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Today marks the day of the 2022 NBA Draft. Dreams are fulfilled and teams are looking to find prospects to help them win championships. Now, no one has any idea how good any one of these guys will end up being. I especially have no clue. But I love to guess and play fake GM. So here is a mock draft of what I personally would do in these spots if I were running these teams. 

1. Orlando Magic – Paolo Banchero F Duke

I wrote more extensively here as to why I think Banchero is the best prospect in this draft. He can grow into Orlando’s premier halfcourt option as soon as he steps into the building.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder – Chet Holmgren C Gonzaga

A perfect fit next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey with Holmgren’s versatility as a floor spacer, rim roller, shooting off the bounce, and slashing ability. Don’t overthink Chet Holmgren.

3. Houston Rockets – Jabari Smith Jr. F Auburn

Jabari Smith gets called a 6-10 Klay Thompson but don’t get it twisted: that’s a really damn good player. Especially after watching him in person, Jabari Smith is exactly what teams want from their wings in today’s NBA. I just wish he could create off the bounce more.

4. Sacramento Kings – Jaden Ivey G Purdue

Jaden Ivey is simply immensely better than Keegan Murray and anyone else in this group; you could even argue Ivey is a better prospect than Jabari Smith or others in the top three. Sacramento does have a cluster of guards, though. People recommending them trading away De’Aaron Fox and his max salary to make room for Ivey is easier said than done though. But I just can’t pass Ivey up, especially after the names this franchise has passed up over the last decade-plus (Luka Doncic, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, to name a few). Take Ivey and worry about the roster clog at guard later.

5. Detroit Pistons – AJ Griffin F Duke

I wrote more extensively about Griffin here. Suffice to say, I think Griffin has more creator skills than he was allowed to show at Duke and is probably the best shooter in this draft. I LOVE the fit with Griffin and Cade Cunningham. 

6. Indiana Pacers – Bennedict Mathurin F Arizona

Perhaps no one played as well in the NCAA Tournament as Bennedict Mathurin. The idea of Mathurin and Tyrese Haliburton harassing guards all over the floor defensively is incredibly enticing. I love the fit here.

7. Portland Trail Blazers – Keegan Murray F Iowa

The Blazers finally added a wing in Jerami Grant on Wednesday. Keegan Murray isn’t a stopper defensively but can cover a lot of ground, can stretch the floor and would make for a great pick and roll tandem with Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, or Grant. Portland wants to compete now, so getting one of the most pro-ready prospects in this class makes sense.

8. New Orleans Pelicans (via Los Angeles Lakers) – Shaedon Sharpe G Kentucky

New Orleans is already a playoff team with plenty of draft ammunition in their tool kit. They’re a team that can take a risk in the top 10 so why not take the chance on Sharpe, who some say is the most talented player in this class. I love the idea of Sharpe learning from the steady professional scorer CJ McCollum. The fit around New Orleans’ two building-block stars in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson makes sense too.

9. San Antonio Spurs – Jalen Duren C Memphis

Jakob Poeltl has one year left on his contract. The Spurs have four picks in the top 40. Duren is the best center in this class with a game comparable to Boston’s Robert Williams III. They can get a guard or wing later. I like the fit here with Duren.

10. Washington Wizards – Jalen Williams F Santa Clara

Williams is a two-way wing close to the size of Paul George with the athleticism of Donovan Mitchell? I talked more about Williams after the NBA combine, but safe to say I’m a fan and that going at ten even might be too low for his potential.

11. New York Knicks – Dyson Daniels F G League Ignite

Dyson Daniels going in the top seven doesn’t make too much sense to me. He seems like someone that is solid at everything but not great at anything. 11 is much more palatable to me. He could play off RJ Barrett very well and seems very much like a Tom Thibodeau guy.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Los Angeles Clippers) – Tari Eason F LSU

At some point, the Thunder have to try to win some games, right? Tari Eason is one of the best defenders in this draft. Him and Holmgren smothering front courts with both having the versatility to defend all over the floor? Sounds good to me.

13. Charlotte Hornets – Ousmane Dieng F France / New Zealand Breakers

Charlotte needs wings and Dieng has the frame and game to excel next to LaMelo Ball as a point forward wing and also bring some much-needed defense to the Hornets. With two first-round picks, Charlotte can afford to take a shot on upside here too.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers – Johnny Davis G Wisconsin

There may not be a better fit for Davis than Cleveland. He is not a playmaker yet, but no worries because Darius Garland is already one of the best playmaking guards in the NBA. Garland isn’t a great defender, but Davis gets after it there with his 6-6 frame and athleticism. He can hit tough shots in the midrange, which would be a requirement with Cleveland’s two-big frontcourt. Cleveland should run to deliver the card with his name on it.

15. Charlotte Hornets (via New Orleans Pelicans) – Mark Williams C Duke

Charlotte needs a center as badly as Spongebob needed water when he first visited Sandy’s dome. Mark Williams instantly bolsters Charlotte’s defense and makes an awesome lob partner for LaMelo Ball.

16. Atlanta Hawks – Jeremy Sochan F Baylor

I’m not as big a Jeremy Sochan fan as others but he’s a stud defensively who just turned 19. Also, the ‘You Don’t Mess With the Sochan’ potential marketing campaigns are just sitting right there. You’re welcome, NBA teams.

17. Houston Rockets (via Brooklyn Nets) – Kennedy Chandler PG Tennessee

This might be too early for Chandler but this is what I would do damnit! I don’t want Banchero to succumb to pedestrian point guard play as he did at Duke for a large portion of their season, though Jalen Green is a good playmaker in his own right. Chandler is arguably the best pure floor general in this class with pesty defense and athleticism to go with it. He can make Green and Alperen Sengun’s life easier too. I love this fit.

18. Chicago Bulls – EJ Liddell F Ohio State

The Bulls so badly need depth on the wing. Poor Alex Caruso was sent to the wolves in the playoffs by having to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo when Patrick Williams got in foul trouble or needed a blow. Though Caruso is one of the best defensive players in the NBA, he shouldn’t have to take on that kind of assignment. Liddell is pro-ready both in terms of game and frame (6-7 240-pounds) and provides exactly what Chicago needs in terms of defense, additional rim protection, and floor spacing.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves – Jake LaRavia F Wake Forest

Jake LaRavia does many of the same things as Liddell. He isn’t as skilled an offensive player as Liddell but is a more bouncy athlete. I wrote more about him here but he’d make for a perfect fit with Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves.

20. San Antonio Spurs – Ochai Agbaji F Kansas

This seems low for one of the best players in college basketball last season. Agbaji helped Kansas win a national championship last year and has a game that reminds me a lot of Mikal Bridges. I think he’d fit like a glove in San Antonio.

21. Denver Nuggets – Malaki Branham G Ohio State

This seems low as well. Malaki Branham may not be the best prospect to come from St. Vincent St. Mary High School but he’s one of the best shooters and scorers in the draft. I know Denver drafted Bones Hyland to fill that role last year but getting more players who can fill Jamal Murray’s shoes if he can’t play in a given game. 

22. Memphis Grizzlies (via Utah Jazz) – TyTy Washington G Kentucky

TyTy Washington has numbers and a game eerily similar to Tyrese Maxey. I pounded the table for teams to consider Maxey higher than where he went. Teams that passed on him proved to make a big mistake. Washington is a bit more polished playmaker than Maxey coming out of Kentucky and the Grizzlies could very well lose Tyus Jones this summer. Jones was invaluable filling in for Ja Morant; perhaps Washington can take that spot.

23. Philadelphia 76ers – MarJon Beauchamp F G League Ignite

The Sixers are in dire need of a burst of perimeter defense and athleticism. Tyrese Maxey impersonated Usain Bolt when he ran compared to the rest of the Sixers roster. Beauchamp gives them that much-needed infusion of speed and defense that the Sixers sorely lack.

24. Milwaukee Bucks – Christian Braun G Kansas

I wanted to give the Bucks a bigger wing a la PJ Tucker to unlock more lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the center spot, but I couldn’t find one I loved here. Christian Braun will suffice as a replacement and upgrade to what they lost in Donte DiVincenzo last year.

25. San Antonio Spurs (via Boston Celtics) – Jaden Hardy G G League Ignite

This is the Spurs’ third first-round pick. When I saw footage of Hardy I immediately thought of Jordan Poole and the jump he made for the Golden State Warriors. Hardy has a lot of rough edges to smooth over but also a ton of talent to work with. We very well could look back three years from now and wonder why Hardy wasn’t a lottery pick.

26. Houston Rockets (via Dallas Mavericks) – Dalen Terry F Arizona

Perhaps Houston uses this pick and their 17th pick to move up, but for now, we’ll have them take Dalen Terry. Terry doesn’t need the ball to make an impact, which will be important alongside Green and Banchero. Terry is a great defender and can do all the important winning plays on the edges.

27. Miami Heat – Christian Koloko C Arizona

The Heat doesn’t have another reliable big man behind Bam Adebayo that can produce in a playoff setting. Like Adebayo, Koloko is a menace switching onto guards and protecting the rim. I love the fit here.

28. Golden State Warriors – Jaylin Williams C Arkansas

Kevon Looney became a folk hero for what he did in the playoffs en route to Golden State’s fourth championship with Steph Curry. Unfortunately, running it back could mean a $400 million payroll next year. I wrote earlier about how well Jaylin Williams’ game matches Looney’s. The Warriors might be light years ahead of the league but even they have to make concessions at some point, right? Why not get the cheaper version of Looney?

29. Memphis Grizzlies – Blake Wesley G Notre Dame

Blake Wesley likely will go sooner than this. I think Wesley needs time to grow and develop before becoming a legitimate producer. Luckily, the Grizzlies are one of the best at developing their own and could use a bucket getter that can play alongside Ja Morant. With an extra first-round pick, why not?

30. Denver Nuggets (via Phoenix Suns thru Oklahoma City Thunder) – Wendell Moore Jr. G Duke

Wendell Moore is used to playing alongside star players and being productive and active without the ball. He’s a plug-and-play player on a team that rightfully sees itself as a contender.

