Best Draft Prospects of U19 FIBA World Championships
The contrast for Marcus Smart on Sunday was striking. Instead of starting summer league for the Orlando Magic as the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, he was halfway around the world with a gold medal around his neck. Smart was the leader and most important player on the Americans’ Under-19* FIBA World Championship team, which captured the gold medal with an 82-68 win over a game Serbia squad. I watched most of the NBA prospects throughout the medal round of the tournament in lieu of NBA Summer League, and found the former far more entertaining. One would hope that Smart felt the same way.
*”Under” 19 is a bit of a misnomer. Per FIBA, “Athletes 19 years old or younger, born on or after Jan. 1, 1994, are eligible for this competition.”
Some observers thought that Smart had a rough tournament, but I thought this was overstated. It is clear that Smart will be the most athletic point guard to come into the league since John Wall, as he had a number of power two-handed and follow dunks that point guards just don’t make. On drives to the basket, the distance and change of direction on his jump stop is outstanding. He did struggle from the longer international three-point line as well as the free throw line, although he managed to shoot 60 percent on twos due to his excellent finishing ability. Still, it was clear that perimeter shooting is not a strength of his game. Smart also struggled with foul trouble in the last four US games.
Nonetheless, it was that foul trouble that showed his value to the US team in running the offense and getting everyone involved. The only time during the tournament that the US really struggled was against Serbia when he was forced to the bench. He clearly was still the most important player on Team USA despite the fact he did not dominate statistically.
Jahlil Okafor* has a chance to be the best low-post scorer to come into the NBA since Tim Duncan. It has been suggested that nobody posts up any longer because it’s much harder to do so with the change in defensive rules. That is certainly part of it, but I maintain the bigger reason is that players just are not good at it anymore. Few if any big men in the league have the skill level that players like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Duncan and even someone like Rasheed Wallace once possessed. It is not a surprise that post skills have cratered–posting up can be pretty miserable. Getting position is hard work, and even when it succeeds perimeter players (especially at the youth levels) often do not even enter the ball. And when the ball actually gets to the big man, the team’s guards and coaches expect the him to score every time because he is big and close to the basket. Miss a hook shot, or God-forbid commit a traveling violation, and a post player is unlikely to see the ball again for quite awhile. If guards miss a jumper or throw a bad pass, they do not experience nearly the level of criticism.
*Amusingly, the telecast graphic announcing he’d been named to the All-Tournament Team depicted his name as “Jail” Okafor.
But despite all of this, Jahlil Okafor absolutely loves posting up. As a feature from our Alex Kennedy detailed back in March, the rising senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago is quite brash in expressing his belief that he is unstoppable with his back to the basket.* He happens to be right. The most amazing thing about Okafor is his touch around the rim and out to 10 feet. Whether with right or left hand hooks, turnaround jumpers or short faceup drives, the ball just goes in when he shoots it. He easily sinks contested hooks and turnarounds that would be low-percentage for most post players, and has a nice assortment of fakes and same-side step throughs as illustrated by the clip below. Despite being the backup center for the US, he was almost invariably double-teamed on the catch by international opponents who generally eschew such tactics. He shot an absurd 77 percent from the field over the nine games, and his PER for the tournament was over 40.
*One might argue that his comments about destroying Enes Kanter in what was presumably a friendly workout were a bit beyond the pale.
But Okafor seems like he may end up being one of those players who is overrated by PER. His defense in this tournament did not particularly impress. Of particular note was the fact that he blocked only four shots in nine games; he simply was not much of a deterrent around the rim. His lateral quickness at 6’11, 253 pounds is actually better than one might think though, so hopefully he can mature into a decent pick-and-roll defender in time. Okafor’s rebounding also was disappointing. He was much heftier than the opposing big men but did not really carve out space on the offensive glass or rebound out of his area. While he was named to the all-tournament team, it was pretty clear from Billy Donovan’s rotations that he would not have been out there in crunch time had it come to that.
