Old Man Riverwalk
The end comes for all of us eventually, even Tim Duncan. Tom Ziller on how the ageless wonder has aged rapidly before our eyes this season.
CHICAGO -- There were two main questions worth asking at the annual pre-draft combine this season. The first was who goes No. 1: Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram? The other: What happens after that? The combine provided clear answers for neither.
Simmons wasn’t in attendance and several of the top prospects like Ingram, Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray skipped the media portion and were only in town for individual interviews with teams. Dragan Bender and other international players were not able to come to the event because their teams are still playing. As has been the case in recent years, the combine is as much a central meeting place for teams to conduct interviews, agents to make their rounds and reporters to work the after-hours hotel lobby scene as it is a venue for talent appraisal.
On the first question, opinion was mostly divided between the long and smooth Ingram and the multi-dimensional Simmons. Interestingly, those who felt there wasn’t much of a choice at all leaned Ingram, while those who viewed it as a toss-up nodded toward Simmons. Still, most felt it was close. As one talent evaluator put it, "It’s one of those where you get in a room and debate."
Ingram is the better shooter, by far. He’s longer and seems likely to grow into his ultra-thin frame. (How could he not?) He played well in several big games and played even better down the stretch of the season when Duke made its annual postseason push in what was arguably the country’s best conference. At 18, he’s also younger than Simmons by more than a year and is also one of the youngest prospects in the entire draft. One can look at Ingram and visualize all kinds of special things in the future.
Simmons has been defined as much by what he can’t do in recent months as by all the positive things that he has shown. He’s not a good outside shooter and he’s not that long, which admittedly are two very important things in today’s game. The most troubling aspect of the Simmons report is that his LSU team cratered down the stretch, failing to make the tournament despite playing in a less-than-stellar SEC.
Still, Simmons has his supporters. The shot is a problem, but that can be developed with additional time in the gym. His college team lost a couple of key contributors that made it a collective failure, rather than the sole fault of a teenager. And he is an exceptional ballhandler and playmaker, drawing comparisons to Lamar Odom who was also frustrating at times but became one of the great all-around forces of his era.
In many ways Ingram is the safer pick, particularly for teams who already have a big man on their roster who needs the ball in his hands. Shooters shoot and Ingram’s skillset translates across a wider swath of team needs. Yet, Simmons has been knocked around for so long that it’s worth remembering the sensational displays that marked his early-season work at LSU. The question of Ingram v. Simmons was not in any way solved at the combine and the lottery drawing will provide some clarity here.
As for the other question -- what happens after the top two players are gone -- the general consensus is that there’s a significant drop-off behind Ingram and Simmons, but there’s decent depth spread out through the middle and latter parts of the draft. That’s good if you have a mid-to-late-round pick, or multiple second rounders. It’s not so hot if you’re stuck in the middle of the lottery.
It feels like we say that every year and every year players like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Rudy Gobert slip through the cracks and wind up making huge impacts. Even in the best of years the draft is an inexact science. One only needs to scroll through recent years to find gems that were hidden in plain sight. For every lottery disappointment, there were the likes of Draymond Green, Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Thomas just waiting for the right opportunity.
As always, teams will fall in love with certain players and the draft talent will take on added luster as we get closer to June 23rd. One of those players may be Jaylen Brown, a one-and-done prospect from Cal by way of Georgia who brings a pro body and an advanced mind. A highly-touted recruit, Brown’s interests at Berkeley included playing chess and taking graduate-level courses. As someone who worked with him said, "He’s a guy that’s going to use basketball to do great things in life."
"I knew there was something special about Berkeley when I got there but I was sure when I took my first class," Brown said. "The stuff I took from Berkeley I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. The things I learned in those classrooms and the relationships I built with those professors was tremendous. I still have all of them on contact and in email and they talk to me throughout this process. They’re proud of me for the decision I made, so that’s big."
It’s beyond dumb that having varied interests outside the game is thought of as a red flag, but Brown is a bit of a polarizing prospect. What some see as intellect others views as arrogance.
On the court, he is far from a finished product. The analytics are not in his favor and he wasn’t as dominant at Cal as his high school hype indicated. He struggled with his shot, making less than 30 percent of his 3-pointers, and didn’t settle into a groove until later in the season. He was able to get to the basket consistently, but he made only 65 percent of his free throws. Brown did solidify his place in the first round with a strong February and he played a major role in helping the Bears reach the tournament.
Cal was an odd team, however. The roster was filled with future pros but without enough shooting and spacing to make it a cohesive whole. Brown wound up doing a little bit of everything, even filling in at the point and showed himself to be a decent passer and playmaker. He’s probably more of a forward than a guard, but if positional versatility is the mantra of the modern game, Brown says that he is a willing participant.
"I’m just a basketball player," Brown said. "I’ll play one through four. I can handle the ball, I think I’m strong enough to guard somebody down low. I consider myself a basketball player."
Brown said that he’s emulated Kobe Bryant’s early-morning workout routine and he counts as his mentors Isiah Thomas and former Cal great Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who also hailed from Marietta, Ga. Given his academic pursuits, Brown considered staying in school, but added, "I thought it would be a ridiculous to turn down a decision like this."
He’s likely to go in the top 10 although there are some teams that have rated much lower in the first round. Brown himself threw out "1-to-10" which raised a few eyebrows, but what was he supposed to say?
He’s drawn comparisons to Stanley Johnson, another one-and-done player from the Pac-12 who carved out a rotation role as a rookie for the Pistons. Like Johnson, the physical tools are there and like Johnson, his game needs some refinement. Johnson also had a high opinion of himself at last year’s combine declaring himself the best player in the draft. But he earned the trust of Stan Van Gundy who raved about the rookie’s confidence and Johnson has already begun to make a name for himself.