Making choices is hard. Having to choose between a number of excellent players is even harder. There is no exact science. Seemingly surefire picks have found a way to lose their luster in the NBA before. We have no idea. Nitpicking between these guys feels very cruel too since they are all incredible at what they do. Most peg this year’s NBA Draft as a three-man duel between Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr., and Duke’s Paolo Banchero. If you want to throw Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Duke’s AJ Griffin, Iowa’s Keegan Murray, or anyone else into this mix, be my guest. They’re all great prospects. But the best and most complete player in my opinion is Paolo Banchero. 

Defense – Good Enough

The area Holmgren and Smith best Banchero at is on the defensive end of the floor. Holmgren is already an engulfing rim protector that can switch onto guards and straight swat their shots with his 7-foot size and pterodactyl arms. Jabari Smith at 6-10 220-pounds can guard just about anybody on the floor. It isn’t as clean with Banchero. At 6-10 250pounds, he isn’t the most nimble player on the floor and is prone to get left in the dust by smaller, shifty guards.

(That lack of burst athleticism can show up at times offensively too, but I’m not overly concerned by it.)

Make no mistake about it, however: Paolo Banchero is still a damn good defender. A very versatile one at that. According to Synergy, Banchero ranked in the 94th-percentile in isolation defense, allowing 0.459 points per possession. That extends to guarding on the perimeter as well. This play is a great example. In a crucial moment against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament up just one with under two minutes to go, Banchero sticks with Joey Hauser, throws him off-kilter with his size, and blocked his layup attempt. 

This play is probably even more impressive. He cuts off Third-Team All-American guard JD Notae’s drive off a switch, forcing him to kick the ball back out. After Duke has time to reset their defense, Banchero gets back onto his original man (Trey Wade) and blocks his dunk attempt from behind.

This play also provides a glimmer of Banchero’s potential to wreak havoc off the ball and even play some minutes at the center spot as a rim protector. His consistency in that area comes and goes enough to warrant playing a true rim-protecting center with Banchero for most of his minutes at the beginning of his NBA journey but he has the size, intellect, and athleticism to make do there. Banchero’s steal percentage (1.9-percent) and block percentage (2.7-percent) lag behind Holmgren (1.6-percent; 12.6-percent) and Smith (2.1-percent; 3.8-percent) but are still very solid. He’s not near the defender those two are but is far from a liability either.

Space In Spades

In my opinion, the edge Paolo Banchero has over everyone in this draft is how complete an offensive player he is. Both Smith and Holmgren hold the edge over him as shooters from three but Banchero is still solid there. On catch-and-shoot jumpers, Banchero generated 1.16 points per possession, good enough to finish in the 79th-percentile and ahead of Chet Holmgren. It adds to Banchero’s versatility and allows him to be deployed as a pop threat out of pick and rolls. 

Three-Level Scoring

But Banchero is best with the ball in his hands. This is where he can really differentiate and stand out from the rest of the field. Not only can be a threat without the ball but he can also run bully people on the block, create off the bounce, playmake in almost every situation, and whip the ball all over the floor. There really isn’t anything Banchero can’t do offensively. When he’s got a bigger-bodied defender on him he’s got a tenacious spin move (like he uses here) and is great at changing speeds to leave them in the dust.

Brady Manek is 6-9 230-pounds and is still searching for where Banchero went on that spin. He’s guarding Banchero there because he has enough to size to at least stand a chance inside against him. Manek was able to muster some stops against Banchero in their three matchups but he’s nowhere near as fleet of foot to consistently stay with Banchero, nor are a number of bigs Banchero will play against in the NBA sooner than later. If you want to take those drives away with a smaller, more lateral defender, that’s not going to work either. Banchero was a football player in high school and that physicality shows up in the post. Almost anybody is too small for Paolo Banchero, but especially the 6-8 200-pound Leaky Black.

If you put a bigger defender on Banchero and play him for the drive, he is more than happy and capable of burning you with the jumper you concede him as well.

Playmaking Wizardry

Like I said, pretty damn complete offensive player. But it’s not just as a scorer this well-roundedness of Banchero’s game pops. In a draft without a ton of excellent playmakers, you could argue Banchero might be the best passer in this draft. He reads the floor exceptionally well and can playmake from any spot or situation on the floor. Playmaking while running pick and roll? Check.

Playmaking as the roll man in pick and roll? Check.

What about passing after attacking off the bounce? Yeah, he’s got that too. Notice how Banchero sees Trevor Keels’ man sliding over to him to force Banchero to get rid of it? Well, Banchero does too and only does right when RJ Davis bites to dig on the ball, creating an all-the-more open look from three for Keels. 

What if Banchero isn’t even involved in the play? No worries. Here, he slides to the middle of the floor as Mark Williams is diving to the paint. The passing angle isn’t there for Duke’s guard to feed Williams so he swings it to Banchero, who then sets up Williams perfectly on a high-low pass to get him a dunk. 

Backpacker

Banchero’s playmaking and overall offensive packages are leaps and bounds ahead of Holmgren and Smith. Not that those are bad offensive players because they provide plenty of utility, but Banchero can do more than those two can. Banchero averaged 3.9 assists per-40 minutes; Smith and Holmgren averaged 2.8. Holmgren was mostly used as a roll-man and floor spacer, hence his 21.6-percent usage rate. Smith’s 27.6-percent usage rate actually bested Banchero’s, but Banchero’s shot creation ability is nowhere near up for question the way it is with Smith (I myself share some of those concerns, especially having seen Smith play in person earlier this year). Banchero can be deployed in any way those two can offensively, but neither of them has the combination of scoring and playmaking Banchero has that can carry a team.

Paolo Banchero’s versatility on both ends of the floor and ability to take over a game offensively were on full display in Duke’s run to the NCAA Tournament. While Tournament runs are hardly an indicator of NBA success, it is notable when picking the tiniest of nits that Banchero was able to keep his (flawed) team alive in ways Smith and Holmgren couldn’t. Smith and Holmgren are no slouches by any means; both should be able to help their new teams right away and warrant inclusion in the discussion for the top pick. 

Conclusion

But with the NBA shifting positionless and the emphasis on versatility on both ends of the floor, being able to play with other stars, and creating for yourself or others, no one threads those needles in this draft class better than Banchero. Do you need someone that can get you a bucket? Does your electric point guard need a versatile pick-and-roll dance partner to play off of to make his life easier? Do you need a small-ball center? Do you need a playmaking fulcrum at the elbow to run your offense through that can also shoot threes to clear the paint? How can you generate and expose mismatches in the playoffs when the other team knows what you want to do and trots nothing but tough, physical, rangy defenders against you? 

Arkansas Head Coach Eric Musselman was the only coach in the country who was tasked with sketching a game plan against all three of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, and Jabari Smith. When asked in an interview with The Athletic who he would take number one overall, he said Banchero and that Paolo was ‘the hardest for us to deal with.’ I agree. Banchero is a true matchup nightmare and can answer all the questions above much more than the other Big Three candidates can at this stage of their careers. Perhaps Holmgren and Smith will improve their areas of weakness over time and make this article look foolish; it is certainly possible and I won’t put it past either of them. But for now, Banchero earns the crown of the top jewel in the 2022 NBA Draft in my eyes.

Steph Curry just won Finals MVP for the now once-again champion Golden State Warriors. Steph did just about everything imaginable on the hardwood, but he did not finish with the highest net rating during the Finals nor the highest plus-minus. No, this is not me trying to take away his Finals MVP more so than hyping up someone who did all the little things like setting tough screens, versatility defensively, and being able to keep the Golden State offensive machine humming. No, it wasn’t Andrew Wiggins either. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson did all those things too, but they didn’t finish first in those regards either. Of course, I’m talking about Kevon Looney.

Kevon Looney was +48 in 130 minutes during the NBA Finals. The Warriors boasted a +23.7 Net Rating when he was on the floor. Looney never did anything spectacular. He’s not a leaper, and you could see many players where lobs or layup attempts at the rim went begging due to his lack of athleticism. But Looney is solid in every area. He’s a good enough passer to capitalize on the advantages Steph and Golden State’s shooting provides him. If you try him 1v1 you’re probably not beating him. He held serve on the glass against Robert Williams III and Al Horford after wiping out Memphis and Dallas’ frontcourts devouring them with offensive rebounds. He knows where to be defensively protecting the rim.

Kevon Looney is just solid in so many areas. Luckily for other NBA teams who missed out on Looney in 2015 (though he is about to be a free agent), there’s a big man in the 2022 Draft who is built from a similar blueprint. That would be Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams.

Charging the Defense

Like Looney, Williams is not a vertical or explosive athlete. But he makes up for it by reading the game at a very high level. Defensively, that comes by positioning himself a step ahead of the offense. That’s how he was able to take 54 charges (as well as the block/charge rule being broken in college basketball).

You could argue some of those should be considered a block. Sometimes Williams would get blocks on plays he beats drivers to the rim but tried to get a charge instead of just contesting the shot. But there are plenty of clips of him shutting off drives or pick-and-rolls positioning himself just like that. That positioning helps him defend on the perimeter too. He finds the balance of not giving enough space to let shooters shoot while also not pressing them into blowing by him. His mobility allows him to cover a lot of ground.

Inverted Playmaking

Jaylin Williams is stout defensively, but he’s very polished offensively as well. Williams’ best skill is his passing. He averaged 2.9 career assists per 40-minutes compared to 2.3 turnovers, a fine number for a guard but a great mark for a center. His 13.3-percent assist percentage is well above the NBA average of roughly 11-percent. For added context, both of Williams’ playmaking numbers best the career playmaking numbers of Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis. Davis averaged 2.2 career assists per 40-minutes and an assist percentage of 12.5-percent. Getting guard-like passing out of your center allows for teams to open their offense and deploy that center in numerous ways to get easy looks.

That’s exactly what Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman did with Jaylin Williams. Sometimes, Williams would operate as the halfcourt fulcrum for Arkansas at the elbow while the rest of the players on the floor would look to spring a teammate free as a cutter. Williams had no problem finding those cutters. Sometimes, that meant finding someone like Justin Smith converging to the rim from the wing…

… Sometimes, Williams would find a cutter sliding from the baseline from the other side of the court, as he does here. Stanley Umude sets a flare screen off the ball on JD Notae’s man. Umude’s man doesn’t communicate with Notae’s man. By the time Notae’s man gets around Umude’s screen, Notae’s gone and Williams finds him to get Arkansas a layup.

