It’s been a year and a half since O.G. Anunoby lingered on the draft board while two players less suited for the modern game– D.J Wilson and T.J. Leaf– were selected ahead of him. After the Raptors took the uber-athletic small forward out of Indiana at 23, Tyler Lydon, Anzejs Pasecniks and Caleb Swanigan were the next three players taken.
Among the forwards taken between 17 and 26, Anunoby stands out from the rest of the sore thumbs.
Again this season, after you get out of the lottery and past Zion Williamson’s lovely, beautiful game, there are more tweeners between the three and the four and the four and the five than there are threes or fours with easily translatable skills like Anunoby, who started in the playoffs last year.
It’s not that every athletic three taken in this range pans out. Troy Brown (No. 15) is averaging just seven minutes a game in Washington, Jacob Evans (28) has barely played for Golden State and Melvin Frazier (35) isn’t seeing the court in Orlando. And it’s not that every tweener stays one, either. Kyle Kuzma, a post-centric four/five out of Utah, was taken right after Swanigan by the Lakers at 27 and then developed one of the best combinations of length, athleticism and three-point range in the league.
But it’s important to separate the plug-and-play wings from the combo forwards with less easily translatable games. Even though they’re close in size, their development couldn’t be more different.
If this type of prospect was perfect, they’d all be sitting pretty with Nassir Little (in the 3-7 range on my board), De’Andre Hunter (4-8), Jarret Culver (7-13) and Keldon Johnson (10-13) in my lottery range. When Anunoby declared for the draft, he was coming off a major injury and was one of the worst shooters on his Hoosiers team.
But Talen Horton-Tucker (20-30), Charles Matthews (28-35) and Brandon Clarke (19-35) each bring to the table almost as much defensive versatility as Anunoby
Horton-Tucker (15.4 ppg, 2.6 apg, 1.8 spg and 29% from three) emerged as a freshman as Iowa State’s most dynamic offensive player while Lindell Wigginton (50-70) misses the start of the season. He has freakishly long arms and a P.J. Tucker build, but unlike the Rockets forward he has legitimate juice off the bounce. He broke out in Maui matched up against Ayo Dosunmu (60-80) and Illinois and dropped 21 on Iowa and Tyler Cook (unranked)– a bonafide wing defender who declared for the draft last year. Horton-Tucker is stout enough to get into your chest on the dribble and prevent you from doing that to him. While he projects to switch extremely well defensively, he’s not the best point-of-attack defender on the team (that’s Marial Shayok).
Matthews (14.3 ppg, 5.4 fta pg), a Kentucky transfer and a junior, is the backbone behind the best defense in the country at Michigan. While he’s faded down the stretch offensively in several games and relies on floaters and turnaround jumpers to score, Matthews is an Anunoby-like defender with great footwork who shadows perimeter threats. He’s six-foot-six, and he guards all sorts of twos, threes and small fours for the Wolverines. He’s the type of defender who’s in the way of the driver before he makes his move.
Brandon Clarke (16.8 ppg, 3.3 bpg, 1.5 spg, 69.6 FG%) is the same type of defender as Matthews except even more explosive and aggressive. He had the block of the season two weeks ago against Tennessee and leaps out of the gym regularly as off-ball help to change the game. He’s the perfect cohort for a somewhat undersized offensive forward like Rui Hachimura (12-18) and was the biggest reason the Bulldogs were able to keep R.J. Barrett (2) away from the rim in Maui. He moves better on the perimeter than any big in this class. He’s 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds, so while he’s dominating defensively at the college level, he projects to be a secondary defender more suited for off-ball players and stretch fours than point-forwards or post-up players.
The most interesting developments in this class outside of the lottery will be how these guys compare to the other threes and fours in this part of the draft. Defensive versatility isn’t the most important skill in the draft: teams might also be attracted into the off-ball grace of Ignas Brazdeikis (25-40), the ball-handling chops and midrange game of Kris Wilkes (18-40), the raw strength of KZ Okpala (28-45), Grant Williams (28-45) and Isiah Roby (35-60) the shooting of Dylan Windler (40-60) and the face-up games of Jalen McDaniels (18-30), Jaylen Hoard (28-45), Louis King (35-50), Eric Paschall (50-65) and Dedric Lawson (50-65). In addition to that, there are the four/five combos who are all still trying to find comfort at the college level– Jalen Smith (35-55), Simi Shittu (35-60), Aric Holman (58-70), Naz Reid (35-55) and Killian Tillie (30-50).
Between now and June, though, it’s unlikely that team’s evaluations of Horton-Tucker, Matthews and Clarke will change very much. They are who they are– some of the less interesting prospects in this draft. They have instincts, and those rarely change, while the combo forwards will be adding more nuances to their games or will be losing ground between now and the draft.
