick and roll last season, Young is not very dynamic off the bounce, as his ball-handling and ability to drive right remain a work in progress…doesn't always see the open man on his drives and struggled to convert inside the arc efficiently, settling for difficult floaters and forcing contested, high-degree of difficulty shots in close…Lacking elite blow-by quickness to beat the defense to the rim and the advanced ball-handling repertoire to create separation for his pull-up jump shot consistently, Young has plenty of room to grow on the offensive end at the next level. The same can be said for Young on the defensive end, where his lack of focus and fundamentals are limiting factors at this stage…”
Myles Turner: “…while Turner's lack of offensive diversity and his willingness to settle for outside jump shots is a concern going forward, the combination of a big man who can space the floor from the perimeter while also being a strong rebounder on the defensive glass and a rim protector inside the paint is incredibly rare, and, in today's NBA where spacing is king, also incredibly valuable. As long as his body can hold up (somewhat of a concern due to his physical makeup), he shouldn't have too much of a problem finding some type of a niche in the NBA…”
Tyus Jones: “…has average physical tools for the point guard position by NBA standards…not an exceptional athlete on top of that, possessing just average speed in the open floor, without a great first step or vertical leap to compensate. What Jones lacks in measurables he makes up for with balls and brains, as he's incredibly poised, confident and intelligent for an 18-year old, particularly operating in the clutch…On one hand it is hard to understate the amount of success he's had thus far in his career…On the other hand, his physical profile is clearly that of a backup point guard, not a starter…”
Skal Labissiere: “…he has been lauded for his work ethic and character by everyone he's been around, and you have a project that an NBA team picking in the lottery is very likely to take a chance on, potentially very early on in the draft…lack of strength is an issue, but so is his lack of toughness…Labissiere is still very raw on this end of the floor, as he averaged more fouls per minute than any other player in our Top-100 rankings…Labissiere has looked ill equipped for the rigors of high major NCAA basketball, both from a physical standpoint and in terms of his own personal and mental toughness…”
Henry Ellenson: “…The biggest concerns about Ellenson as a NBA prospect revolve around his play on the defensive end…Ellenson's instincts, awareness and intensity level leaves a lot to be desired defensively, as he's not one to put his body on the line and struggles trying to cover ground on the pick and roll…Defensive concerns are likely always going to be a serious issue unless Ellenson makes a real commitment to playing harder and smarter on this end of the floor…Ellenson's physical tools, skill-level and natural talent make it very easy to see him finding success at the NBA level offensively…”
Harry Giles: “…Regardless of whether or not his athleticism reverts back to what it once was, Giles has outstanding measurements that should allow him to play the center position with ease if he can find a way to put more bulk on his promising frame…There is a distinct possibility that he'll be able to shed the rust he was noticeably saddled with at Duke, and undoubtedly caused him to lose a step…his footwork is poor, his ball-handling skills rudimentary, and basketball IQ is not where it needs to be at this stage. Giles plays the game very sped up and struggles to make decisions with the ball in his hands…His timing, fundamentals, discipline, and understanding of the nuances of help-side defense are very much a work in progress, as he often looks a step behind the action…”
Bam Adebayo: “…When Adebayo is engaged defensively, he is an active and impactful defender who can protect the rim in small doses while also being able to step out and guard the perimeter. The key to translating that to the NBA level is learning how to play with a high level of energy and focus every defensive possession. That level of intensity wasn't always there for him during his freshman season…At this point, Adebayo's offensive game is unrefined…Adebayo is a shade undersized for a center, but has the length and athleticism to compensate…”
Michael Porter Jr (courtesy of the Stepien): “Porter Jr. is perhaps the best wing/combo-forward scoring prospect to enter the draft since Kevin Durant a decade ago. He isn’t Durant, lacking that combination of handle and generational off the dribble shooting (along with plus length), but he’s a notch above everyone else as a shooter especially.”
Anfernee Simons: (courtesy of Bleacher Report): “Simons will always be valued for his scoring punch first. His ceiling looks similar to microwaves like Ellis or Lou Williams—undersized shooting guards who could still put points up in a hurry. Depending on his efficiency, his game may wind up being best suited for a sixth-man role, although he does possess starter talent and upside.”
Romeo Langford (courtesy of the Stepien): “Medium / Realistic Outcome: Bench scorer, 1st or 2nd player off bench. If the shot comes along a little bit, his ability to finish in the paint and create off the bounce a little for himself and his teammates would provide value as a bench scorer – someone who can be a primary, or secondary, creator off the bench and a side role when he’s paired up with starters. Needs to improve off ball defense and shot…”
Nasir Little (courtesy of the Stepien): “Plays a bit reckless on both ends of the court, so he really needs to tone it down – looks like a much different player when he’s actually playing in his role and not forcing shots. He is a competitor though on both ends and has a history going back to HS of being a good defender…I think the shooting could come again in time (the form isn’t broken and his FT% weighs in his favor), but he needs to get used to the added strength…Medium / Realistic Outcome: Role player off bench. Energy player who slashes, switch on defense, and hits C&S…”
Keldon Johnson: (courtesy of the Stepien): “Medium / Realistic Outcome: Bench scorer with average defense. I don’t think he puts up enough 3s to warrant a volume three point shooter label, and his defense is more theoretical at this point than actual. In some ways, his medium outcome reminds me of a less version of Taurean Prince. Offers little besides scoring.”
As we continue to study the draft over the next six and a half weeks, it’ll be important to keep these core skills in mind. It may seem obvious, but as we’re assessing prospects, deciding whether or not they at least have a chance to be elite in each of these areas will be vital.
It’s also worth noting here that Dillon Brooks, who put up 26 a game for Memphis in the first round but averaged just 2.2 assists, was drafted 45th, while Kris Middleton is next up on the scoring list and was picked 39th.
Using ESPN’s Top 100