That’s not the only way Jaylin Williams’ passing excels. In a pick and roll league, screeners need to be able to scan the floor for open shooters once the ballhandler is forced to get rid of the ball. Luckily, Williams shines there too. And here’s a good example of him doing exactly that. Third-team All-American JD Notae gets trapped so dumps it off to Williams. Williams, under control (he was great all year at staying under control on rolls and not barrelling into defenders for charges), waits until Au’Diese Toney slips to the rim as his man rotates over to Williams. Williams sees it and then slips it to Toney to get him a dunk.

Grounded Rolling

That composure on rolls feeds into Williams’ lack of explosion and overall skill in his game. He’s not going to beat defenses over the top as a lob threat like Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo but he does have a soft touch on short rolls. If the defense rotates over and doesn’t leave shooters, Williams has no problem lofting a floater over the defender. The threat of scoring unlocks kick-outs for threes or dump-offs for dunks so this is an important shot to have as a center. Williams has it.

Jaylin Williams isn’t a lob threat but he can still punch it if he’s got a head of steam on short rolls too. Paolo Banchero needs no reminders. Devo Davis got Mark Williams to bite on a shot here. Davis bails out of the shot and dumps it to Williams as he embarks on the rim. Duke’s defense behind Mark Williams so Jaylin Williams went for the dunk and threw it down on Banchero’s head.

You can see Williams’ lack of explosion in traffic, however. Williams’ touch around the rim is good and knows how to use the rim and angles to find intricate finishes near the rim on rolls or camping at the dunker spot. But, can be discombobulated by longer and more athletic bigs. This is a good example. On the move, he can’t get by Auburn’s Walker Kessler. Instead, he gets enveloped by Kessler and blocked.

Shooting in Progress

Playmaking isn’t the only area Jaylin Williams can contribute offensively. Williams is not a great shooter but he’s capable. His 25.5-percent mark from deep may not reflect it but he has good touch around the rim (as shown above), looks comfortable shooting midrange jumpers, and boasts a career 73.1-percent percentage from the free-throw line. His confidence as a shooter has yet to follow him past the three-point line. He will turn down shots in search of something better even. Sometimes, something better never comes. Other times, Arkansas got a layup or a better look. You admire Williams’ selflessness but becoming a more confident shooter would serve him very well in the NBA. When he lets it fly the shot looks pretty solid leaving his hands. He needs to improve as a shooter but there’s at least something to work with there.

Conclusion

Jaylin Williams may not be a top-flight athlete. He’s not the best stretch five out there. But, a lot like Golden State’s Kevon Looney, he’s just solid. He’s a very smart, well-rounded player who excels at amplifying the players around and making winning plays. It’s hard to find bigs who can stay on the floor in a playoff setting but I have none of those concerns with Jaylin Williams. The NBA is going away from bigs but having one who can contribute in those settings is and will continue to be invaluable. I recently asked Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman where Jaylin Williams could go in the 2022 NBA Draft and he speculated Williams is more likely to last until the second round. 

I think that is likely with how the center position is valued in comparison to guards and wings. But, every team in the 20s could use additional center depth and this year’s center class is not overly deep. I could see one of the teams starting with the Spurs at 20 draft Jaylin Williams and looking to fill other positions with later picks or via free agency. If that does indeed happen, Williams is more than worthy. We do all of this to be the ones holding up the trophy when all is said and done. Why not draft someone who can give a team what one of the most reliable players on a great team gave to help win a championship?

The axiom goes that an NBA team can’t ever have enough wings. It’s true, and if you don’t think so then watch any 2021-22 Los Angeles Laker game (please don’t actually, I care about you) or how puny the Brooklyn Nets were in their lone playoff series against the Finals-bound Boston Celtics. Wings that are big, long, and versatile defensively will always have a shot at cracking a playoff rotation. If they can hit threes or even make smart reads as a passer, even better. If they can create their own shot then they’re going in the lottery. But a player in the 2022 NBA Draft that likely won’t get selected in the lottery but does hit those benchmarks? Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia

Cutting

Jake LaRavia is not going to be a guy you ask to create a lot of offense; he averaged just over eight field goal attempts per game over his college career and finished with a usage rate of just 21.9-percent. But LaRavia excels in filling in the gaps as a mover, a cutter, and a floor spacer, the primary ways he was used at college. He’s always vigilant without the ball in his hands. Once he sees an opening to zip through the lane, he hits it. Playing with a true point guard in Alondes Williams helped in finding LaRavia in those circumstances.

LaRavia shot 61.6-percent on two-point shots this past year and it’s easy to see why. He knows who he is and how to get the shots he knows he can make. He’s also more than sneaky athletic so he can punch those down once he gets the ball with that head of steam.

Shooting

LaRavia is also a very solid shooter. He didn’t shoot a ton of threes but he made 37.1-percent of the 132 threes he attempted over his three-year collegiate career. The stroke looks solid.

If Jake LaRavia is going to stay on the floor in high-leverage moments, he’s going to have to make shots like that. Luckily, he proved he can do so at a high level. LaRavia generated 1.5 points per possession on every unguarded catch-and-shoot jumper he shot last season, according to Zach Welch on Twitter. Excelling as a jump shooter as well as a finisher played a large role in LaRavia finishing last season with a 64.9-percent true-shooting percentage and a 60.6-percent effective field goal percentage. That he’s even somewhat close to the efficiency Chet Holmgren (69.1-percent TS; 68.1-percent eFG) posted is incredible and a testament to how well LaRavia excels at being a complementary piece. It isn’t as if LaRavia is only shooting corner threes like PJ Tucker either; he’s got NBA range and can hit shots on the move as well.

 

Playmaking

Another area of offense Jake LaRavia excels at is his passing. He reads the floor very well and especially so on the move, which will be very important in the NBA. Teams are going to force a team’s star players to get rid of the ball and force others to beat them. LaRavia can diagnose those defensive rotations on the fly and make the correct decisions to get his team a great look. This play is a great example. 

Towson traps the ballhandler. As they do, Wake Forest’s center slips to the rim. LaRavia makes himself available in the middle of the floor and sees the defender in the corner tagging Wake Forest’s roller. As he tags LaRavia zips it to the wing to create an open three. LaRavia is a smart and unselfish passer. It’s no wonder why he averaged 3.5 assists per 40 minutes (to 3 turnovers) and an above-average 17.8-percent assist percentage for his career. (For context: Karl-Anthony Towns and Thaddeus Young finished with a 17.7-percent assist percentage last season.) He has no problem manipulating a defense or making the simple extra pass. He keeps the machine humming.

Defense

The same way Jake LaRavia reads the floor offensively he also does so defensively. This side of the floor is where LaRavia’s bread gets buttered. At 6-8 227-pounds and a 6-9.5 wingspan, he can cover a ton of ground defensively. He has no issue disrupting offenses as a free safety. Watch here how he rotates from the weakside to strip the Towson roll man as he’s going up to force a turnover. 

That’s just one example of LaRavia putting out a fire off the ball. Here’s another. He begins the possession on a Towson big man. But as the ball rotates from one side to the other, a Towson guard is open on the left-wing. LaRavia sees it and zips over to make him put it on the deck, redirecting his rotating teammate Alondes Williams back to his original man. LaRavia sticks with the Towson guard and forces a wild shot as a result.

 

LaRavia can clearly defend in the team scheme, but he can put the clamps on people? That answer is also a definite yes. He’s got the quick feet to stick with guards and the size to stand up bruising wings. He didn’t have much of an issue sticking with two dynamic NC State scorers in Terquavion Smith and Dereon Seabron, both of whom fared well in May’s NBA Combine.

I think Jake LaRavia would probably be better deployed in more of a free safety role like a Robert Covington, but he’s definitely capable of being a point-of-attack stopper too, in my opinion. But it’s clear to me he is a plus defender. The numbers back it up too. LaRavia finished with a 12.7-percent rebound percentage, 2.4-percent steal percentage, 3.9-percent block percentage, and 4.6 defensive win shares (this stat continues to accumulate the more games you play. The more games one plays, the bigger the number. Veterans will have a bigger number than freshmen.). That is very similar to or better than a number of wings projected to go ahead of him in this year’s class. Here are how a few others that share LaRavia’s position in this class compare to LaRavia:

Jeremy Sochan, Baylor: 14.7 RB%, 2.9 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 1.9 DWS

Tari Eason, LSU: 15.2 RB%, 4.5 STL%, 6.2 BLK%, 3.4 DWS

Kendall Brown, Baylor: 10.5 RB%, 2.2 STL%, 1.5 BLK%, 1.8 DWS

EJ Liddell, Ohio State: 13.7 RB%, 1.2 STL%, 6.5 BLK%, 3.8 DWS

Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee: 11.2 RB%, 1.7 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 0.4 DWS

Jake LaRavia is just as good or even a better shooter than some of these guys with the defensive impact, but isn’t mocked in the top 20 the way these guys are or have previously been. I think that’s a mistake. LaRavia is right there amongst the most impactful wings in this draft whose game fits the mold of an Aaron Gordon‘s. He may be a junior but he’s still just 20 years. He’s just six months older than freshman Chet Holmgren and 12 days older than freshman TyTy Washington. There’s plenty of room for LaRavia to grow.

Jake LaRavia should be a top 20 pick in my opinion, but any team that sees themselves as a contender picking in the 20s (such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Golden State Warriors) that is low on wing depth should have no qualms taking LaRavia in the first round. He is a perfect complementary piece on the wing that can step in and help a team immediately. Every team needs players like him to get through the riggers of the playoffs to get that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy. If you like winning players, then Jake LaRavia is your man.

Every year the NBA has held its scouting combine, and players use that opportunity to their advantage to boost their draft stock. The 2022 combine was no different. After four different scrimmages over the course of two days, here are a few guys that I am a fan of and thought did themselves a service not only competing with their contemporaries but helping their draft stock in the process to get themselves in consideration to be a late first-round pick or potential early-to-mid second-round pick.

