Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It was a good week for the NBA D League

Santa Cruz gym is a big barn.
The 2015 D-League Showcase is in the books. The annual extravaganza for the only minor league directly affiliated with the NBA was a success by all accounts. The concept is simple. Bring all the D-League teams to one location (this year, Santa Cruz, CA.). Hoop for five days, (conveniently right after NBA squads are allowed to sign players to ten-day contracts). Give the league added national television exposure via NBA-TV, and celebrate as players are called up to the "big leagues". 

This year, the Showcase was even better and more competitive thanks to a tournament format that had teams competing for the Showcase Cup. Bonus money was on the line. The result was players playing with sustained defensive intensity, something minor league basketball is not known for. 

During the course of the last week, five players earned "call-ups" to the NBA: James Michael McAdoo, JaMychal Green, Larry Drew II, Dahntay Jones, and Quincy Miller. Does that mean the cupboard is bare now? Not at all. There are players who are eligible to be signed to ten day contracts, and there are players who are "on assignment" that will continue to make the D-League an excellent place to see quality hoops. 

Two guys, that were a part of the Showcase, stand out as the most efficient players in the D-League this season: Quincy Miller, and Clint Capela. Capela is a 20 year-old on assignment from the Houston Rockets. Miller was nabbed by the Sacramento Kings after a ridiculously efficient performance Friday night as a member of the Reno Big Horns. In a win over Westchester, Miller scored 35 points (12-15 FG, 5-6 3-pt. FG, 6-6 FT), added eight rebounds, and blocked NINE shots in 27 minutes!

Archie Goodwin, on assignment from the Phoenix Suns, was named Most Valuable Player of the Showcase Cup. Goodwin is just 20 years old. He continues to have the ability to get to the basket and score with ease. Goodwin averaged 23 points per game in Santa Cruz. 

Following the Showcase, here is how we rank the top-three players at each position... 

Jackson has the range to step out
Point Guards: The current crop of D-League point guards is solid, not spectacular. The NBA is full of great point guards. More than any other position, cracking an NBA lineup at PG is the toughest thing for a minor league prospect to do. It very rarely happens. If pressed to name the top three D-League PGs, we would go with Joe Jackson, Tim Frazier, and Nick Johnson (Vander Blue is right there too). Johnson is on assignment from the Houston Rockets, while Jackson, Frazier, and Blue could be had by anyone. 

  • Joe Jackson is 22 years old, out of Memphis. He went undrafted in 2014. Jackson is skilled but diminutive (6'0" 187 lbs.). He can shoot with accuracy (46% 3-pt, 82% FT, to date in the D-League.) Jackson is a good decision maker as well.  
  • Tim Frazier is 24 years old. He too is a bit small at 6'0", 162 lbs. Frazier doesn't shoot as well as Jackson but Frazier is a superior defender and Frazier has the potential to help as a rebounder from the guard spot. Frazier averages 6.6 rebounds per game. 
  • Nick Johnson, a Rockets second round pick in 2014, certainly has good size for the position at 6'3" 198 lbs. He just turned 22 year old. We would still like to see more aggression offensively from Johnson. He is a good enough athlete to force the issue more often. He needs to continue to work on tightening up his dribbling. 
Two Guards: If a player is in the D-League there is almost always a good reason why. In many cases it is because the player is a "tweener", someone in-between positions. 
  • Jordan Hamilton's natural position is small forward. But Hamilton has struggled shooting the deep ball as a pro (just 30.9% 3-pt. FG in the D-League). At Texas, from beyond the college arc, Hamilton was 37%, which is much more doable for a forward that should stretch the floor with his shooting. Running with Reno, Hamilton is presently in excellent condition. He looks fit and trim compared to the last time I saw him live. He currently has the same amount of assists and turnovers, so his decision making and ball skills are not so terrible that he can't play guard. Hamilton has never been known as a great defender but he CAN score. Since his defense is suspect, and because, in general, "two guards" are smaller than "small-forwards", I think the best option for Hamilton is 'shooting guard' where he has a chance to use his 6'7" height and overall length to help him as a defender against smaller players. ...The real point is... Hamilton is talented as a natural born scorer that also hits the glass (6.5 rebs per game). Coaches may have to be a bit creative to get him on the floor. 
  • Andre Emmett is still plugging away in the D-League. At age 32 Emmett continues to be rock-steady. At 6'5", 224 lbs, he has the prerequisite size to fit into an NBA game. He will give you an honest effort on defense. See Emmett highlights here.
  • Glen Rice Jr. can get a team buckets. His temper has gotten him a bit of a reputation but if a team thinks they can work with him, they probably should. Rice is 6'6", 206 lbs. He just turned 24 years old. He can score. He can shoot the three-ball well. He has more assists than turnovers. 
Small Forwards