Offensively, he could stand to work a little harder for position and learn how to handle double teams instead of dribbling towards the sideline to get away from them, but this is nitpicking. His offensive game is fantastic.
Importantly, Okafor realizes these weaknesses and says he has been working on them, but his physical profile will make it difficult for him to be a plus defender.
Harrell was probably the most effective US big man overall when including his defense and rebounding. His physical profile is outstanding, as he has an NBA body, excellent leaping ability and showed fantastic foot speed at the top of the US full court press. He had a number of fantastic dunks and shot blocks and seems like he will definitely be able to hold his own physically at power forward in the NBA; he is listed at 6’8, but played like he was 6’10 due to his athleticism and motor.
Opinions on Harrell differ widely. Based on these strengths, Harrell is currently ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 2014 draft by DraftExpress.com, but he is ranked 70th by NBADraft.net. I would split the difference between these two, as his ceiling is more NBA role player than star. Based on a sample size of about eight postups, Harrell’s only post move is a (very) quick spin to his right. He can finish with power two-foot layups and dunks right at the basket, but lacks touch on any sort of hook shot even once he gets out beyond three feet. He surprisingly drained a couple of elbow jumpers, but his shot looks extremely robotic and he takes forever to get it off. It will require massive improvements to be a weapon in the NBA.
The smooth lefty from Houston was the youngest player on the team, and one of two class of 2014 high-schoolers along with Okafor. Winslow has an NBA body and athleticism right now, and projects to be an excellent defensive player. Winslow played in the frontcourt and more than held his own. In fact he played so big I was surprised to see he was only 6’6 when I looked up his height. He was a solid second behind Gordon in the competition for best dunker on the team, while also showing nice passing vision and the ability to play under control. He has a decent standstill jumper, but is mostly limited to straight-line drives at this point and has almost no right hand to speak of. Winslow was another US player who impressed with his motor on defense and the boards.* While he has a lot of skill development to do, Winslow certainly has the physical profile to be a top-10 pick some day.
*Winslow exhibited an almost surreal stoicism after big dunks. Given how funny he is in this video, one would think that is almost certainly an intentional affectation, and one that I really enjoyed.
The incoming University of Arizona freshman was billed as a raw athlete coming in, but he actually proved to have a higher basketball IQ than his reputation indicated. He played almost exclusively at the four for this US team, and did not really attempt to take anyone off the dribble or shoot jumpers in the games I watched. However, he showed a very nice understanding of the game by getting into seams for passes and alley-oops. He also showed very nice passing vision, as evidenced by the clip below.
Another pleasant surprise was his footwork, as he uncorked a few very advanced step throughs. Gordon plays with an extremely high motor on the glass and in transition. (Look where he starts the play that ends in finishing an alley-oop.)
Even if he cannot develop much of a jumper or off the dribble game, he should be able to pattern his game after a young Shawn Marion.* If he develops his perimeter skills, his ceiling could be even higher than that. Word is that Gordon went to Arizona so he could play the three and develop his outside game. It will be interesting to see whether Coach Sean Miller can resist the temptation to play him at the four where he clearly will be more effective out of the gate.
*Gordon is not the quick second jumper that Marion was, but he might get up even higher on his first jump.
While Aaron Gordon was named Tournament MVP in a nod to the US victory, Micic should have won it. The slick 6’4 point guard single-handedly kept Serbia in both games against the US, scoring 24 points on 17 shooting possessions in the first game and notching eight first half assists in the gold medal game.* He eventually wore down in the second half due to the relentless US pressure and the effect of playing nearly the entire game for four games in five days, but his performance was extremely impressive overall.
*This is all the more remarkable since international scorekeepers are far more hesitant to award assists.
