Individual success in basketball is predicated on two things: talent and fit.
Drafting talent is great, but equally important is how talent fits into a scheme. Picture Peyton Manning running a triple option offense or Raymond Felton on a strict salad diet. It just won’t work! Thus, in order to forecast how this rookie class will perform we need to analyze both position specific KPIs and team-fit, meaning how players will fit into a system. Team-fit includes factors such as offensive and defensive philosophies, playing time, complementary players, team needs, etc. To help with the team-fit analysis I have highlighted the needs of each prospect’s new team in each KPI table. Team-fit is then rated on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the lowest “please take me back to college!” level and 10 representing a rare level of basketball nirvana like Steve Nash with Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns.
This is the first installment, which will focus on the grades and fits of the top three point guards and top three shooting guards drafted in 2014. A second article will follow, giving analysis of forwards and big men.
1. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Last year the Utah Jazz averaged 95 points per game. They are hoping to get that number up in to the 110s this season. Jazz brass hopes one of the keys to this transformation is Dante Exum. Coach Quin Synder’s group is looking to run an up-tempo, two point guard offense to boost their scoring. Exum and Trey Burke will be the engines of the fast-paced new look Jazz. While Utah looks to regain the success of yesteryear, the slow methodical Sloan days are long gone. With two primary ball handlers on the court at all times, you will still see the pick and rolls that Stockton and Malone made famous in Salt Lake but this action will come primarily on ball reversals and quick movement. The new Jazz offense is predicated on “Pace and Space”, an ideology that many playoffs teams (most noticeably San Antonio and Miami) have gone to in recent years that emphasizes a quicker tempo, smaller lineup, more three point shots, and increased ball movement.
What does this mean for Exum? Basketball paradise! Exum’s biggest strengths are his ability to handle and use his quickness and vision to create for himself and others. This new Jazz philosophy should definitely put those strengths on display. And further aiding Exum is his back court mate, Trey Burke. Burke should help alleviate some of the burden and responsibilities Exum has to carry engineering the offense. With Burke as his right hand man and serviceable bigs in Kanter, Favors, (and a possibly blossoming Gobert?), the biggest question is do the Jazz have the shooting and the wing play to make Pace and Space thrive? The play of dunk champion Jeremy Evans, explosive scorer Alec Burks, discount double check Steve Novak, and newcomer Rodney Hood will go a long way towards determining the effectiveness of this system and this team.
This isn’t going to happen overnight and this young nucleus isn’t ready yet, but the young Jazz have potential and the right scheme. Exum is a great fit and the style caters to his game. As Exum develops his three ball and grows with this roster, the future could be bright in Utah. Petitioning the league for a transfer to the Eastern Conference could also help.
Exum Grade: 78.7/100
Team-Fit Analysis: 9/10
2. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Smart is good, this fit is not. There are few things that we can say for sure about Smart and this Celtics team, but this is what we know: they are going to lose…a lot, and they are going to struggle to score. So that’s what we know. This is what we don’t know: Rajon Rondo’s immediate and long term future in Boston, Smart’s ability to play effectively off of the ball, and Smart’s ability to handle losing 50 plus games.
Last year the Celtics played at a terribly slow pace and had the third worst scoring offense in the NBA. Immediately, Marcus Smart is going to be asked to pick up some of that slack. This is a great opportunity for Smart to compliment the only other scorer on the roster, Jeff Green, and learn how to get consistent buckets in the NBA. While Smart has the array and shots needed to score at this level, this will not come without a learning curve. Smart will have to adjust to playing without the basketball in his hands for extended stretches as long as Rajon Rondo is still quarterbacking this offense. Smart was able to do this some at Oklahoma State, but he was at his best when he was able to be the primary ball handler getting shots for himself and his teammates.
Arguably the biggest adjustment for Smart will be his ability to handle the adversity that will come with learning a new role, playing with a new group of guys, and struggling to find Ws on a nightly basis. Smart’s on-court demeanor and actions during his time at Stillwater have led his maturity to be called into question, and fairly so. This first year in Boston might be the biggest test of Smart’s maturity yet. Although this situation in Boston is not ideal, the tumult that Smart went through in his final collegiate year should have prepared him for this moment. Smart will prove that he is a much more mature player – both skill wise and mentally – than his critics claim.
Unfortunately for Smart, his maturity won’t help give this roster a face lift and it isn’t likely to make Rondo want to be a lifetime Celtic anytime soon. Smart will show flashes of brilliance as a scorer and a tenacious defender, but he will struggle with the lack of talent around him and this will be another rough year for the Brad Steven’s group.