If between now and then, Brazdeikis emerges as a forty percent three-point shooter, he’ll make a major leap. If McDaniels, Hoard, Paschall and Lawson explore more explosive moves off the dribble and finish better above the rim that they do below, they’ll join a different tier as well. And if the forces of nature mentioned about become more than that, they’ll become difficult to pass on.
Over the next six months, these are the guys who will be the most difficult to project. Kyle Kuzma is better than O.G. Anunoby in the NBA but was undoubtedly more of a risk on draft night. Finding the three-and-D forward isn’t the hard part. Taking a leap of faith on a tweener can change your franchise in one direction or the other. Call it the D.J. Wilson affect.
It’s been baffling that Kris Wilkes (18-40) hasn’t been consistently guarding the opponent’s best player at UCLA. Two weeks ago, he took Belmont’s Dylan Windler (40-60) out of the game by seamlessly shadowing him on the perimeter and using his enviable length to prevent him from getting his shot off. Then a few days later against Cincinnati, he camped out against Keith Williams (unranked) or Tre Scott (unranked) while Jarron Cumberland (unranked) went off in the first half. After the break, the Bruins had switched to zone. Then the Bruins played more zone against Ohio State.
While Wilkes was almost perfect against Windler, it’s clear Alford isn’t sold on Wilkes ability to defend on-ball for forty minutes and manage the offensive role he has.
Is there a prospect in a better situation to bring out the best in his game than Mississippi State’s Aric Holman (58-70)? Alongside Lamar Peters (unranked)– one of the better off-the-bounce shooters in the SEC– and the ball-handling and floor spacing Witherspoon siblings (both unranked), Holman has floor spacers and pick-and-roll partners abound.
While he’s knocking down the three at a 39 percent clip on 3.7 attempts per game, he floats around the perimeter on most possessions. He hasn’t developed the pick-and-roll gravity to make him the more terrifying option in the pick-and-roll dance (stopping the MSU guard has been the first priority) and he hasn’t shown much of an instinct to take advantage as a passer of 3-on-2 situations. I’m interested if he’ll share the floor more in ACC play with Reggie Perry (unranked), a top 30 freshman in the RSCI ranking and a great leaper and energy guy in limited minutes so far.
Against Villanova last Saturday, Kansas’ Devon Dotson (35-55) and Quentin Grimes (16-25) both dealt with foul trouble. Dotson was brought back in for crunch time and closed the game in a passive, off-ball role. Grimes was left out altogether. Against a Wildcats team with only one truly imposing perimeter defender– Phil Booth (unranked), guarding LaGerald Vick (50-75)– neither freshman was able to find a rhythm. Not that that was a major part of the gameplan, anyway, for Kansas.
Who would have through preseason that Dotson and Grimes would be playing such a supplementary role to Vick and Lawson, who scored almost all of Kansas’ second half points against the Wildcats?
Over at Penn State, Lamar Stevens (60-75) is emerging as a better prospect than Josh Reaves (60-80). At Big Ten Media Day in October, I asked Reeves how the Nittany Lions would make up for the lost scoring of Tony Carr. Basically, he said “I got this.” A month into the season, it’s clear Stephens is the one who has got this.
Using one of the best face-up games I’ve seen this season, Stevens is averaging 19.7 points and 8.7 rebounds on a 50 percent true shooting. He’s shooting a disappointing 21.2 percent from deep, but on a team without a point-guard, Stevens isn’t getting simple catch-and-shoot opportunities anyway.
Stevens has an almost identical build to Grant Williams and has a bull in the China shop mentality on the drive. His drives aren’t quite as advanced as the Tennessee star, but his combinations of jab steps to create separation are basically unguardable.
In the past few weeks as the schedule has ramped up, it’s been clear that despite Reeves’ strength, he’s best served guarding twos and has less positional versatility that I expected. Neither Reeves nor Stevens predicts to be point-of-attack on-ball defenders, especially since Reeves lacks the length to contest drives of big leapers and struggles getting around screens off-ball.
Because of Stevens’ bigger frame, he might end up the superior defender at the next level. The swing skill for Reeves, though, is his passing. If he can up his team-leading assist totals from 3.4 to around 6 and continue to improve his ability as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Reeves will be able to live up to the expectation he set for himself. Regardless, both are really strong two-way candidates.
There might not be a big with better hands in this class than Jaxson Hayes (12-25), who only needed about a half-second to supplant Jericho Sims (90-100) as the best big on the Texas roster.
I’ll be interested to see if Simi Shittu gains enough confidence to play significant minutes at the five for Vanderbilt in SEC play.
The matchup of the weekend is Ethan Happ (75-100) vs. Charles Bassey (45-70) in a game between Wisconsin and Western Kentucky on Saturday. Is Bassey strong enough and smart enough to be allowed to guard Happ one-on-one in the post?
For Belmont vs. Purdue, there might not be a better matchup for Dylan Winder all season. Against a Boilermaker team lacking athletic perimeter options, it’ll be free range between two uptempo teams.