First off, Micic is a great passer and operator in the pick and roll. He makes the right decision nearly every time, whether it’s finding the roll man, the strongside corner, the weakside wing spotting up for three or the opposite big flashing to the basket. Micic utilized all of these options at various times, pass faking players open or utilizing no-looks to keep the defense guessing. He also showed smarts beyond his years. At one point, his teammate guarded by Aaron Gordon came to set a pick, but Micic waved him off so they could attack the slower Okafor in the pick and roll instead.
Part of what makes him so effective off the pass is his extremely tight handle. His fast dribbles keep the ball in his hand more often and allow him to react immediately with a signature quick two hand flick pass when the situation warrants. He also utilized a nice hesitation dribble, spin moves (see below) and the “Smitty” fake spin to get into the lane.
Micic’s shot came and went throughout the tournament overall, but he showed flashes of being a plus shooter. He has a versatile jumper, showing the ability to take a hard pullup if necessary and also to launch from beyond the arc when the defense went behind the screen. His mechanics are solid, so one would expect this part of his game to improve. With his feel for the game, excellent size at 6’4, and legitimate point guard handle*, Micic looked the part of a first-round pick.
*Many taller European point guards like Marko Jaric or Zoran Planinic can play the point in Europe but lack the quickness and dribbling ability to get into the lane consistently or bring the ball up against pressure at the NBA level. Oftentimes these players have to move to the two in the NBA, curtailing their value. That should not be an issue for Micic.
After his spectacular performance at the Nike Hoop Summit as part of a loaded international squad, Exum was the player I was most looking forward to seeing. The 1995-born guard was to play at the EuroCamp, but suffered a stress fracture in his foot and was limited to shooting around and giving interviews. There was some question of whether he would be able to recover in time for the U19s, but he did so ahead of schedule.
Exum was by far the best offensive player in the tournament, notching over 20 points in five of his last six games. In the one game he fell short, against the US, he scored seven points in 11 minutes before spraining his ankle. The 6’6 Exum played point guard and did everything else on offense to take a very limited Australian team to a surprise 4th place finish. Exum’s jump shot seems to be coming along, as he exhibited an ability to rise on balance from behind the three-point line or on pullup jumpers. He had some nice shooting games from behind the arc, although he also struggled from the free throw line and had some crucial misses late in the semifinal and third place game. He is very quick off the dribble and drew no less than 20 (I counted) fouls against the Spanish in the quarterfinal, most of which were non-shooting affairs out on the floor. Exum is also a creative finisher off one foot and shows good extension with his 6’9 wingspan, although he seemed to lack a bit of the burst he exhibited at the Hoop Summit as he returned from injury in Prague. It seems possible although not likely that Exum could be a point guard in the pros, but he has the passing ability and handle to at least operate as a Dwyane Wade-style shooting guard.
Exum’s weaknesses are easily delineated: Literally everything that occurs when he does not have the ball in his hands. On defense, Exum spent approximately two percent of the time in a stance. His rebounding was unimpressive given the competition, and most disturbingly he did not run the floor on offense. Oftentimes after an Australian steal he would be the last player from either team to cross halfcourt. As one of the most athletic players in the tournament, he should have affected the game much more than he did. His effort level was in marked contrast to his athletic peers on the American team, who crashed the boards, pressured the ball, and couldn’t wait to get out in transition.* Exum seems like an intelligent, high-character kid, so I would surmise that his poor floor game is more the result of always being the best player against lowly competition than any problems with his competitiveness.
*Exum gets a bit of a pass because he was coming off the foot injury, had a sprained ankle, and had to do everything offensively, but that alone could not explain how bad he was off the ball.
Exum is a clear first-round pick, and maybe even top 10. It is rare that I recommend a player such as Exum go to or stay in college, but if he is drafted his lack of defensive fundamentals will render him unplayable at first in the NBA. Fortunately, Exum graduates from the Australian Institute of Sport (his high school) in December, so he could enroll at an American college immediately and still enter the 2014 draft. Word is Indiana is one of the leaders in his recruitment.