Quincy Miller recently made his Kings debut.
  • Quincy Miller, as mentioned above, was signed to a ten-day contract by the Sacramento Kings. Miller was averaging 26 points per game for Reno on efficient shooting (52% FG, 35% 3-pt., and 89% FT). It is easy to forget that Miller tore his ACL during his Senior year of high school. He played just one year at Baylor and bolted early to the NBA. He was the eighth pick of round two in 2012. Had Miller stayed in college, he would be a Senior this season. Kudos to the Kings for snatching him up. Now they need to find a way to keep him around. His upside is too big to not be in the NBA full time. (See Miller's wide variety of skills here.)
  • Taylor Griffin is the brother of Blake Griffin. Taylor is now 28 years old. He was drafted in the second round in 2009. Coming out of college Taylor could not shoot the deep ball with any accuracy. Now, Taylor Griffin has improved his three point percentage for four consecutive seasons. At 6'7" 235 lbs. Griffin can guard wing players or smaller BIGs. He is an outstanding defender that has improved his shooting to the point that I think he should be in line for a possible NBA opportunity. 
  • Renaldo Balkman is now 30 years old. The former Knicks first round pick (20th in 2006) is still the same bundle of energy that he has always been. He creates havoc as a defender and he has shown an improved three point stroke (36% to date this D-League season). 
Capela will be a star.
Power Forwards: Over the years we have noticed that the easiest position to fill is power forward. There seems to never be a shortage of guys who are not long enough to play Center but can hold their own with rebounding ability and a desire to mix it up. The D-League has three "Fours" that we like. 
  • Clint Capela was mentioned at the top of this blog as one of the two most efficient players in the D-League. I believe once he physically matures (he is just 20 years old) and his body becomes stronger, the Rockets will have, at minimum, a rotation player, and very possibly more. Capela, a 2014 NBA first round pick (#25), has touch around the hoop, combined with an extraordinary quickness to his second jump. Capela is shooting 58% FG (D-League stats). On Sunday night against mostly terrible Reno defense, Capela had 25 points (12-17 FG 1-2 FT), 17 rebounds, and four blocked shots in just 26 minutes! 
  • Willie Reed is 24 years old, and he continues to improve. He is shooting 65% FG, and his defensive rating is among the best in the D-League. Reed is averaging 13 points and eleven rebounds per game. The presence he provides on defense is real. (See video of Willie doing his thing on D.) 
  • Arinze Onuaku is a BIG that we think should/could be on an NBA roster. He is a full grown 27 year old that would be able to bang with anybody at the FOUR spot. He averages 18 points and 13 rebounds per contest. 
  • Earl Barron knows how to play. If pinned down to choose JUST ONE player, that remains a free agent in the D-League, we would roll with Earl Barron. He's not likely going to be much better, given that he is 30 years old. But if a team needs a veteran BIG that can be "plug and play", Barron is the one. He is liked by teammates, and he has enough skill and size to get the job done at Center. Standing 7'0", 245 lbs., Barron moves at the pace of an NBA veteran. It was no shock to see Bakersfield win the Showcase Cup, thanks, in large part, to Barron.  (See Earl in action
  • Sim Bhullar is better than he is given credit for being. While some see him as nothing more than a gimmick, I disagree. It is true that Sim is not going to win any contest that involves sprinting. He is slow in transition. However, as a specialist in half-court situations (say, as a defender against any inbound pass) BIG Sim would be helpful to an NBA team. And the notion that Sim could not exist AT ALL in "the fast paced NBA" is moot because we just saw him more than 'hold his own' in the hyper-speed pace of the Reno / Rio Grande matchup at the Showcase. The final score of that game was 160-153. Bhullar showed enough upper body quickness to go with his massive frame to allow him to block shots and rim-protect. He rebounds at a high rate. His screens are second to none at ANY level of pro basketball. Would you have to coach him in a unique way? Absolutely. But why not have a VALUABLE situational piece on your team in the 13th roster spot, as opposed to a player who rarely, if ever, impacts a game? 
  • Ognjen Kuzmic is a solid defender and he makes this list because the crop of Centers is not deep at all. Kuzmic is limited offensively and not dynamic enough at anything else at this stage of his career. Kuzmic did not score in 31 minutes of playing time Saturday at the Showcase. (To be fair - Kuzmic was being guarded by Hasheem Thabeet, an excellent defender). 
Outstanding Showcase performances: There were several stellar individual performances at the 2015 D-League Showcase. Sunday afternoon, Vander Blue was terrific in L.A.'s win over Delaware. Blue, listed at 6'5" 197 lbs. (he doesn't look that big to me), narrowly missed a triple-double. He scored 34 points, dished ten assists, and had eight rebounds in 39 minutes. Blue is certainly one of the best guards in the D-League. ...Saturday, Talib Zanna, (6'9" 232 lbs.), was brilliant in OKC's win. Zanna had 14 points (5-9 FG, 4-4 FT), nine rebounds and zero turnovers in 26 minutes. We rate Zanna as the fifth best prospect at PF. 