Jalen Williams, Santa Clara

Last year, it was Josh Primo who used the NBA Combine to his advantage and skyrocketed his way all the way up to the lottery. He was mostly regarded as a fringe first-round pick, but there he was hearing his name called by the San Antonio Spurs with their 12th overall selection in last year’s draft. This year’s favorite for the Josh Primo bump is Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams. He slaughtered the combine in every which way imaginable. First is the testing aspect. Williams measured in at 6-5.75 with a 7-2.25(!!!) wingspan. He also posted a monstrous 39-inch max vertical jump and a vertical reach greater than the likes of springy big men Rudy Gobert and John Collins. Holy shit. Despite giving a couple of inches, Williams’ overall size and athleticism compares favorably to some of the best wings in the NBA.

But the NBA isn’t just about testing measurements; there have been plenty of workout warriors who get drafted too high but can’t play. Luckily, that isn’t Jalen Williams. He’s got a smooth feel and three-level scoring chops. He can play off the ball and nail catch-and-shoot threes, he can play and finish through contact, and rise for a midrange jumper if the lane gets congested. According to Synergy Sports, Williams finished in the 86th-percentile on plays he was the pick and roll ballhandler and in the 97th-percentile on spot-ups. He laid all of these skills out for everyone to see this week.

Jalen Williams is also a very savvy playmaker. He finished college with a career 2.9-1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio and had a +2 ratio in his final season at Santa Clara. He can make any read out of the pick and roll. This here is a good example. He sees the man defending his teammate on the wing tagging the roller and delivers the ball as his defender is tagging. Once his teammate attacks the open driving lane, Williams finds space along the baseline to get a dump off and finish a dunk. He essentially created a dunk for himself.

Lastly, Williams is a staunch defender. He was defending Christian Braun for much of his first scrimmage and didn’t let him do much. This play was another of many Williams made. Hugo Besson does a good job of maximizing the screen to get the big to commit. Once the big bites and steps out, Williams veers back to the roll man, got a deflection on the ball, and ultimately forces the turnover. You can’t ask for better execution than this. 

Jalen Williams typically found himself in the 40s of mock drafts and big boards. As a Lakers fan who hoped he’d slip through the cracks, this week was devastating for such hope (as was the entire season so what is new). Jalen Williams is undoubtedly a first-round pick and likely a lottery pick now. He’s going to make a fan base extremely happy.

Andrew Nembhard, Gonzaga

The West Coast Conference is getting some love today! Andrew Nembhard was awesome for Gonzaga the past two seasons. He’s as steady a point guard as any in this class. His career assist-to-turnover ratio is just under +3 (2.94); during his two seasons in Spokane, it sat at +3.2. That terrific feel and playmaking were on display from the jump. This one was my favorite from the day. Nembhard runs a pick and roll from the right side of the floor, sees the weakside man tagging the roll man, and then zips the ball all the way to the left corner to create an And-1 corner three.

The concern regarding Andrew Nembhard was whether or not he can create for himself against NBA length and size. Au’Diese Toney of Arkansas totally shut Nembhard down in Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 loss at the hands of the Razorbacks. But Nembhard quelled those concerns. He looked as cool as a cucumber hitting floaters and pulling off the bounce. He only played the second of his team’s scrimmages after sitting the first one with a quad issue. He made up for lost time and then some by finishing with 26 points and 11 assists compared to just two turnovers.

On top of that, Andrew Nembhard finished with one of the best agility times for a guard at the combine. For any team looking for a backup point guard, look no further. Seeing how Tyus Jones and Monte Morris kept their teams afloat after injuries hit their starters this season, it’s not hard to envision Nembhard playing a similar role for whoever selects him. I waivered on Nembhard after his tournament display, but I’m back in after he dominated the combine.

Christian Braun, Kansas

Christian Braun didn’t have much to improve at the combine on the floor, but he competed and showed out between the lines anyway. I loved watching Braun as a Jayhawk and he kept the National Championship momentum in Chicago. Braun is a great secondary playmaker and off-ball player who fills the gaps for whatever a team needs. He runs in transition, he’s a savvy cutter and typically makes the extra and/or right pass. He’s also a pretty damn good shooter. He was just under 38-percent for his career at Kansas from deep and 75-percent from the free-throw line. He didn’t shoot the lights out in Chicago but didn’t have a problem adjusting to NBA range.

I love the pump fake to get his man to bite before stepping up for a more open three. It’s an example of Braun’s feel and composure on the floor. 

Christian Braun also gets after it defensively. At 6-6 218-pounds, Braun can guard multiple positions and did exactly that at Chicago. This play was a great example. He gets switched onto Georgetown’s Aminu Mohammed (who himself had a nice showing at the combine) and holds his ground. More than that, he stands Mohammed’s drive up and packs him in the process, forcing a 24-second violation.

To ice his performance on the court, Christian Braun proved his athleticism was not just sneaky. He lit up the vertical testing, finishing with a 40-inch max vertical and a 33.5-inch standing vertical. He tested as one of the best athletes at the combine period. Braun was on the fringes of the first round but likely solidified himself as one this week.

Ryan Rollins, Toledo

Ryan Rollins is one of my favorite players in this entire draft. Nothing I saw in his lone scrimmage dismayed me from that train of thought. Rollins has a smooth CJ McCollum-esque game (his words, not mine); he loves getting to the elbows and flipping in floaters when he gets to the paint. He also looked very comfortable playmaking out of pick and roll scenarios, frequently making the right play whether that be hitting the roll man or finding shooters in the corners. He put all of his tantalizing offensive skills on display in his scrimmage on Thursday.

My main concern with Ryan Rollins is that he’s not the best athlete and still needs to extend to NBA range as a shooter. He actually tested pretty well and better than other guards in his draft range. But, he had a few open looks beyond the arc and I don’t remember hitting one of them. I don’t view this as a major problem; Rollins has a great touch and shot just under 80-percent from the free-throw line during his career. I believe the three-point shooting will come in due time. Ryan Rollins is a top-20 pick.

Terquavion Smith, North Carolina State

Remember when Bones Hyland lit up the combine last year? Enter Terquavion Smith.

Bones Hyland’s numbers were a bit more efficient than Terquavion Smith’s but similar nonetheless. In Hyland’s sophomore year at VCU, he averaged 19.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 3.1 turnovers, and 7.8 three-point attempts per game on 44.7/37.1/86.2 shooting splits. Smith? He averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.7 turnovers, and 8.1 three-point attempts per game on 39.8/36.9/69.8 shooting splits. Similar enough? If you liked Hyland last year (I did), it’s not hard to like Smith. Every team seemingly has or values these roaming three-point chuckers; using a first-round pick on Hyland, Jordan Poole, and Immanuel Quickley has worked out very well over the past three years. Smith is one of them in this class. He was picking up steam before the combine and gained more this week. He likely played himself into the first round.

Dereon Seabron, NC State

If Terquavion Smith at 6-4 160-pounds was the lighting for the NC State Wolfpack this season, the 6-7 180-pound Dereon Seabron was the thunder. It was rare for a defender to stay in front of Seabron, and once he got by his man he roared to the basket and routinely finished through contact. Just watch how many times he bulldozed to the rim here.

Dereon Seabron may be a wrecking ball as a driver, but he also flashed playmaking chops. He has only 14 more assists than turnovers through two seasons at NC State but knew how and when to find his teammates when handling the ball. The biggest hurdle for Seabron to clear is his shooting. In two seasons, he only shot 63 threes, making 16 of them (25.4-percent). He hit just 69.4-percent of his free throws too. Seabron showed well but still seems more like a second-round pick or candidate to return to college than a first-round pick. But he put himself on more radars this week, and that’s all anyone in his shoes could ask for.

Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech

No one, at least from this event, improved their stock more than Kenny Lofton Jr. Everyone knew he was a burly post-up brute who can plow through just about anybody. But, his skill and feel were amongst the best in both the G League Elite Camp (for more from that event, click here). Lofton Jr. shined so much during the G League Elite Camp that he earned an invite to the NBA Combine. More of the same followed in the one NBA Combine scrimmage he participated in. He wasn’t just a low-post threat; he was also a pick and pop weapon. Lofton did not shoot a single three during his freshman season and made just four of 20 last year, but wasn’t afraid to let it fly in Chicago.

A three-ball would unlock so much more to Lofton’s game. This play is a good example. The defense runs him off the three-point line, putting Lofton in a 5v4 advantage. From there, he uses a euro step to get off a floater that he misses. But after getting the offensive rebound and a quick second jump, the ball is in the basket anyway.

Lofton’s bread is buttered in the post but it is important to show he’s got these skills in his toolbox. Teams are not wanting bigs posting up other bigs in today’s NBA, nor should they unless they’re the best of the best. But if he can play bigs off the floor stretching them out to set up his post-game, then he’s going to be an incredible offensive weapon. Because his post-game is awesome.

If he gets a smaller defender on him, then it’s a wrap. He is too powerful and too skilled. That smaller defender is going to get put in the basket.

If he gets a smaller defender on him, then teams are going to need to send help. Luckily, Lofton is a brilliant passer. Double teams don’t phase him; just look at this play. The double comes and immediately Lofton looks to pass. He sees Jules Bernard zoning up in the corner. He looks at him making Bernard think he’s throwing it to the wing, only to gift the guy in the corner a wide-open three.

The NBA is trending away from guys like Kenneth Lofton Jr., but skill is skill no matter where it comes from. Lofton had a paltry three-point percentage and a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in college, but clearly showed he can impact those areas of the game and play in the modern NBA. The defensive end of the floor will absolutely be a challenge for Lofton, especially at his 6-7 275-pound size. But, Lofton dominated every scrimmage he participated in and showed skill and feel that superseded almost, if not, all of his peers. He can start as a scoring weapon against bench units as he gets into better shape. If/when that happens, a team gifts him a strong defensive stretch five to cover for him there, Lofton can be a dynamic offensive big man in the NBA.

