What Concerns Should you Have About the Top Guards in the NBA Draft
Continuing with my series of likes and dislikes, we now take a look at some of the perimeter players that are likely to be available for the Sixers at the 3rd pick. Namely, the two point guards, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, and Mario Hezonja.
While it’s nice to daydream about Karl-Anthony Towns and to speculate about what the Sixers might do if Jahlil Okafor falls to them, these perimeter players have a much higher probability of being who the Sixers decide between. As such, these two columns (one today on concerns I have, one tomorrow on what I like) will most definitely not be the last time I touch on these prospects.
(Listen to Sixers insider Derek Bodner discuss the NBA Draft)
It’s easy to see how D’Angelo Russell is one of the most talented players in this draft class, and the ability to pull up from anywhere on the court puts so much pressure on a defense. That, combined with his incredible passing skills, makes it easy to fall in love with Russell’s potential.
But I do think Russell is a riskier prospect than some make him out to be.
Concerns about Russell’s athleticism have been front and center pretty much all year, and they’re legitimate concerns. He’s a below the rim player without a great burst with the ball in his hands.
He compounds this by having a sorely underdeveloped right hand. This is most evident when finishing at the rim, when Russell avoids using his right hand almost at all costs, even in situations when using his left hand brings him right into the path of a shot blocker, or gives him an awkward attempt with a poor angle. It’s not just the ineffectiveness of his right hand, it’s also his unwillingness to even attempt to use it.
That underdeveloped right hand shows up in his ball handling as well. Russell will, at times, go right, but it’s almost always to setup a crossover back to his left. When the defense keys on taking away his ability to go back left the result was usually Russell settling for a bad shot.
The end result was Russell struggling to turn the corner against elite defenders. How he’ll do against the long, athletic defenders in the NBA? It’s a very real concern of mine. I’ve referenced the table below numerous times in the past, but the fact that Russell shot only 40.4% from two point range against top-100 defenses concerns me greatly, at least when I’m trying to project an elite scorer in the NBA.
|Outside of top 100||16-2||32.4||20.8||52.2%||47.4%||56.4%||5.6||2.8|
D'Angelo Russell's performance against top-100 defenses.
My attempt to reconcile those struggles are always that he’d be in a very different situation in Philadelphia. With Russell playing off of Embiid, Russell would have somebody who you hope becomes a dominant low post threat that can occupy a defenses attention, something he absolutely didn’t have at Ohio State. That attention Embiid will receive will place less of an emphasis on Russell’s ability to carry an offense and more of an emphasis on his ability to space the floor for Embiid post-ups and to operate in a two-man game with Embiid on the pick and roll.
In those situations, Russell’s ability to pull up from anywhere on the court becomes a priority, and he can do that as well as anybody in this draft, and as well as all but a handful in the NBA. We spend a lot of time talking about how Russell has a skill set the Sixers need, but the Sixers might also be the situation that Russell needs to truly be successful.
But while OSU’s deficiencies absolutely played a part in Russell’s struggles against good defenders, it’s hard for me to get those fears out of my head when his own deficiencies — weak right hand, average athleticism, lack of explosion around the hoop — were very big contributing factors in Russell becoming one dimensional against the elite competition.
(One final thing: can we please stop the James Harden comparisons? It’s impossible to compare a guy who got to the line at an elite clip with a guy who is average at getting to the line. Russell’s 30.3% free throw rate isn’t a great indicator for a guard that’s a top pick in the draft, and is a very, very, very, big difference from Harden’s 60.2% rate as a freshman, something that has been a crucial part of his success in the NBA).
|Player||Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA)|
|James Harden (freshman)||60.2%|
None of this is even touching on the defensive side of the court. Rule changes over the last decade+ have given guards a prohibitive advantage offensively, something that only the rarest of defenders at the point guard spot can truly overcome. Russell has excellent length to help him on this end, but his average lateral quickness is a definite concern. He’s also not the great technique defender, getting lost off the ball, getting caught upright in his stance, and gambling for steals when he should be moving his feet, just to name a few. The defensive metrics love him, in part because of OSU’s zone, which helped keep Russell’s defensive rebounding numbers incredibly high for a guard, but defense at the next level is a legitimate concern of mine.
Do I still have interest in Russell? You bet. Guys who are threats to pull-up from anywhere on the court do so much to help an offense, especially one centered around a post presence, and his passing is incredible. If he works out, he has the chance to be special.
But I think Russell carries more risk than the sure thing some make him out to be. In fact, I think Russell’s success, as much as any prospect at the top of the draft, may be tied to the teammates he’s surrounded by and the situation he’s in. My hope is that the Sixers are that right situation.