Notes and Tweets

Sunday, January 18, 2015

D League Showcase three days in

Annually I attend the NBA D-League Showcase, using it as a transition point in my "scouting calendar". From Summer League through the second week of January, it's all about the NBA. The D-League gets special attention at this time of year (totally due to the Showcase), and college hoops has "next" leading up to the NBA Draft. The beauty of doing it this way is the natural progression from seeing the first half of the NBA season (before losing front offices send the message to the coaching staff that wins do not matter), to the D-League, to college. My eyes and brain are NBA sharp as I enter the D-League Showcase.

It never takes long to see that the play from NBA to D-League can be easily summed up. The D-League just does NOT have the depth of quality BIGs you see from night to night in the NBA. There ARE big men in the D-League. Santa Cruz plays 7'0" 240 lb. Ognjen Kuzmic, and Hasheem Thabeet is also a D-League starter, at 7'2". But there just are not a bunch of super talented tall and wide players in the D League. Yesterday, I witnessed a Sioux Falls squad that played the majority of the game with a 6'8" guy (Shawn Jones) at Center. Meanwhile, opponent Earl Barron, a 6'11" 230 lb., veteran feasted in the paint. 

Westbrook is a "hyper-athlete"
The next obvious characteristic that separates the NBA from the D-League is the quantity of hyper-athletes.  The D-League has its fair share of athletic cats but the NBA has the THE best athletes in the world in my opinion. From Russell Westbrook to Eric Bledsoe, to Derrick Rose, to Blake Griffin, to LeBron James, and on and on and on, an elite level NBA athlete is easy to recognize. In the D-League, you can still see an athlete of that caliber but there are much fewer.   