Good players are everywhere, you just have to know where and how to find them. Part of the where includes the G League Elite Camp, where many players have shined enough to give themselves an opportunity. Recently, that has included the likes of New Orleans Pelican Jose Alvarado, Charlotte Hornet Cody Martin, Miami Heat Caleb Martin, and Indiana Pacer Duane Washington Jr., among countless others. This is a great stepping stone for fringe prospects to catch the eyes of NBA scouts and anybody else who watched, like me. Here are a few that did exactly that.

Marcus Sasser, Houston* (* = Earned NBA Combine invite)

The roaming microwave scoring guard is a hot commodity in today’s NBA. Recently in the first round, guys like Jordan Poole, Immanuel Quickley, and Bones Hyland slid into the late first round for the ability to provide instant offense. Marcus Sasser showed he’s got that type of goods in both of his two G League Elite and NBA Combine scrimmages. Sasser started the 2021-22 season with a bang for the soon-to-be Elite 8-bound Houston Cougars, averaging 17.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 turnovers, and 8.6 three-point attempts per game to go with 43.7/43.7/74.4 shooting splits. He, unfortunately, suffered a foot injury that prevented Sasser from playing another game for Houston beyond December 22nd but made up for the lost time.

Marcus Sasser has deep range and isn’t afraid to show it. Give him a screen and drop coverage and you’re in for not a good time. He routinely dropped bombs from way beyond the three-point line.

Unless you have a versatile big who can defend on the perimeter, switching isn’t a great remedy either. Marcus Sasser has a tight handle and an array of moves he can string together to make bigs out of their element look foolish. Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma can tell you all about it firsthand. Just look at this filth.

Sheesh. As if that wasn’t enough, Sasser can also beat you as a passer too. He won’t fling Luka Doncic-esque crosscourt passes, but he can at least hit the roll man if you trap or find the next shooter if his man is tagging the roller.

Had it not been for his foot injury, Marcus Sasser probably wouldn’t have even been in the G League Elite Camp and garnered more buzz than he had before this week. His performance this week remedied all that. With measurables similar to Immanuel Quickley, Sasser should start getting some buzz in the late first or the start of the second round.

Jules Bernard, UCLA

There wasn’t a player I enjoyed watching more from the G League Elite Camp scrimmages than Jules Bernard. Quite frankly, I thought he was the best player in this event and was shocked he didn’t get the invite. Selfishly as a Laker fan whose roster needs help any way possible, I liked this for the chance Bernard slips through the cracks. It sucks for Bernard but he put enough great tape out there for someone to give him a shot.

Let’s start with bringing energy. Jules Bernard did that on both ends of the floor. Defensively, on the ball, Bernard is versatile and can guard multiple positions with his 6-7 210-pound frame. Sometimes guys can be hounds on the ball but coast when they aren’t directly involved in the play. That’s not Bernard. He was not only alert off the ball but routinely made plays in such circumstances. Take this play for example. Bernard fights over the screen on the dribble handoff and not only blows it up but gets the steal along the way.

This play was another good example and showcases his energy offensively too. He gets the deflection after someone tried to backcut them, forces the turnover, then turns on the jets on the other end of the floor as a cutter to ultimately earn free throws.

Transitioning further onto the offensive of the floor, Bernard flashed some ability to create too. He’s not someone you’re going to ask to run 30 pick and rolls every game, but he can do so in a pinch and did plenty during these scrimmages. He’s a stout straight-line driver. If he sees a lane, he’s pouncing on it instantly.

He can also create some pull-up jumpers in a pinch too. You’re going to rely on a steady diet of it from him, but it’s always nice to have as many players as possible that can win a mismatch or create late in the clock. Jules Bernard does exactly that here. He gets Brady Manek switched onto him and hits him with a stepback three as the shot clock expires.

Jules Bernard also has a good feel. He will make the extra pass and knows how to pass against a scrambling defense. He played on a loaded UCLA team with multiple pros, so he knows how to sacrifice for the better of the team and dial in on the little things. He’s a career 35.4-percent three-point shooter and 77.4-percent free-throw shooter. He reminds me a lot of Kelly Oubre Jr. with less bounce and more focus on the winning aspects of the game. I was a fan of Bernard’s before this event and more so after. Someone will make their team better if they give Jules Bernard a chance, whether as a draft pick or on a two-way contract.

Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall*

If Jules Bernard was my favorite player to watch from this event, Seton Hall’s Jared Rhoden was not far behind. If you like guys who play hard all the time, you’ll love Jared Rhoden’s game. I didn’t know much about him before this event, but I’m a very big fan of his now after watching him play four times. Now, if you’re looking for scoring, you’re in the wrong area of the store. But Rhoden excels at making all the right plays to help your team win, especially defensively. This was one of my favorite plays I saw someone make all week.

This is awesome. Rhoden tags the roll man and then gets back to his man Tyrese Martin (who himself earned an NBA Combine invite and had a great week). But not only does he get back, but he never overcommits, sticks with Martin on the drive, forces a contested shot that goes nowhere, and finishes it with a rebound. That’s perfect, awesome defense.

There, Jared Rhoden was off the ball, but he made plays on the ball too. This play was a great example. He navigates over the screen in pick and roll, gets back to his man, and deflects the pass, forcing a turnover. Again, awesome defense.

Jared Rhoden’s effort stuck out in every facet of the game, but especially in transition. This play was a great example of it. First, he strips his man to jar the ball loose and force yet another turnover. But then, he outruns everybody, including the guy he just stripped, to beat everyone to the floor and draw free throws. Effort is a skill and Rhoden has a lot of it.

Jared Rhoden is a tremendous defensive player who can make plays both individually and within the team structure while outhustling everybody on the floor. He is not a particularly great offensive player; creating offense for himself was a chore for him. But, versatile, long (he has a 6-10.5-inch wingspan) who can hit 43-percent of their catch-and-shoot looks will absolutely have a spot in the NBA. I didn’t know much about Jared Rhoden before this week. Now? He’s one of my favorite prospects in this entire class.

Tevin Brown, Murray State

Tevin Brown was another player whose phone didn’t ring with a combine invite. It’s a real shame because he shined during this event with a game tailor-made for today’s NBA. Brown has the rep of a shooter; he shot 38.6-percent from deep on over 7 three-point attempts per game and just under 75-percent from the free-throw line. He can hit spot-up threes or on the move. Hitting this off a dribble handoff from way beyond the three-point line is a good example.

Tevin Brown is not just a shooter, however; far from it. He has a solid feel (3.3-1.8 career assist-to-turnover ratio) and can create a shot for himself. That’s super important, especially in situations where he either gets a big switched onto him or a team wants to use him to attack a weaker defender. Murray State developed his ability to create and gave him plenty of reps as a primary or secondary creator. He’ll likely play more of the latter but the more creation on the floor, the better, and Brown provides it.

Tevin Brown is no slouch defensively either. He steps up when bigger players attack him, but he’s best sticking with guards on the perimeter. This play is a good example. Brown gets skinny when the screen comes and cuts JD Notae’s driving lane off, forcing him to kick it out.

Brown is not as big as this guy, but he reminds me a lot of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He’s a perfect role player who can provide a great blend of shooting, playmaking on the move, and defense. He and Ja Morant shared the floor together for one year at Murray State; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Memphis’ great and smart front office looks to a familiar face to add to their depth.

Jalen Wilson, Kansas*

There’s one guy Jalen Wilson reminded me of watching him play four times from Tuesday to Friday: Kyle Kuzma. Wilson does not have the wingspan Kuzma does, but they share nearly the same measurables. Wilson checked in at 6-7.25 with shoes and 225-pounds; Kuzma is 6-9 221-pounds. Kuzma was in Wilson’s shoes back in 2017, when a strong showing matched with stellar shooting at the NBA combine prompted the Lakers to select him with the Nets pick acquired in their D’Angelo Russell trade. Wilson did not have a strong performance during the NBA combine but did during the G League Elite camp. 

Kyle Kuzma was not a very good shooter while at Utah. He only shot 30.2-percent from three on 1.8 three-point attempts per game and 63.3-percent from the free-throw line for his Utah career. That sounds… a lot like Jalen Wilson, who shot 29.8-percent from three on 3.5 attempts per game and 67.5-percent from the free-throw line. But yet, like Kuzma, that didn’t stop Wilson from letting it fly, and he looked comfortable doing so.

That’s a tough shot but Wilson made it look easy. If Wilson can improve as a shooter the way Kuzma has to the ‘good enough’ 34-percent on 5.5 attempts per game mark in the NBA, Wilson will be a legitimate NBA contributor. Wilson is a solid scorer and playmaker on the move but needs that shooting to keep defenses honest. If defenses have to honor his shot, he can make them pay.

Wilson is a slick passer too when he gets in the paint. He registered 20 more assists than turnovers in two years as a Jayhawk. He’s not going to manipulate defenses but when he sees help coming he knows how and when to dump it off to a teammate.

Lastly, Jalen Wilson is a tenacious rebounder. Any time the ball came off the rim he was right there fighting for it. Of course, you know who else is a good rebounder for his position? Kyle Kuzma, who just averaged a career-high 8.5 rebounds per game for the Wizards and averages 6.2 per game for his career. Jalen Wilson averaged 7.9 and 7.4 rebounds per game in the two seasons he registered legitimate playing time in Lawrence. Wilson needs to make strides defensively, but Kuzma did also coming out of Utah. Wilson helped himself this week and should get looks in the second round.

Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech*

No one, at least from this event, improved their stock more than Kenny Lofton Jr. For more on how Lofton fared this week, click here to read more on him and others who shined during the NBA Combine.

Over a week ago, the number one ranked Auburn Tigers strolled into Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks. Electricity radiated throughout Bud Walton Arena. Voices drained after two-plus hours of shouting. The hardwood looked like a running of the bulls after thousands raced to it as if it were a dancefloor to celebrate. I’ve been to many basketball games over my lifetime, but there was not an atmosphere more exciting to witness than that one. It was incredibly cool to witness.

However, there was a basketball game to watch. The atmosphere is great and all, but it is another thing when the actual game lives up the hype. No number one ranked team had ever made the trek to Bud Walton Arena, so it’s easy to see how Auburn-Arkansas garnered the pub it got. But the game delivered with a lot to dissect. 

