Think of the absurdity of the following sentence: a recent low-scoring Big Ten affair was decided by a six-foot-ten power forward driving the lanes and skying a floater that fell into the bakset.
On Jan. 2, Maryland’s Jalen Smith (35-55 range on my board), a five star freshman, came away with the game winner against an undersized, athletic Nebraska front line in a matchup dominated by center Bruno Fernando (30-55). Against small-ball five Isiah Roby (35-60), Fernando finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds, and for the first 39 minutes it wasn’t clear if Smith was operating as a net positive player for the Terps. But then he had the game-winning basket, a truly impressive physical feat for the uber-athletic, goggled forward.
But the bizarre nature of the game made me wonder who’s benefitting more in from the situation they’re playing in– Smith or Fernando.
This draft is being pegged as an underwhelming one (and it certainly might end up being that) but above all else it’s been one where I’ve had more trouble separating a player from his context than any other class I’ve scouted.
Fernando and Smith are two of the top seven bigs on my board (along with Bol Bol, Jontay Porter, Daniel Gafford, Jaxson Hayes and Charles Bassey). But by playing alongside each other has caused cramped spacing, less rim running and a hard to watch offense. Maryland runs a lot of horns sets, featuring one big operating as playmaker at the top of the key with the other posting up, but Fernando is a non-shooter and Smith (25 percent from deep) has a quirky release.
Mark Turgeon is asking Smith to space the floor when he calls for pick-and-rolls between savvy guard Anthony Cowan and Fernando, but no play calling situation so far has been ideal for Fernando or Smith. Fernando dropped 25 and 13 again last night, but is he even in a situation that best showcases his ability?
It’s a scaled down version of the issues Cam Reddish (3-5) is having at Duke. Because the only thing he does better than any of his Blue Devil teammates is spot-up shooting, he’s stepped back from the point-forward role he played in the AAU circuit and has a lower usage than one would expect for such an elite offensive prospect, a confident ball handler who glides when attacking the rim.
Perhaps the most high-profile discrepancy between a player’s projected talent and his context is Nassir Little (3-7) at UNC, as the physical freak has been forced to come off the bench as a result of Roy Williams preferring to play Luke Maye (unranked) at the four. Much has been written about Little’s lack of opportunity, but it’s truly indicative of the issues in scouting this class.
-Little’s teammate Coby White (20-45) is a gunner with as good a step-back as any prospect, but he’s the only confident ball-handler in the starting lineup at UNC.
–Ja Morant (4-8) and Lu Dort (13-22) are the only major players on their teams with plus size for their position, leaving them as the only one on the floor with a physical mismatch over the opposition. As a result, teams can send extra help, knowing their teammates lack the pure explosion to make them pay for it.
– Tre Jones (16-30) Devon Dotson (35-55) are pure point guards with demon quickness in the pick-and-roll, but are playing alongside two big wings in Zion Williamson (1), R.J. Barrett (2), Lagerald Vick (50-75) and Dedric Lawson (70-85) who have below average ball-handling skills but elite one-on-one scoring ability, which has led to their teams revolving its offense around its wings.
–Romeo Langford (4-10) is being asked to guard opposing team’s best perimeter players throughout the game despite being primarily an offensive prospect.
– KZ Okpala (20-30) and Kris Wilkes (20-35) are both athletic wings with more complementary offensive games, but they lack the guard talent around them to visualize how their off-ball games could translate.
The list goes on and on. In a draft where every prospect after No. 1 has an easy to spot weakness, some truly bizarre player contexts are making evaluation even harder this year. Usually, elite guards are able to run free, the best wings are free to roam the open floor and dominant bigs are put in place to own the paint and do little else. But this draft has players all over the board who are subverting those descriptions in every way.
In one of the biggest scouting games of the season, Jaxson Hayes (12-20) faces off against Kansas on Monday night. With Udoka Azubuike (55-75) out for the season, it’ll be a test to see how Hayes fares against a team that relies on athletic wing playmakers, and since the KU front line is now undersized Hayes has the potential to drop a 20-20 game on a huge stage.
No team has done a better job against Carsen Edwards (20-30) than Michigan State did in last week’s 77-59 win. Sharpshooter Matt McQuaid (90-100) had enough length to contest everything, and he’s a flier to keep an eye on as Josh Langford (unranked) sits with injury.
Jordan Bohannon (90-100) is the point guard I want running my summer league team. His passing intelligence is as good as anyone in the country, and his off-the-dribble shooting and floater ability could open up the chances a team wants to give its young stars in the summer circuit.
Ayo Dosunmu (40-60) has had two consecutive games leading Illinois in scoring, and he got to the rim seemingly at will against Michigan this week. Brad Underwood has restructured the offense around him instead of gunner Trent Frazier (unranked), and the Illini are playing competitive games in conference.
I’m excited to see if Tony Bennett lets Ty Jerome (40-60) guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (20-30) on Tuesday night in a matchup of two potential long-term NBA role players.
There’s no way Markus Howard (60-80) can drop 40 again, right?
Cam Johnson (30-45) is starting to be featured in the same sets as Justin Jackson was, and the UNC product might be the best set shooter in the draft.
We’ll see if Iowa State keeps using Lindell Wiggington (50-70) in a backup role behind Tyrese Halliburton (30-40), but since Wiggington has come back he’s been firing mid-range twos with no reprieve. Would love to see Talen Horton-Tucker (20-30) reintegrated more into the offense’s primary sets like he was early in Maui.
The Cavaliers are now two wins “behind” the rest of the field for the best lottery odds. They gave up 141 points to the Rockets last night, and unfortunately Jaron Blossomgame isn’t playing as confidently as he did with the Austin Spurs where he became one of the best players in the G League. But him and Cam Payne, man that’s some tanktastic duo.
Talk to you guys next week.