Things to Like About D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Mario Hezonja
Following up on yesterday’s column, which centered on some of the concerns I have when looking at D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Mario Hezonja as prospects, we can now take a look at what intrigues me about each.
These guys are, after all, some of the higher rated prospects on my board. If you discount Okafor because there’s concern whether he could fit next to Joel Embiid, Russell and Hezonja are in my top-3 for the Sixers, and Mudiay’s a fantastic prospect, just not a fantastic fit. There’s quite a bit to like about each of these guys.
Previous articles in this series:
Spacing. Spacing. Spacing. Spacing.
It’s going to become the most popular word in Sixers basketball over the next year, and with good reason. Spacing, in general, is extremely important in the NBA, almost regardless of what players, or what philosophy, your offense is built around. Add in the potential of having one of your top offensive options operate in the post and spacing becomes downright crucial.
That need for spacing, and the sudden realization that 3 points are more valuable than 2, has led to a premium on three point shooting. Back in 2004-05 teams averaged 5.6 made three pointers per game. That jumped to 7.8 per game this past season, a 40% increase in made three’s per game. The overall efficiency is about the same, with the league connecting on 35.6% of them in 2004-05 and 35.0% in 2014-15, but the volume has increased dramatically.
There’s no better way to space the floor than to have a ball handler who is a threat to pull up from anywhere on the floor, and Russell is exactly that. Russell shot 42% on shots beyond 24′, which would be a three pointer from anywhere on an NBA court. He shot 42% from beyond 26′, for that matter. His range is incredible.
He’s also a very good shooter off the pick and roll, in large part because of his incredible ability to shoot off the dribble. Only one player in all of college basketball attempted more jump shots off the dribble than Russell did while doing so more efficiently.
That combination of 25’+ range, along with his elite ability to shoot off the dribble (and do so quickly), along with his creativity passing the ball off the pick and roll, should combine to create a really good pick and roll combination with Joel Embiid, and give defenses absolute fits when deciding where to shift their defensive focus.
This is all part of the reason why I believe that not only is D’Angelo Russell the right fit for the Sixers, but that the Sixers are the right fit for Russell. Russell’s threat on the perimeter will open things up for Embiid, both down low on the block and when diving to the hoop off the pick and roll. But the attention Embiid will receive will also open things up for Russell. Can Russell become a high-volume isolation threat who can finish efficienctly at the rim? I think there’s legitimate concern. But I think the Sixers are the right spot to mitigate that risk and exploit his very legitimate strengths.
I think Mudiay has become underrated in a number of aspects, most notably in his ability, and willingness, to run an offense. A narrative has popped up that he’s a gunner, and I just don’t see it.
I like the pace that Mudiay plays at. He’s a demon in the open court, but he can slow it down and play controlled when confined in the half-court. He navigates the pick and roll very well, and looks to setup his teammates when he gets into the lane. He’s a good passer, both to kickout shooters and to big men when the help defense rotates.
I also think he has a good defensive future ahead of him. It’s admittedly a little bit difficult to evaluate in the CBL, where there’s quite the range in competition, but he has great physical tools and competes on that end of the court. He changes direction well, fights through screens, and is generally in a good defensive stance, especially when defending on the ball. Is it inconsistent at times? Sure. But I attribute that more to being an 18-19 year old kid than a willingness or a desire to defend, and I think he grows out of that.
Mudiay is also, by all accounts, an excellent student, who is hard worker and extremely coachable.
The combination — quick, strong, hard worker, good defender, able to get into the lane, ability to control a game, pushing the ball in transition — makes me think he has a really good shot to be a good player. He may never be a great fit with Embiid and Noel, and his ability to be a superstar may be tied to his ability to become a good shooter, but I think he’s going to have a nice, long, career.
The first instinct Sixers fans will have when looking at a tall, non-shooting point guard is to compare him to Michael Carter-Williams, but Mudiay’s a far better prospect than that.
Where to start.
6’8″, elite athlete, elite shooter, extremely competitive.
Hezonja is likely to be one of the better shooters in this draft, having shot 37.7% from three point range in ACB play and 38.2% in Euroleague play. On the season, three point attempts made up just under 60% of his overall field goal attempts, and he attempted 6.6 three point attempts per 36 minutes played.
(Ed. note: the three point line in Euroleague and ACB play is set at 6.75 meters, or about 22.2 feet. That falls between the NCAA line, at 20.75 feet, and the NBA line, at 23.75′. All figures here the maximum distance).
Hezonja has an extremely quick release, gets great elevation on his shot and has an exceptionally high release point. The combination of those three attributes make him extremely tough to defend on the perimeter.
What makes Hezonja special as a shooter, though, is his ability to shoot coming off of screens. That threat coming off of a screen, as I’ve mentioned before when talking about Kristaps Porzingis, has the chance to really put pressure on a defense as it forces multiple defenders to make correct split-second decisions. Hezonja has the chance to be elite at that, with the speed and athleticism to lose his man when running off of a screen and the balance and footwork to get a clean look at the basket, and to do so very quickly.
Hezonja also has some ability to drive to the basket, as he has an extremely quick first step and elevates as well as anybody around the rim. Despite underdeveloped ball handling skills which prevent him from making the most of that athleticism, Hezonja is still able to take advantage of the space he receives coming off of screen or when defenders close out on him too aggressively. As his game matures, this could become an even bigger part of his game. Hopefully it will even mature to the point where he can improve that scary 11.7% free throw rate.
Hezonja’s also a better defender than he’s frequently given credit for. While it’s true that he’s not always attentive on this side of the court, it’s frequently stated that he can’t defend. That’s simply not true, as Hezonja has the size and lateral quickness to defend on the perimeter, and he’s shown this ability when he locks in and puts his mind to it. A coach will have to get him to focus in more consistently, but the physical tools and ability is there.
Repeating what I said yesterday, I’m not sure whether Hezonja will become a #1 option on offense, as I think his ball handling and shot creation could hold him back from becoming that. I think you’re going to want to pair Hezonja with another perimeter player who can create more consistently, and who can run a two-man game with Joel Embiid. Because of that, it’s easy to look at Hezonja and go in a different direction, and since there’s a viable option for the 76ers in D’Angelo Russell who fits this mold, it’s not necessarily a wrong opinion to have.
However, I do have a pretty strong degree of confidence that Hezonja will become a #2 or #3 option, and I think the threat he will become off the ball, both when stationed in the corner and when coming off of a screen, will really help an offense, and really help a low-post scorer. That, along with the relative difficulty in finding a legitimate, 2-way wing player, and I think Hezonja has the chance to be one of the better players in this draft.
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