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Three Biggest Steals of the 2013 NBA Draft
Posted By Nate Duncan On June 28, 2013 @ 10:05 am In Main Page,NBA Draft | No Comments
The NBA Draft is a crapshoot, a series of lottery tickets with varying odds that can never fully be known. A knee injury, an unanticipated two inches of growth or an extra 3,500 calories of pizza per day can lead to vastly different outcomes than those anticipated on draft day. Thus the draft has featured innumerable steals over the years, players who were drafted far too low compared to their ultimate production. Players deemed too old, young, skinny, fat, slow, short, dumb or unskilled have fallen in the draft, only for their careers to far outstrip those drafted above them.
In this draft, there seems one salient fact: The Utah Jazz made out like bandits. The Jazz parlayed the 14th pick, 21st pick, 46th pick and cash into Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert, who were selected with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 9th pick and the Denver Nuggets’ 27th pick. With the traded picks, the Wolves selected Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, the latter of whom I rated below Gobert on my board. Meanwhile, the Nuggets will use the Jazz’s cash to not pay George Karl or Masai Ujiri.
Here are the three biggest steals from the 2013 NBA Draft:
Trey Burke – 6’1 – 20 years old
Drafted: 9th overall by Minnesota, traded to Utah
The trade for and selection of Burke was a fortuitous convergence of drafting for need and taking the best player available. With Mo Williams injured much of the year, Jazz point guard was one of the worst positions in the NBA in 2012-13. With Williams now a free agent, the Jazz have no incumbent at the position. Meanwhile, another perpetual Jazz weakness has been shooting. Burke addresses both issues.
But this is not merely a need pick. I believe Burke is a top three player in this draft. While he is not the most explosive player, he offers a rarely seen combination of above-average shooting, playmaking and penetrating that led Michigan to the nation’s No. 1 offense last year. Very few prospects combine these three skills. Nabbing a legitimate starting point guard with the No. 9 pick in this theoretically weak draft is great value, and Burke’s ceiling is considerably higher than that.
Burke’s shooting is what really sets him apart from most point guard prospects, especially considering he is only 20 years old. He shot 38 percent on threes last year, with most attempts off the dribble and many (like his epic game-tying shot against Kansas) from extremely deep range. In the pick and roll, Burke’s shooting forces defenders to go over the pick. Then, he knows how to operate by keeping his defender on his back and using advanced ball-handling moves to get into the lane. Once he gets penetration and forces help, Burke almost always makes the right decision to shoot, hit the roll man or find an open shooter. On top of this, Burke sported a fantastically low turnover rate at Michigan. His shooting, ability to operate in the pick and roll and his 6’5 wingspan mitigate his average athleticism for an NBA point guard.
Burke’s only potential offensive weakness is finishing at the basket, as he shot only 52 percent near the rim this year. But because close misses over a helping big man are more easily rebounded by the offense, even this downside is balanced by the excellent offensive rebounding of the Jazz’s projected frontcourt starters in 2013-14, center Enes Kanter and power forward Derrick Favors. Kanter ranked sixth in the NBA with a 14.5 Offensive Rebound Percentage, while Favors was 35th at 11.9 percent. Both Kanter and Favors are mobile, athletic big men who should make excellent pick and roll partners for Burke. Moreover, Burke is a good enough shooter to play off the ball at times while projected starting shooting guard Alec Burks operates. Overall, Burke and the Jazz may be one of the best team/player marriages of any player drafted in the last few years, making Burke an early favorite for Rookie of the Year. With good, young, and cheap starters at every position, the Jazz are positioned to be a force in the coming years. The only real losers are the Jazz announcers, who will be tasked with keeping a Burke/Burks backcourt straight for the viewers.
Rudy Gobert – 7’2 – 21 years old
Drafted: 27th overall by Denver, traded to Utah
I personally watched Gobert break onto the scene as an NBA draft prospect at the 2012 Adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy. The 7’2 Frenchman came from nowhere to become the sensation of the camp, wowing scouts with his high percentage finishing around the basket while rejecting everything in sight using his record 7’9 wingspan. After the Eurocamp, many draft observers anointed him a lottery or even top five pick in what even then was projected to be a weak draft.