The headliner of that night came in the form of Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. The Fayetteville, Georgia native is in contention with the likes of Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Duke’s Paolo Banchero, and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. Smith put his tantalizing abilities to the test on the big stage. He ended the night with 20 points on 6-16 shooting from the field (including 3-8 from 3 and 5-5 from the free-throw line) and nine rebounds. Smith’s sublime shooting was as advertised.

Jabari Smith’s shooting is the hallmark of his game and what most appeals to NBA teams. Five of Smith’s 11.7 shots per game come beyond the arc, where he’s shooting just under 40-percent (39.7-percent). Advanced numbers paint Smith’s shooting in a great light as well. As of January 25th, he was generating 1.1 points per possession on all of his jump shots, which ranks in the 82nd-percentile of all college players. This is a good time to remind you all that Smith is a 6-10 220-pound freshman shooting amongst the best in the entire country. That’s nuts! But that isn’t all. As of January 25th, he was also generating points from catch-and-shoot situations at a 1.2 point per possession clip, and according to Brian Hamilton of ‘The Athletic,’ Smith generated 1.347 points per possession out of spot-up opportunities and 1.083 out of post-ups (those numbers courtesy of Synergy Sports). Suffice to say: yes, Jabari Smith is an outstanding shooter. Smith’s shooting nearly gave Auburn a chance to steal the game at the end. I remember saying to myself that Arkansas defenders needed to pick him up to prevent him from stepping into a pull-up three to cut Arkansas’ lead in half with 30 seconds to go in overtime. He ended up drilling that shot anyway and then hitting a step-back just as preposterous seconds after.

Yeah, those are NBA-level shots. Jabari Smith’s shotmaking is going to make him arguably the most malleable player in this draft. He doesn’t need the ball to make an impact offensively; his shooting and his gravity are already more than enough. He can defend multiple (all?) positions, which he did against Arkansas; there was one possession against Arkansas’ Stanley Umude where Umude tried to drive to his left but Smith stayed in front of Umude and ended up forcing a turnover. Smith’s 2.7-percent steal-percentage and 4.2-percent block percentage. Steals and blocks are not the end-all-be-all when it comes to measuring a good defender, but a player having percentages above 2.5-percent is above average and typically tends to indicate that player knows what they’re doing on that end of the floor. NBA teams are dying for 6-10 wings who can defend across the floor and hit shots all over the court the way Jabari Smith can. The baseline of a very good, long-time starting wing is already there.

That isn’t to say Jabari Smith doesn’t have areas to improve upon. Smith can create for himself offensively but isn’t asked to do so often. Part of it is because Auburn has a plethora of guards who run the show, but they just didn’t ask Smith to create outside of post-ups or face-ups on the elbows. Granted, Smith is good at scoring from there simply by rising over the top of his defender, but he’s going to need more of a handle to get access to easier looks. These shots are great when they go in, and Smith is very good at hitting these, but they aren’t going to go in every night.

Bruce Pearl and his staff do a great job at getting Smith the ball in these spots with either a mismatch to his disposal or going downhill with a head of steam. If Smith gets paired with a dynamic guard, there’s no reason a team couldn’t just spam these types of shots and play to Smith’s strengths much more often than not. But I didn’t see Smith stress the Arkansas defense as a primary ballhandler or a driver attacking the rim. Whenever he tried, he did not get all that far (Stanley Umude defended Smith the most among the Razorbacks and did as good a job as anybody could ask). The numbers back that up too. From the time of ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz’s article about Smith that was published nearly a month ago, Smith shot 38-percent on two-point attempts that are not dunks and layups (courtesy of Torvik). That’s not very good. Smith also isn’t the most stellar of rebounders and has more turnovers (45) than assists on the season (43). Now, I believe this will improve with time in these aspects of the game as Smith gets stronger and attuned to NBA coaching and player development, but it will bear monitoring as the college season progresses and Smith’s NBA career begins.

Luckily for Jabari Smith, most of these skills are ones that can improve over time. The playmaking could be the most prescient regarding whether Smith hits his ceiling, but even if he never becomes a great playmaker, there is still a lot to work with here. Because of this, I don’t see a scenario where Smith flames out. He’s already too good a shooter and defender to not find a niche in today’s NBA. Smith is going to be a very good starting forward for years to come at the very least. I can see multiple All-Star games in his future as well. Safe to say we’re going to be hearing from Jabari Smith Jr. for a very long time.

Ahh, the NBA is back! It’s so nice to have it back, isn’t it? Usually, I like to highlight players before the season starts as guys who could really shape the direction of the NBA season. This season, I want to get a little spicy with it. Everyone else is dropping hot takes into the atmosphere, why can’t I? You want hot takes, well I got them! Six of them, to be exact. Welcome back, NBA!

1) Zach LaVine leads the NBA in Scoring

Last season, there were only four players in the entire NBA who absorbed a usage rate of at least 30%, held an effective field goal percentage of at least 59%, and a true shooting percentage of at least 60%. Those players? Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo… and Zach LaVine. Not bad company to be in, I hear!

The parallels between Zach LaVine entering this season and Devin Booker entering last season are quite similar. Both players were forced into being primary ballhandlers, score-first gunners with a solid blend of playmaking to go with it because the rest of their backcourt mates were not up to par before finally getting them help to ease their burden. The Suns got Booker Chris Paul; the Bulls got LaVine Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso in the offseason and one of the better passing big men in the league in Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline. 

The playmaking surrounding LaVine now is robust. During LaVine’s Bulls career, only three times has a player averaged above five assists per game during a season: Kris Dunn (2017-18 and 2018-19) and Tomas Satoransky (2019-20). For context, Lonzo Ball’s career-low in assists per game is 5.4. DeMar DeRozan has averaged at least 5.2 assists per game every season for the last two seasons. 

That collective playmaking basketball IQ and playmaking is going to free Zach LaVine up to gobble up some of the easiest buckets in his career. LaVine already is a great off-ball scorer: LaVine ranked in the 97th percentile scoring off of cuts last season, generating 1.69 points per possession where he cut off-ball according to NBA.com. In transition, LaVine averaged 1.24 points per possession and now has one of the best transition passers in the NBA to work with. We know Zach LaVine is one of the best scorers in the NBA with the rock in his hands, but he’s also very good at using his otherworldly athleticism to his advantage when he doesn’t have the ball and now has better distributors to work with. The results have looked promising in the preseason so far. Combine that with what looks like a suspect defense (especially with Patrick Williams currently injured) and a contract year, don’t be surprised when Zach LaVine has another breakout season. LaVine leading the NBA in scoring is absolutely in the cards.

2) OG Anunoby leads the Toronto Raptors in scoring and becomes an All-Star

Let’s start with this: Kyle Lowry is now in South Florida with the Miami Heat, and Pascal Siakam is out until possibly December rehabbing from shoulder surgery. All of a sudden, 47% of Toronto’s usage from last season is going to disappear by the time the regular season comes around. Sure, you figure Goran Dragic (acquired from the Miami Heat in the Lowry sign-and-trade) will eat into some of that void, but a candidate to take a big leap would be OG Anunoby. 

It looks like that leap is coming for OG Anunoby. In the preseason, Anunoby has soaked up 24% of Toronto’s possessions. He’s turned in 19.25 points per game on 65% effective field goal percentage and 69.1% true shooting. Yes, the sample size is super small and convoluted (we are talking about preseason basketball after all), but Anunoby has steadily improved in both usage and scoring output over the course of his career. 

One area where Anunoby did dip last season is his effectiveness in scoring off the dribble. In the 2019-20 season, Anunoby put up 39 shots off the dribble, converting those with an effective field goal percentage of 52.6% (though he only shot 4-15 on pull-up twos and 11-24 on pull-up threes). Anunoby bumped that total up to 68 last season, but only converted 19 of them and saw an effective field goal percentage of 32.4%. Again, it’s only the preseason, but it looks like Anunoby has leveled up in this regard. Against both the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets, Anunoby has flashed much more polish and confidence in his scoring off the bounce, hitting stepbacks, pull-ups, you name it. Even Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has noticed this growth in Anunoby’s game. It’s possible that preseason is tricking us, but I’m 1000% willing to overreact to this and project very big things for OG Anunoby this season. The path is there; why not?

3) Austin Reaves starts at least 25% of the 82 games for the Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers are stacked with a lot of combo guards who can toggle between either guard spot. The downside is that you can’t play all of them. The plus side, however, is that you have depth in the event of an injury or few. With Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn on the mend, for now, enter 23-year-old Austin Reaves.

Austin Reaves, dubbed with the nickname of Hillbilly Kobe due to his Arkansas roots growing up on a farm (I’ve given him the nickname of Jordan Farmer but we’ll stick with Hillbilly Kobe for now), has quickly become a fan-favorite and for good reason. No, he’s not Alex Caruso 2.0 but he looks like he belongs in the Lakers’ rotation from the jump because of his blend of two-way play. The Lakers may have a lot of combo guards, but really only Kent Bazemore and Kendrick Nunn (defending point guards) are someone you trust to get a stop defensively. Reaves helps there too. 

Austin Reaves’ size and athleticism won’t sneak up on anybody, but that doesn’t stop him from competing and knowing where to be. This play provides the ultimate example of his defensive chops. Reaves cuts off the cutter, scrambles back onto a new defender then caps the possession off with contesting a shot at the end of the shot clock. Individually, though Reaves will be at a size disadvantage plenty of times, he can put the clamps on too with quick feet and a willingness to bang. Here, he stays in front of his man on the drive then swipes the ball away from the opposition as he goes up for a shot. You could make the argument that Reaves is one of the best two or three defenders in the Lakers’ backcourt already.

Defense is great, but matching it with a jumper to fear and occupy the defense should jump-start his case for playing time. Before the Lakers’ preseason game on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, Reaves was shooting 8.2 threes per 36 minutes and hitting them at a 41.2% clip. To put that in context, Zach LaVine shot 8.4 threes per 36 minutes & shot 41.9% on them. What’s great about Reaves’ shooting is he can hit threes in any context. He’s a superb catch-and-shoot shooter with an extremely quick release that allows him to shoot and convert in tighter windows. Whether he’s relocating to open spots on the floor, running off screens, or going into a pick and roll or dribble handoff, Reaves can also deliver when on the move too.