Smart Grade: 78.7/100
Team-Fit Analysis 4/10
3. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
Although he was the second member of the Orlando Magic draft class, Elfrid Payton is this team’s number one. Coach Jacque Vaughn must give the keys to this offense and this youth laden team to 20 year old Elfrid Payton. The youth movement is real in Orlando and it will be interesting to see the influence Vaughn will be able to have on Payton, not only as his coach, but also as a former 12 year NBA veteran. Will Vaughn be able to quickly transfer some of his experience to the new leader of this young roster? Only time will tell.
There is reason for optimism for Payton and the Magic. Coach Vaughn is one of several coaches that have come from Coach Gregg Popvich’s coaching tree. Vaughn spent five years working in Pop’s system as either a player or coach. If Vaughn can effectively implement Pop’s free flowing motion offense, Payton will have the opportunity to thrive. Pop’s most recent success in San Antonio has been based primarily on space, ball movement, shooting, and misdirection. But another key that transcends x’s and o’s is the ability of an x-factor to control the pace, attack, and create off the dribble. For Popovich, that guy is Tony Parker. For Vaughn, that guy needs to be Elfrid Payton. Obviously it is absurd to expect Payton to be the electrifying playmaker, fiery leader, and champion that Parker has grown to become, but Payton does have skills that translate favorably for this system. While Payton doesn’t have the blinding speed and quickness of Parker, his size affords him the ability to see over defenses and create in the open court and in set offenses. One of the biggest opportunities for Payton will be building consistency and expanding the range of his jump shot. Parker has grown into a lethal mid range shooter and a respectable three point shooter over the course of his career. If Payton can make the same progression and the Magic can add pieces, he will help make this offense formidable.
Payton has been anointed as the creator for this offense, the problem then becomes the teammates he is creating for. We can expect to see Payton use pick and roll action with draft mate Aaron Gordon and possible man-on-the-move Tobias Harris all with the hopes of getting into the lane. However, when opposing defenses are clogging the lane, there is a staggering lack of shooters for Payton to dish to. While Victor Oladipo and Payton should complement each other well as aggressive players on the defensive end, they won’t threaten to stretch opposing defenses with their shooting, especially when Payton is the primary handler. It is hard for any offense to be effective without shooters, so this is a great cause for concern. Without shooters spacing the floor, it will be much easier for defenses to clog the lane and put the clamps on Payton, stifling his ability to create. Life in the half court will be frustrating for Payton as long as this roster is kept intact.
Payton Grade: 78.0/100
Team-Fit Analysis: 6/10
1. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Buy those Andrew Wiggins Cavaliers jerseys while you still can because they are about to be as rare as a Kobe Bryant Hornets jersey. It’s no secret that Wiggins’ time in Cleveland is all but over and he will be joining the Minnesota Timberwolves on August 23rd as part of the Kevin Love swap. So we aren’t even going to waste our breath analyzing how Wiggins would fit in with Lebron James and Kyrie Irving, let’s see what the Twin Cities is getting.
Andrew Wiggins says that going to Minnesota is a great opportunity for him because he can be the guy, rather than play Tito to Lebron’s Michael. Okay, maybe he didn’t say it in those words, but here is his chance. Hopefully this is what Wiggins actually wants and he isn’t just saying what he thinks the media wants to hear. Just some 15 months ago, Wiggins had a very similar decision. He could either go to Florida State University, his parents’ alma mater where he would be the big man on campus and unquestioned alpha dog on that Noles basketball roster; or to Kansas University, to join a blossoming big man from Cameroon and a talented Bill Self led team that was a number two seed in the NCAA tournament the previous year. Did Wiggins end up making the right choice? Almost certainly. So is it over-judgmental to use this decision as a barometer of his competitive mindset? Maybe. But this is what happened 15 months ago when Wiggins had to choose between the college version of the Timberwolves and the college version of the Cavaliers.
The move to Minnesota won’t be without challenges. To begin with, competition in the Western Conference is absolutely brutal. Even if the Timberwolves were to make steps forward, it is hard to imagine them slipping into the back door of the playoffs. With such a high level of team competition on a nightly basis, Wiggins is also going to have to bear a large burden as the team’s most talented individual defender. Over the course of seven straight games in December, for example, Wiggins will have to defend the following: James Harden, Kawhi Leonard/Manu Ginobili, Klay Thompson, Wesley Matthews/Nicolas Batum, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Brad Beal. That’ll be fun!