Since then Gobert’s star has dimmed quite a bit, to the point that he fell to Utah (traded from Denver) with the 27th pick in the draft.* It is possible that NBA decision-makers were haunted by the ghost of Alexis Ajinca, another crazy long French center who was drafted with the 21st pick by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2008. Ajinca was a bust, but preceded a spectacular next six picks: Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and George Hill. However, Gobert already has a solid history of effective play under his belt, which could not be said for Ajinca.
*Poor Evan Fournier sent out an ecstatic tweet when his former French U-20 teammate was selected by Denver. Gotta follow the draft on Twitter Evan!
While pundits generally deem Gobert a high-risk pick, I actually view him as low-floor. Though he is unlikely to ever develop into a post-up threat,* Gobert brings four skills that should translate to the NBA.
*Gobert actually averaged well over one point per possession on postups in the French League, but this was a low sample size of less than 30 attempts. Based on watching each of these postups, I do not expect that efficiency to translate, as many were awkward plays where he was bailed out with a foul call. Many of his postups verge on the comical. He insists on attempting to spin baseline but invariably gets bumped behind the backboard and forced into some pretty pathetic turnovers that eventually had me yelling “DON’T GO BASELINE” at the screen.
First, of course, is his shotblocking, as he rejected 3.8 and 3.2 shots per 40 minutes (pace-adjusted) the last two years in the French Pro A league.* From watching him in person and on tape, it is clear that his shotblocking is a major deterrent around the rim. He simply changes the way offensive players think about the game because he can bother or reject shots that are rarely challenged (like jump hooks from opposing big men).
*While not one of the top five leagues in Europe, the French league is not terrible. It boasts several ex-NBA players including Sean May, Jawad Williams, Dominic James, Darius Washington and (fittingly) Ajinca.
Gobert’s second translatable skill is his pick and roll defense. He moves his feet well for his size and uses his long arms to cut off passing angles to the rolling big man. An ancillary benefit of his activity is his high steal rate for a big man, at 1.2 per 40 minutes pace-adjusted.
Offensively he likely will never be a high usage player, but he could conceivably develop Tyson Chandler type efficiency as a finisher. While he lacks Chandler’s explosiveness and lateral quickness, his standing reach of 9’7 dwarfs even the Knicks center. Gobert used lobs off pick and rolls and penetration as the foundation of his astounding 73.6 percent shooting this year, on the heels of 78 percent shooting the year before. He also showcased excellent hands finishing off conventional passes and a nice ability to tip home offensive rebounds, averaging a pace-adjusted 3.7 offensive boards per 40 minutes. He even shot 70 percent from the line. All told, Gobert posted a PER of 21, a top-10 mark in the French Pro A league as a 21-year-old.
While Gobert certainly has weaknesses (including a literal lack of strength and his defensive rebounding) that require improvement in order for him to develop into a starter, he should bring multiple NBA-level skills to the table as soon as this year. He will just need to be protected from strength matchups against the biggest postup centers. With the league’s ever-increasing reliance on the pick and roll and dribble penetration, Gobert is more likely to help an NBA team with his specific talents than the ostensibly more skilled and polished big men selected above him, such as Kelly Olynyk, Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee.
Nerlens Noel – 6’11 – 19 years old
Drafted: 6th overall by New Orleans, traded to Philadelphia
Nerlens Noel was probably the highest profile faller in this year’s draft, eventually dropping from the projected first overall pick to the sixth pick by the Philadelphia 76ers via the New Orleans Pelicans. Noel’s woes have been well-documented, including a torn ACL, emaciated 206-pound weigh-in at the combine and rumors of bad people in his circle. All of this obscures the fact that he was one of the greatest freshman in college basketball history on defense.