Mudiay, to me, is quite simple: if he improves his jump shot to the point where defenses need to focus on it, he’ll be really, really good. If he remains a very streaky and inconsistent shooter, he’ll be pretty good.
Mudiay’s 34.2% three point shooting during his brief 12-game stint in China looks like some cause for optimism, at least on paper, but a sample size of 13 made three’s is so low that it’s almost worthless to focus on the percentage. His 57.4% free throw shooting, frequently argued to be a better indicator of future jump shooting success, is pretty grim, although once again we’re only talking about 47 attempts.
Those percentages continue a trend that Mudiay displayed in the amateur circuit, though. From 2012-2014, in tournaments ranging from the 2012 Adidas Nations tournament to the 2014 McDonalds game, Mudiay connecting on 24% of his 96 three pointers and 62.5% of his 112 free throws.
I would be a little bit more willing to overlook these percentages if I were more confident in his form. It’s not the most fluid release, with a definite hitch when he has the ball cocked back, which can at times throw his timing way off. Mudiay’s consistency is all over the place, and you’ll see him miss left and right on his attempts, not just on depth.
Outside of that, I really like Mudiay’s game. I’ve said before he’s not the John Wall level or Russell Westbrook level athlete that some portray him as, but he’s quick with the ball in his hands, easily changes speeds and direction, has really good body control, and takes contact well in the paint. I also like his defensive profile and focus on that end of the court, and I like the way he controls the game offensively. I think he has pretty underrated court vision and passing instincts.
But that shooting is a big concern for any team, and especially one centered around Joel Embiid. It’s also a concern I don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in him improving. If we were talking about the difference between a “solid” shooter and Mudiay, I would be more willing to overlook that. But, while Mudiay could perhaps get to “respectable” from deep (and I think that’s what teams will be banking on), I don’t ever see him getting to “elite”, and I think an elite shooter is who you want running your offense when you already have Joel Embiid as a focal point down low.
Hezonja is another one where it’s pretty easy to pin down his weaknesses: ball handling and free throw rate.
Free throw rate in the ACB tends to be right around on-par with the NBA, with the ACB having a league-average free throw rate of 30% last season, compared to 27.3% in the NBA. Both are well below college, where the median in college basketball was about 36.5%. Great college teams, like Duke, hover around 40%.
|League/Player||Free throw rate (FTA/FGA)|
|Barcelona (ACB + Euroleague)||26.8%|
|Mario Hezonja (ACB/Euroleague combined)||11.7%|
(all free throw rates are from this season).
Regardless of the measuring stick you compare Hezonja to, his 11.7% free throw rate was putrid, although it was at least marginally better at 18.2% in Euroleague play.
The root cause of this can probably be attributed to 3 main factors, of which attribution can probably be broken down into equal parts. First is Hezonja’s relatively weak ball handling, even for an off guard. Hezonja is mostly fine on straight line drives, which is important because he’s so often the recipient of overly aggressive close-outs from defenders looking to catch up to the elite shooting Hezonja, but asking him to break his man down off the dribble can be an adventure at this time in his development, and when he’s met with resistance and is taken off his path, causing him to counter, he struggles getting all the way to the hoop.
The second contributing factor is likely Barcelona’s style of play. Barcelona plays a relatively structured offense, with a deep team full of strong offensive options spread throughout, and their free throw rate (26.8%) is towards the bottom of the elite ACB teams. Playing at 19 or 20 years old, Hezonja was one of the youngest players on Barcelona’s roster, and his ability to play within the flow of their offense was likely a key in his ability to stay on the court.
Finally, Hezonja settled for jump shots a little bit too much. This was likely impacted by his ball handling, but some of it was also poor decision-making.
In the end, Hezonja has an incredible first step, which suggests far more potential getting to the rack than he currently shows. But he wouldn’t be the first incredible athlete who was limited in his ability to get to the hoop by underdeveloped ball handling, either (Harrison Barnes says hello).
If Hezonja doesn’t improve his ball handling rather significantly he may be limited to a #2 or #3 option on offense. He’s the type of prospect who has incredible potential, but who I don’t necessarily think has the greatest probability of reaching that potential.
I think Hezonja could be a very good #2 or #3 offensive option mostly with just his current skill set, however, so I don’t think the risk is all that great. He has both a high ceiling and a high floor.
His other main area of concern is his defense. I’m not as concerned as most, as Hezonja has very good size and lateral quickness, and has shown the ability to lock-in when he’s engaged. I think when he becomes a more consistent part of a team’s offense, this concern may go away. But his attentiveness on this side of the court is a current legitimate concern.
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