Observations after three days: ...Jared Cunningham is a kid that should be in the NBA. He is simply too gifted to not have a chance at being a good NBA player. Yes, his shot selection can be sketchy. But a good coach can change that, or at least improve it to the point where Cunningham doesn't hurt a team by jacking an early three point shot. Cunningham is cat-quick, and he jumps with explosiveness. His creativity on the pick and roll will always give him a chance to score. ...Earl Barron is what he is. He is 33 years old. Upside is not a part of the discussion. That said, I think he could help an NBA team as a rotation BIG. ...Willie Reed and Arinze Onuaku are also ready to make NBA teams. With any NBA attrition, Reed or Onuaku should be in line to be called up. ...I STILL like Renaldo Balkman's game. He is all over the court. ...Omari Johnson (Oregon State) had an impressive game Friday. He had 26 points in 27 minutes, knocking down six threes. Johnson is now 25 years old. He was draft eligible in 2011. ...Santa Cruz as host is completely different than Reno. The plus/minus on that will be explored in a later blog.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

2015 D League Showcase Preview

The annual NBA D-League Showcase moves from Reno, Nevada to Santa Cruz, California for 2015 and it offers some structural changes as well. For the first time, a tournament format will be used with the top eight teams advancing to the championship round of play. The focus on team play is welcomed and should be applauded. In past D-League Showcases we have seen players "going for their own" too often. 

Prior to the Showcase we do an audit of the D League stats, year-to-date, and try to enter the 2015 Showcase as "data informed" as we can be. We continue to believe that data can be a useful tool but it must be combined with a "feel" and a dose of common sense when scouting professional basketball is concerned. 

The D-league can be a source for help to an NBA roster. In many instances, the youngest players on NBA rosters are not much better, if better at all, than the top D-Leaguers. Last season, Shabazz Muhammad and Rudy Gobert used the Showcase to shine. DeWayne Dedmon was still property of the Santa Cruz Warriors. He has since parlayed that into a gig with the Orlando Magic. 

I was hoping to see Joe Alexander play this time around but the Santa Cruz Warriors forward signed a deal to play in Israel through April. Alexander, now 28 years old, had started to show NBA worthy ability. 

This year - here are the players we are particularly interested in seeing again... 

McAdoo is on the verge
James Michael McAdoo - Santa Cruz 6'9" 229 PF ... I wasn't sold on him at North Carolina but McAdoo is making me re-think. McAdoo has one of the strongest defensive ratings in the D-League. He can score despite not shooting the three-ball at all. He has improved from being a 56% free throw shooter in college to now hitting 72%. That is HUGE because he does get to the line often. He is getting closer to being good enough as a decision maker to have a shot at playing on an NBA team. He currently has as many assists as turnovers through 16 D-League contests.  His standing reach of 8'10.5" is the same as Kyle O'Quinn and Quincy Acy which helps explain why McAdoo is blocking shots left and right. 

Willie Reed - Grand Rapids 6'10" 220 PF ...The "stretch four" fascination in the NBA is working against Reed, now 24 years old, and continuing to improve. He is shooting 70% FG and he gobbles up rebounds, especially on the offensive end. He plays solid defense. Reed is averaging 13 points and eleven rebounds per game but his shooting range is limited. He still can't make free throws (47%), and his decision making is suspect. 

JaMychal Green - Austin 6'9" 220 PF ...The reigning D-League Player of the Month, Green is playing with absurd efficiency. He is averaging 22.5 points, and eleven rebounds per game on the season for the Spurs affiliate. He does not have reliable range out to the three point line but he does have touch for a BIG. He shoots 80% FT (career). Green is 24 years old. 

Talib Zanna - Oklahoma City 6'9" 232 PF ...Zanna was draft eligible in 2014 out of Pittsburgh. He is shooting 63% FG while averaging 12 points and ten boards for the OKC Blue. He leads the D-League in offensive rebounding (total). 

Tim Frazier - Maine 6'1" 170 PG ...Frazier is a guy capable of putting up a triple-double in any game he plays in. His one weakness is his deep shooting, otherwise I think he would already have an NBA gig. Frazier is averaging 16 points, eight assists, and six rebounds per game. 

The D-League Showcase begins January 15 and runs through the 19th. For more information and to purchase tickets please follow this link.