Austin Reaves toggled between these roles in college. When he was at Wichita State, Reaves was primarily a catch-and-shoot ancillary piece. After he transferred to Oklahoma, Reaves was forced into a primary ballhandler role, honing in his scoring abilities off the bounce and playmaking that we’ve seen flashes of in the NBA too. Austin Reaves can really play and really help this Lakers team from the jump. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him take off even in his rookie season.

4) Ja Morant makes an All-Star AND All-NBA appearance

Ja Morant leveled up in the playoffs a year ago. A 47-point, 7 assist bonanza would seem to suggest such a thing.

Sure, the Grizzlies got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but Ja was spectacular all the way throughout that series, averaging 30.2 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 48.7% from the field and 77.5% from the free-throw line (on eight attempts per game). Absolute insanity.

That will be a tough act to follow for Ja Morant, especially with his offensive buffer Travis Kel– damnit I messed it up again– Jonas Valanciunas off to New Orleans. More will be thrust upon Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shoulder (health permitting) but also Morant. I just think Morant builds off his postseason brilliance and really etches himself amongst the game’s greats this season.

5) Karl-Anthony Towns leads the Minnesota Timberwolves to an average defense and they qualify for the play-in tournament

Minnesota and turmoil have grown to be quite the potent relationship, and this season already got off to a rollicking start in that department after Head of Basketball operations Gersson Rosas was caught pulling a George Costanza and got fired for that along with other general incompetence. A lot is riding on Towns and Minnesota getting back to some kind of relevance. Health and improvement defensively can get them there.

Let’s start with health because that department has not been kind to the Timberwolves in recent seasons. After the Wolves traded for D’Angelo Russell in February of 2020, he and Karl-Anthony Towns played just 25 minutes together. Then the world caught on fire. Eventually, the Wolves would be fortunate enough to draft what looks like a future All-Star in Anthony Edwards, only for Russell and Towns to combine to miss 52 games while Edwards played in all 72 games in last year’s truncated season. The triumvirate of Towns, Edwards, and Russell only graced the court for 327 minutes last season, boasting a +4.9 Net Rating in the process.

Offense is easy to come by with that group given the nature of their games steering towards that end of the floor. Each of the three coexists well with each other and can tilt their games towards whatever the defense gives them. The problem is on the other end. When all three were on the floor together last season, their defensive rating was at 116 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve been second-worst in the NBA. The Timberwolves’ defensive rating altogether was the third-worst in the NBA a year ago.

Projecting them to even be average is a big leap. Maybe that doesn’t happen, but they should be better. The Timberwolves don’t have many two-way players outside of Jaden McDaniels, but a lot of specialists who skew towards defense in Patrick Beverley, Josh Okogie, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Malik Beasley and Taurean Prince can provide *something* there, and undrafted rookies McKinley Wright IV (Colorado) and Isaiah Miller (UNC-Greensboro) have strong defensive reputations. There are some quality defensive pieces here, but it won’t work if Towns doesn’t improve. He should be a much better defensive anchor than he is and was that in Kentucky. Towns playing higher in pick and roll coverage this preseason is interesting and could be a strategic bump to his defense kind of reminiscent of the way the Nuggets deploy Nikola Jokic on defense. It’s something to keep an eye on. I think Towns and Minnesota can make it happen, but that also is relying more on faith than performance.

6) NBA Patty Mills becomes FIBA Patty Mills for the Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving… *sigh.* I believe Kyrie means well in his stance to not get vaccinated that has prompted the Nets to elect not to play him in any capacity due to the state of New York’s rules prohibiting access to local unvaccinated citizens in indoor gatherings, but that also means he won’t be able to play basketball for the betting favorite to win the title. Luckily, the Nets were able to pluck Patty Mills in free agency, who could not be a better fit next to Kevin Durant and James Harden.

The Nets can deploy Mills as a Steph Curry proxy. Mills runs around the court like an Olympic sprinter with the stamina of a marathon runner to cause headaches for defenses. He’s a willing screener and passer that’s going to help Durant and Harden get any mismatch they want because of fear of Mills’ deep ball. It could work the other way too if Mills captures his FIBA essence and carries that lethal offensive creation into the NBA. With how much space he should have and attention heaped upon Kevin Durant and James Harden, Mills should help keep that Brooklyn train humming just fine in the regular season. The playoffs could see Kyrie’s (he always seems to step it up in the playoffs) absence really matter with individual matchups, but Mills still can pick up *some* of that mantle. Probably enough of it for the Nets to get where they want to go at the end.

The Los Angeles Lakers always like to kick the offseason off with a bang, for better or worse. It wasn’t too long ago when midnight stuck on July 1st only for the Lakers to reach quick agreements with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Last winter, the first domino to drop was the Lakers making the move to acquire Dennis Schröder from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green and the 28th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft (which eventually became Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves). General Manager doubled down once the marriage with Schröder began to go downhill, trading for former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a package that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick of the 2021 NBA Draft (which eventually became Isaiah Jackson who is heading to the Indiana Pacers). It isn’t a perfect marriage between Westbrook and the two superstars the Lakers currently employ in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the move was one worth making to get the best out of the 28-year-old Davis, which is what the goal of this offseason seems to have been.

Let’s start with Russell Westbrook. The fit with him next to James is where his deficiencies as a shooter and off-ball cutter will come to a head at some point this season and likely fester throughout the entirety of it. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three-point shooters in NBA history when accounting for volume. He’s a career 30.5% three-point shooter and hasn’t shot less than three a game since the 2010-11 season. To make matters worse, Westbrook is nothing as a mover, screener, or cutter either. Once Westbrook gives up the ball he typically chills out and watches the play go on. When you aren’t a good shooter, not moving makes it so much easier for the defense to ‘guard’ him and neutralize possessions when his team has the ball. Heck, if anyone knows about those holes in Westbrook’s one would be the Lakers who actively went out of their way not to guard him when they faced the Rockets in the bubble in 2020.

But if there’s anything Westbrook provides, he allows the Lakers to preserve their identity as a transition behemoth and unleash Anthony Davis as a roller when LeBron is not on the floor. The Lakers hoped to get something resembling that from Schröder. We saw it in glimpses, but he is nowhere near the playmaker Westbrook is. Davis is athletic a big man the NBA has to offer and often loves to leak out in transition when he forces a miss on the perimeter. When the opposing team shoots free throws, Davis almost always camps out on the other end of the floor in hopes to get a quick mismatch. Rajon Rondo sought those transition oop opportunities any time he could when he was a Laker, while Schröder typically tried to do it himself and missed some of these chances. Not only can Westbrook do a little bit of both, but he will also bring zip and playmaking in the halfcourt that neither of those two could. According to the B-Ball Index via Alex Regla of Silver Screen and Roll, Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile at ‘getting to the rim,’ ‘box creation,’ and ‘high-value assists.’ Essentially, Westbrook is still really damn good at getting to the rim and feeding bigs with dump-offs or kicking out to shooters. If Westbrook can Daniel Gafford is getting these types of looks, then imagine what he can do with Anthony Davis.

Getting an upgrade from Dennis Schröder to Russell Westbrook as a second playmaker is one way to maximize Davis, but another is to get more shooting around him. I love the holdovers from the 2020 Championship team and appreciate all their contributions over the years, but they often left hands holding their breath with the hope their open threes would go in. They made up for it and more with great effort and tenacity on defense (more on that in a bit), but the shooting was inconsistent, to put it nicely. The Dwight Howard signing aside, amongst the Lakers free agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn, only one of those new Lakers additions have made so far shot worse than 38% a year ago and only two hit threes at worse than a 40% clip. All the additions are far better shooters on catch-and-shoot and wide-open threes than the discarded Lakers of a year ago. Davis should feast with more room to operate. Perhaps he could even be used differently; maybe he gets more chances to operate out of dribble handoffs that can lead to him either keeping the rock himself & driving into open space or dishing to teammates. Davis is not a great passer out of the post but certainly a good one. On top of it all, he’s a total mismatch with the list of players actually capable of guarding him 1v1 is about as many as the number of fingers on a human body. Better playmaking and more space to facilitate that playmaking should make life all the easier for Davis to dominate the paint.

The last two seasons of Lakers basketball may have been frustrating when it comes to perimeter shooting, but they hung their hat on defense. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best defenders in the NBA, missed a boatload of time to injuries last season, the Lakers still finished with the best defense in the NBA. It was their identity. Alex Caruso (now depressingly a member of the Chicago Bulls) is legitimately one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and the Lakers will miss his help and feel on that end of the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled against bruising wings but was very good at chasing around guards off screens. Kyle Kuzma transformed his reputation from scoring chucker to a guy that could hang with some of the best scoring wings the NBA has to offer. No one is going to mistake the Lakers’ new additions with the quality of defender those guys, but the Lakers should still be fine on that end of the floor as long as Davis and James are on the floor and Davis plays more at the center spot. Both Jovan Buha of The Athletic and Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times has reported that Davis will play more at center this season. Signing Dwight Howard is a fine depth move, but he was mitigated to the bench during the Lakers’ title run in 2020 save for banging with Nikola Jokic. He and the incumbent Marc Gasol are the only centers on the Lakers’ roster so far. Even if Davis didn’t want to play center, he has to play more of it this season, and the Lakers typically dominate and modernize when he does. I still don’t suspect he will play center exclusively with Gasol still on the roster, but it should be more than what we’ve seen from him so far. We’ve seen centers be able to anchor a mediocre cast of defenders surrounding them to remain amongst the top of the NBA, and Davis is right up there with the best of them. The Lakers’ defense kind of hinges on Davis’ dominance, but he’s shown he’s up to the task.