"I can see where we have similar body types but I think we have a little bit of a different game.," Brown said. "I think we do some of the things the same, but that’s my big bro. Any time somebody compares me to him it’s all love."
If Brown’s shot and feel improves, it’s not hard to project a long career. If all that comes together he might wind up as one of the better players in the draft. Like everyone else in this draft there are qualifiers to every projection and Brown may have the most questions next to his name. The real work for Brown and other players will take place over the next month when teams conduct individual workouts.
If we learned anything at the combine it’s that the draft order will be fluid after the first two stops and with that may come a flurry of trade activity. The Nuggets, Suns, 76ers and Celtics all have multiple first round selections and new Philly GM Bryan Colangelo told reporters that he’s open to dealing a top-5 pick. The draft may be weak, but that doesn’t mean it will lack for intrigue.
A few notes on players who had impressive weeks that you’re likely to hear more of in the future.
Kris Dunn: The draft’s top point guard, Dunn took was a projected first-round pick who returned to Providence for his junior season and solidified his place in the upper lottery. He has ideal size and athleticism for the position and goes all-out to the point of recklessness. Dunn was turnover-prone at Providence but that may have been contextual as much as anything. He helped make a pro prospect out of forward Ben Bentil, which says a lot about him as a teammate.
Denzel Valentine: Every year it seems like there’s a Michigan State player with advanced skills who simply knows how to play the game. Valentine is not Draymond Green, especially on the defensive end, but he can shoot, pass and handle the ball. Like all Tom Izzo players, he’s also an excellent rebounder. Keep an eye on Valentine. He may wind up moving up the draft boards as he goes through the workout process.
Kay Felder: Speaking of Draymond, he anointed the diminutive guard as one of his favorite prospects. The NCAA’s assists leader, Felder wowed the combine with his 44’ vertical. Felder is built like Isaiah Thomas and part of what makes Thomas so special is that only one other player his size -- former Houston great Calvin Murphy -- has ever had the kind of impact that IT does. Still, if Felder’s good enough for Draymond, he’s good enough for the Sunday Shootaround.
Skal Labissiere: Once considered a candidate for the top spot, the skinny Labissiere struggled at Kentucky but he’s long, tall and skilled. Draft Express noted that Labissiere had an impressive private workout prior to the combine and his youth and inexperience may work in his favor. He’s only been playing for a few years so while he may need a ton of work in the D-League, just imagine if that work pays off down the line.
DeAndre Bembry: An old-school player who’s been a winner at every level. Bembry is a 3+D wing without a consistent 3-point shot, but he performed well at the combine and his defense has never been an issue. He’s the kind of player who may go late in the first round and wind up outlasting some of the more heralded players chosen ahead of him.
The end comes for all of us eventually, even Tim Duncan. Tom Ziller on how the ageless wonder has aged rapidly before our eyes this season.
The coaching carousel keeps getting interesting so Ziller and I went back and forth again on Dave Joerger, Frank Vogel, et al.
Interesting perspective on Billy Donovan’s coaching from Tim Cato. Billy D has taken a ton of criticism this season but his tactics paid off in OKC’s series with the Spurs.
"I don’t think we’re going to trade him. DeMarcus needs a system, a structure. He needs rules, like we all do."-- Kings GM Vlade Divac.
Reaction: The Kings are slowly getting the right people in place, from the front office to the coaching staff. We’ve been down this road before with them, but if Joerger can unlock to the many mysteries of Boogie then it’ll be worth the wait.
"For him to get this unanimously, it just tells you how watered down our league is. When you think of MJ, Shaq ... I mean, those guys really played against top notch competition. More superstars, I think, on more teams, than it is in our league today. But it's well deserved. He had a hell of a season."-- Tracy McGrady on The Jump, discussing Steph Curry’s MVP.
Reaction: McGrady’s best season was 2002-03 when he averaged better than 32 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists per game for a Magic team that went 42-40 and whose second-best player might have been journeyman Darrell Armstrong. Two teams won 60 games and the top seed in the East won 50 games. T-Mac was a great player who was years ahead of his time, but the NBA is in a much better place than it was in his era. It’s OK to admit it.
"I think he definitely deserved it. You look at Steph's numbers, he averaged 30, he led the league in steals, he was 90-50-40 and they won 73 (games). So, I don't, do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award?"-- LeBron James on Curry.
Reaction: No, there really was no debate at all. James also said you could make different arguments about the word ‘valuable,’ which sparked one of those only-in-the-internet-age controversies that has since taken on a life of its own. Here’s the thing: You CAN make different arguments about the word. That’s the whole point of an MVP debate. That’s why we spend months and weeks and thousands of words trying to define its meaning. Come on, people.
"Whatever’s necessary right now. It’s a darned good opponent that’s challenging us, testing us, pushing us, making us uncomfortable. We think we’re doing a little bit of that to them as well. As a competitor this is what you want. You want the games to really have meaning, and it doesn’t happen all the time to be part of a seven-game series that’s super-competitive like this."-- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra after Miami forced a Game 7 in Toronto.
Reaction: Amid the offensive brilliance of the Cavs and Warriors and the resourcefulness of the Thunder, the Heat and Raptors have engaged in a series that has produced some a style of ball so diametrically opposed that it may as well be another sport. Neither team may be on the others’ level, but the series has still been captivating in its rugged brutality. A Game 7 is not only necessary, it’s practically required.
"I’ll get to that after I get out of here and figure life out."-- Tim Duncan after the Spurs were eliminated by Oklahoma City.
Reaction: Duncan was cryptic after the disappointing end to his season. Here’s hoping he comes back, but that would be the perfect walkoff quote.
Are you back, Steph? Yep, you’re back.