Analytics models were charmed by his age, shotblocking, high-percentage finishing, and most of all his unprecedented-for-a-big-man 2.6 steals per 40 pace-adjusted.* He ranked a clear number one on Kevin Pelton’s draft rater (the only publicly available regression analysis-based projection for draft prospects), and teams’ internal analytics were said to have similar results. On film, Noel simply engulfs the shots of penetrating guards with his quickness, length, leaping ability and timing. And his quick feet and long arms should make him a monster defending the pick and roll as he learns the nuances of NBA defense. By all accounts, he possesses the basketball IQ to do so.
*Analytics models have found that steals in particular are a marker of potential, as they evince the athleticism and anticipation needed to succeed in the NBA.
Noel’s only defensive weakness is his weight, but this is overblown. While his combine weight of 206 pounds was troubling, the explanation relating this to his ACL injury is plausible. After a major knee injury, it is not uncommon for a player to lose 50 percent or more of the strength in his leg as the body shuts down to protect the injury. Combine that with a difficulty lifting weights, a loss of appetite after surgery and the desire to keep light during rehab to avoid more wear and tear during the comeback, and the 20 pounds Noel supposedly lost makes sense.* By the week before the draft, his camp insisted that he had gained most of the weight back.
*I can attest to this from personal experience; I went from 230 to 209 lbs within a month after tearing my ACL and patellar tendon.
Nevertheless, Noel never projects to be a bruiser in the post, but in today’s NBA he rarely will have to bang. Only a few centers really post up with much fervor anymore–help and pick and roll defense are far more important. If healthy* (and the vast majority of information says team doctors have cleared him) Noel is likely to be one of the top five defenders in the NBA in a few years. Offensively, he projects to be a valuable if relatively unskilled player with his ability to finish pick and rolls and offensive rebound, especially if he is eventually paired with a big man who can shoot.
*I think Alex Len’s stress-fractured ankle is of far greater concern. Many more big men have been felled by overuse injuries to the lower body (think Bill Walton, Yao Ming or Curtis Borschart) than acute ligament tears at a young age. Ligament tears are usually freak injuries, while stress fractures can result from systemic issues with the lower body chain. However, the fact that Len is going to the Suns’ miracle working training staff does ease these concerns.
It is very difficult to construct a scenario in which Noel is not a very effective player assuming good health.* Given some of the unspectacular players drafted above him, Noel’s fall to the sixth pick will look like a steal very soon.
*If one wants to play devil’s advocate here, the film shows that Noel has a lot of awkward landings similar to the one on which he tore his ACL.
An increasingly amusing pastime for Chicago Bulls fans has been rooting against the Charlotte Bobcats, as the Bulls possess a future first-round pick of theirs from the 2010 Tyrus Thomas trade. Thomas actually played fairly well the following year in 2010-11, sporting a PER of 18 until he injured his knee in January, but has not been the same since. The pick the Bulls received in exchange has gradually decreasing protections until it becomes completely unprotected in 2016. The Bobcats’ pick of Cody Zeller over Nerlens Noel or even one of the available shooting guards would seem to play right into the Bulls’ hands. Bobcats GM Rich Cho reportedly vouched for this pick, presumably based in part on analytics models that rated Zeller highly. I am loathe to criticize Cho, both due to my own belief in analytics and his affinity for my personal favorite restaurant in San Francisco, but the Zeller pick is one I think the analytics got wrong. Zeller was a very effective scorer in college based in large part on his tremendous free throw rate. He was labeled a great athlete on the ESPN broadcast, and while the athletic testing at the combine supports this, the film does not. It is hard to characterize a seven-footer who doesn’t rebound, block shots or dunk on anyone as a “great athlete.” Zeller is more mobile than explosive, and struggled to create separation on his drives and postups. While I can buy the talk of him becoming a stretch four given how smooth his jumper looks, it is hard to see how he gets above 15 points per game in the pros. Given the fact that he looks to be no more than an average contributor on defense and the glass, justifying this pick becomes difficult indeed. With the lack of overall talent on the roster, the Bobcats needed to swing for the fences and try for a star. Cody Zeller is not it.
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