Additionally, Wiggins has the challenge of being on a young team. The Timberwolves are especially young on the wing with the likes of Shabazz Muhammad and fellow rookies Zach LaVine and Glen Robinson III. If there is any mentorship of Wiggins, it will fall largely in the hands of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. While both of those guys have played well for years in the league (especially with a few sneaky good years from Martin), it is hard not to want more, for Wiggin’s sake. I think eventually Wiggins is going to become Vince Carter 2.0, and Vince would be the perfect mentor for Wiggins. A guy that can really prepare Wiggins for the expectations that he is going to face and someone who can tell Wiggins how he can succeed in the league. Even without Carter though, Wiggins is going to have every opportunity to learn and develop on the fly. Literally.
Even with the brutal competition and possible lack of mentorship, Wiggins is a quality fit in Minnesota. His biggest strengths are his explosiveness and athleticism. Now in Minnesota he will get the opportunity to get out and run in transition with Ricky Rubio and JJ Barea, although he won’t be able to benefit from the beautiful Kevin Love outlet passes that seemed to get Corey Brewer at least one dunk a game. Not only do Rubio and Barea help complement some of Wiggins’ strengths, they may also help cover up one of his biggest weaknesses: ball handling. Wiggins’ ball handling is surely to improve as he grows in the NBA, but right now the handling and creating from Rubio and Barea can help to free Wiggins up for high percentage looks.
Wiggins has the opportunity that he wants. He can be the face of the franchise from day one. He is going to have the chance to grow and learn every night on both ends of the floor. The tools are there for Wiggins to be successful. And while Minnesota won’t be a success for at least a few years, Wiggins’ impact will be felt immediately.
Wiggins Grade: 79.3/100
Team-Fit Analysis: 7/10
2. Nik Stauskas, Sacramento Kings
The Kings need shooting. Well Sacramento, introduce yourself to Nik Stauskas.
The Kings certainly found the right guy for their needs. What do you get the team that shot 33% from deep last season? Shooting. What do you need to balance the floor and give Demarcus Cousins some space to operate? Shooting. What do you need to cancel out the mid range nightmare that is Rudy Gay? Shooting. What does Nik Stauskas bring to the team? Shooting! With this ability to shoot, Stauskas also has good size and under rated athleticism, unlike the previous solution to the shooting problem -- Jimmer Fredette.
Without the recently departed Isaiah Thomas, the Kings stand to see a lot more ball movement. This is a great notion whenever you can add a shooter like Stauskas who is effective standing still or coming off screens. Then, to keep those Michigan legs warm, the Kings have the luxury of using Rudy Gay to defend the other team’s best perimeter player while Stauskas conserves some energy defensively.
The only possible pitfalls are Darren Collison and Jason Terry. Collison is not only adjusting to a new group of teammates after signing this offseason, but this is also his first time being the number one guy (by design) at the point. If Collison sputters early, this new offense can do the same and possible slow the growth of Stauskas. The next possible problem is Jason Terry, but more specifically the possibility of a Jason Terry salty attitude. Terry has made it known that he would rather be elsewhere contending for championships (me too, JET, me too). Hopefully if Terry does bring the attitude, it won’t negatively impact Stauskas or any possible lessons that Stauskas could be receiving. I actually expect Terry to be the professional and stand up guy that he has shown to be so many times before and he will be an asset to Stauskas rather than a detriment.
Stauskas Grade: 77.3/100
Team-Fit Analysis: 9/10
3. Zach Lavine, Minnesota Timberwolves
I am as excited for Zach LaVine to be playing in Minnesota as he was when he initially heard the Timberwolves drafted him. LaVine has potential to be a solid contributor in this league because of his athleticism and his ability to create. Those skills won’t be utilized in full in Minnesota. While LaVine will get to use his athleticism playing opposite of Wiggins and being the beneficiary of some Rubio passes, LaVine will rarely get the opportunity to create because Rubio and Barea control so much of the offense. It will be interesting to see if the Wolves let LaVine be the primary creator and ball handler for the second unit. Please, Flip! Let that happen!
The biggest problem that LaVine may face is the man that I just referenced – Coach Flip Saunders. One of LaVine’s weaknesses during his time at UCLA was his reliance on low percentage mid range jump shots. One of the things that has been criticized about Saunders’ offenses in the past is that the designed plays have a propensity to result in mid range attempts. In Saunders first go-round in Minnesota, the offense was heavily reliant on mid range jumpers from Kevin Garnett, Terrell Brandon, and others. Even those playoff runs in Minnesota were built largely on the shoulders of Kevin Garnett turnaround jumpers and pick ‘n’ pops. Then, in Detroit, the Saunders offense declined in three point attempts every season and remained in the bottom third of the league throughout his tenure. Even in Washington, with Agent 0 cocked and loaded (too soon?), Swaggy P, and Mike Miller (someone find a cool nickname for Mike Miller, please) the Wizards ranked 24th and 27th in three point attempts. That’s not a good track record nor a good recipe for success in today’s NBA.