The Lakers trade for Westbrook was a gamble, but after the dust has settled on the moves that surrounded that big trade, it looks like the risk was worth it. With the overhaul of playmaking and shooting, life should come much easier for Anthony Davis offensively. It shouldn’t be overlooked any time a team attempts to go all-in for their star(s) and brings in someone that can help them on the basketball floor, and that’s what the Lakers have done. For the first time since Davis arrived in Los Angeles though, the Lakers have questions defensively. Davis can answer a lot of them himself, however. This season we could be the best version of Anthony Davis we have seen yet, and he’s already been damn good. We’ll see if that holds up to be true.

No one should be surprised that it was possible for teams led by Devin Booker and Trae Young could make the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals one day, respectively. I don’t think many expected that to happen this previous season, however. But damn it, it did. After years of losing and struggling, brilliant draft maneuvering, sturdy head coaching hires, and slick moves to bring in established veterans to help lead the way, Suns GM James Jones and Hawks GM Travis Schlenk deserve tons of credit for building championship-competitive rosters that fit and maximize the strengths of their superstars. Though it is super hard for even grizzled star-studded teams to advance as far as these two teams did, let alone a team led by young studs, perhaps these two inspired others across the league to follow a similar path. Who could be the next Suns or Hawks?

A team that comes to mind is the New Orleans Pelicans. They already have two players that have been named to All-Star games in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, tantalizing other young pieces surrounding them in Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart (should they be retained in restricted free agency), the rambunctious Nickeil Alexander-Walker (who played a brief stint with the Canadian National Team in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics), the speedy rookie Kira Lewis Jr., and the bouncy Jaxson Hayes. They have a treasure trove of picks too after they dealt Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to Finals teams in successive seasons (ten first-round pics in the next seven drafts, to be exact). The Pelicans have the start of something special, but they need to clean up some aspects of their team first to get where they want to go eventually. 

Let’s start on the basketball side of things, they have to address their shooting woes. The Pelicans’ three-point shooting during the 2020-21 season was reminiscent of a stormtrooper. After they finished 26th in the entire league in three-point percentage. Advanced numbers don’t do the Pelicans many favors. The site bball-index.com tracks how great spacing a player is surrounded by. According to their data, neither Brandon Ingram nor Zion Williamson cracked above the 41st percentile for spacing around them. Just watch this play and see how many defenders are packed in the paint when New Orleans is trying to get their offense going. Luckily, Brandon Ingram is a supreme shot-maker and bailed the Pelicans out of this wretched possession, but these types of possessions were far too common and a nightly routine when Zion and Ingram were mostly surrounded by two complete non-shooting entities in Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Despite this, Zion Williamson somehow managed to average 27 points a night while shooting 61% from the field and feasting at the rim, while Brandon Ingram put up a robust 46.6/38.1/87.8 shooting split on the season. The Pelicans’ priority has to be finding more shooting to make life easier on these two stars. It is wholly on the Pelicans’ Front Office (more on them in a bit) to get the shooting required for Zion and Ingram. It was neglected the last offseason and cannot be again.

Defense ailed the Pelicans for much of the 2020-21 season too. New, now former, head coach Stan Van Gundy noted the previous trends of top defenses canceling the paint in exchange for opposing teams to unleash from three at will, and decided to implement that strategy. Let’s just say it took some time for his new young players to get used to. Last season, the Pelicans allowed the fourth most amount of possessions by their opponents to conclude with a three-point shot, according to NBA.com. Those Pelicans opponents shot 38% on those threes, tied for the fifth-best (or worst, whichever way you want to look at it) mark in the league. Oftentimes, it felt like the Pelicans were either overdoing it with their strategy or were too young to properly execute it the way more experienced teams did by leaving certain shooters open and running off the more dangerous ones. Plenty of New Orleans defensive possessions ended like this: 

There were more defensive issues aside from their overall structure. Their stars just have to be better, plain and simple. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are capable of being very good defensive players, at least I think so. Zion looked every bit the part of a modern-day small-ball center at Duke, using his freakish athleticism to protect the rim while also staying in front of his man. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the NBA, but it has been far too fleeting. More times than not, unfortunately, possessions with Zion at center have tended to look like this. Oftentimes, he looks as if his feet are in quicksand, or he doesn’t put himself in the right positions to make the correct plays. Williamson only played 86 minutes all season long playing without another big man, according to NBA.com. He just wasn’t ready yet for that type of role. To be fair to Zion too, he played in a zone defense a lot while at Duke, hasn’t had a ton of top-notch coaching before enrolling at Duke, and big men tend to struggle defensively their first couple of seasons (look at none other than Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns). Those growing pains will help Zion in the long run. He still is more than capable of being a devastating defensive force, in my opinion, but he needs to improve defensively to get there.

Brandon Ingram has to be better defensively too. We know he can be a positive defender from his days in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t brought that part of his game to New Orleans quite yet. Sure, you can still beat Ingram with bulk, but too many times Ingram lacked tenacity, focus, or feistiness on defense.

Ingram gets caught ball-watching and loses sight of his man in the corner (Andrew Wiggins). Two of his teammates are already up with Steph Curry, so he has to momentarily cover Draymond Green and Wiggins. However, Ingram is in no man’s land and doesn’t really guard either, letting Wiggins sneak along the baseline for a dunk. Ingram is way better than that. Until he and Zion catch up on that end of the floor, the Pelicans’ chances of competing will hover around where it is now. With the talent of those two players themselves, let alone the rest of the roster, the Pelicans should not be finishing with the eighth-worst defense in the NBA. Once the Pelicans’ defense catches up, then things could get serious in the near future.

The most important job the Pelicans need to do, however, is gain organizational stability. GM David Griffin has done a great job of hoarding draft picks for the future, but his moves and actions other than that have been less than stellar. Drafting a center with the eighth overall pick (Jaxson Hayes) in the 2019 NBA Draft didn’t feel like the best allocation of its value and only looks worse after De’Andre Hunter (who they could’ve had with the fourth pick of the draft as part of the Anthony Davis trade and was eventually flipped to Atlanta for the eighth and seventeenth picks), Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, Cam Johnson, and Tyler Herro, all of whom the Pelicans could have drafted and all but Hunter being drafted after the Hawks took Hayes, have had moments of brilliance in the postseason and fit the roster better than Hayes does. Griffin acquired George Hill in the Jrue Holiday trade, yet flipped the sharpshooting (career 38.1% three-point shooter) guard to Oklahoma City for plodding big man Steven Adams, then gave Adams a two-year, $35 million extension! This was disastrous on numerous levels. Adams does not look like the same athlete he was years ago defensively and makes life much more difficult for the Pelicans’ offense.

On top of all that, Adams eats up a ton of the Pelicans’ salary cap. He and Bledsoe combined to make over $35 million next season heading into this offseason. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are scheduled to be restricted free agents. Zion Williamson will be eligible for a contract extension after next season and Ingram is already on a max deal. Adams and Bledsoe both have contracts that bleed until the 2022-2023 season, though Bledsoe’s money that season is not guaranteed. Though Adams nor Bledsoe are in New Orleans’ long-term plans, they could potentially cost the Pelicans Ball, who likely will get a lucrative deal in restricted free agency, or some of the picks they acquired via the Lakers or the Bucks to try to get more cap space to improve the team around Zion and Ingram. There isn’t really anyone but Griffin to blame for not maneuvering that as cleanly as he did.

David Griffin also hasn’t been the best at maintaining relationships while in New Orleans, both from the player and coaching side of things. Months ago, JJ Redick blasted Griffin on his ‘The Old Man and the Three’ podcast for allegedly lying to Redick about sending Redick to somewhere he’d want to go that would be in close proximity to his family in New York after the trade deadline. Instead, he got shipped to Dallas. Granted, JJ Redick doesn’t have the luxury or leverage a star does, but this stuff matters a lot to players. It didn’t stop there with Griffin either. After firing Stan Van Gundy after hiring him less than a year ago, Van Gundy appeared on the ‘STUpodity’ podcast hosted by Stugotz of the ‘Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz.’ Among many notable grievances Van Gundy aired, the most notable was the fact that he flat-out said that he and the front office weren’t on the same page. That is inexcusable. Sure, some blame can be aimed at both sides, but I’d pin most of that onto Griffin. Griffin is a long-time, experienced general manager. He helped lead a team to a championship for Christ’s sake. He knows how to do this, but he has to be better more so than anyone in that organization to get the Pelicans where they want to go. He has to hire the right coach now for the second time in less than 365 days. He has to be more upfront with his players. He has to value shooting. If he doesn’t this video of Zion Williamson swooning over the lore of Madison Square Garden will loom over the Pelicans like a rain cloud. The Pelicans have pressure. It’s up to Griffin to shoo it away.

David Griffin has done a fine job remedying both fronts so far. The Pelicans recently hired former Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns assistant coach and 12 year NBA veteran Willie Green as his new head coach. With how he just helped the Suns recognize their renaissance run this year with a fairly young and inexperienced team, you’d think he knows what it takes to steer this franchise in the right direction. Griffin also executed one of the first trades of the offseason, dealing Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, the 10th and 40th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and a 2022 first-round pick from the Lakers (while placing a top ten protection over it) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and their 17th and 51st selections in the 2021 Draft. While the fit between Valanciunas and Zion seems clunky on both ends of the floor, he still represents a massive upgrade over Adams. Though trading that 2022 first and moving down from 10 to 17 is hardly ideal, it allows the Pelicans to possibly keep both Hart and Ball, or sign another point guard in Lonzo’s place should he walk (Kyle Lowry has long been rumored to be the Pelicans’ target, but Lowry may foil their plans by taking his talents to South Beach). Speaking of the 17th selection, drafting Virginia’s Trey Murphy III should immediately boost New Orleans’ shooting and spacing, as he shot 40.1% from deep during his three-year college career and 81.9% from the free-throw line. The Pelicans need to do more, but this offseason has gone off to a good start to finally get the Pelicans back into the playoffs.

With all that said, there is plenty to be excited about in New Orleans. They have two great young players and ample resources to improve the roster around them. There’s no reason to think the Pelicans can’t find the right supporting cast the same way the Suns and Hawks did. Those two teams proved is that one big and correct offseason can drastically change the outcome of a franchise. Let’s see if the Pelicans can follow in their footsteps and be the next team to surprise with a deep playoff run.