Unheralded Steals in the 2016 NBA Draft

With no time to breathe after the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first team in history to come back down 3-1 in the Finals and the King finally bringing a championship to his home, there are several more story lines to follow on the league calendar in just the next several days, starting with the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday. There is a consensus number one talent in point forward Ben Simmons, and the two most historic teams in the Association, the Lakers and Celtics, picking second and third. Philadelphia, after years of futility, have a chance to land the top prize but because of their reported shopping of Jahlil Okafor, it appears they do not want good things in the near future. Los Angeles will have to prove that they can take what is handed to them (Brandon Ingram) after passing up on a gift wrapped Okafor last year for D’Angelo Russell, a rookie they themselves are not proud of and are willing to trade, according to recent reports. It would appear like there is still a chance to correct the wrongs of the past by flipping the two for each other, but of course, these are the Lakers and Sixers we are talking about here. The Celtics believe they are a player away from being able to attract marquee stars to Beantown, and have themselves considered Okafor but have had second thoughts due to their dual pursuit of another disgruntled center in DeMarcus Cousins. A love affair with Kevin Love also looks to be in serious jeopardy following the Cavs’ ability to fit him into their offense. Regardless, Boston should feel very confident with its direction and does, as evidenced by recent extensions for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens.

In a sense, the draft really starts here and although they’d ideally want to trade for a Jimmy Butler, you’d figure the C’s have pretty good options available for their biggest need: shooting. Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield are as good as they get in that regard and both impressed in their workouts with the team. Phoenix is the best bet to pop someone totally undeserving at four, big men like “not even close to Kristaps Porzingis, every draft has its busts” Dragan Bender or “How did he get his name in this discussion by just being a high flying leaper? I want his agent!” Marquese Chriss. The Timberwolves, in this scenario, could add the highest player on my board, Kris Dunn and team him up with Karl Anthony Towns. It is unclear how Tom Thibodeau would like to mess this up, however, I must say firing the entire administration that got him his toys isn’t an auspicious start. Minnesota’s history of being allergic to top point guards might not make this a possibility. Jaylen Brown might slide a little bit in some boards because of his tendency to want to try and draw fouls inside but that is not a bad attribute to have on top of his intelligence and willingness to play defense. He is the last of the elite category in this draft, players categorized as being top ten selections in an all time great draft like 2015’s. This year, there’s no way to get some of our favorites like Myles Turner at 11, Devin Booker 13 or even Bobby Portis with 22. Outside the lottery, the cupboard is bare all the way to the end of the first round.

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Luckily, what this class does have is depth. The other wrinkle is the fact that many of the same franchises control a majority of the selections. That’s right! 9 teams control 60% of the selections – a combined 36 selections among them. This bodes well for pickless teams like the New York Knicks since there should be considerable movement on draft night. The reality is, like every year, organizations will not want to choose that many players and logistically cannot do so. Trading into the second round has been a prime target for New York each of the last three years when the current regime acquired Cleanthony Early, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Willy Hernangomez, with varying degrees of success. Hernangomez, the latest of the trio who required multiple second rounders for his rights, is expected to join the Knicks this summer. Of course, much of this has to do with the front offices of years past and a meddling owner giving up first round draft picks for soon to be free agents when they simply did not need to. The last portion of the Carmelo Anthony trade will net the Denver Nuggets the seventh overall pick and cost his team what would have been a valuable extra asset, potentially a wing player like Hield, Murray or Brown who they very much could’ve used.

Also, in typical Knicks fashion, the same 2016 first round pick was traded again to Toronto and Masai Ujiri, the man that orchestrated both deals, for Andrea Bargnani, gifting the division rival Raptors the ninth pick as a nice present for eclipsing 50 wins this season. Not to excuse a series of blunders that have seemed to take place for the last decade, but Phil Jackson and Steve Mills get credit for not succumbing to the temptation of mortgaging the future. I can’t believe I’m typing this but as of this writing, the Knicks own all their first round draft picks starting in 2017; a rare feat indeed!

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In general, I’d like to see Phil Jackson and Co. acquire a minimum of two seconds but if they are ideally able to get their hands on a late first, that will do if they take the THREE following players: Australia’s Thon Maker, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Saint Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry. It’s no secret that the roster is lacking guards. That being said, Thon Maker, in my opinion, has the chance to be one of the biggest heists in recent memory and the best true center in the draft. Thon is taking a major leap of faith, much like Kobe Bryant did when he came in the league, of entering directly out of high school. The word that came immediately to mind when I see him is “alien.” Maker might not be the offensive player some thought he was from his highlight tapes but he is exactly the type of guy you’d want to pair with Kristaps Porzingis. His ability to be coached, textbook knowledge of the history of the game and winning, gym rat attitude are reasons why this kid should not be available in the late first/early second round.

Denzel Valentine is another individual that might fall through the cracks for different reasons than the ones citing his knees. Valentine has the profile of someone that’s going to slide because of the skeptics who don’t believe his collegiate performance to be real. Rather than saying that, it’s far easier to call him an injury waiting to happen like Danny Granger and avoid the fact he hasn’t missed very many games due to injury. I have a tough time naming players better than him in this draft outside the top eight, maybe Henry Ellenson or Skal Labissiere if a team thinks it can teach him how to play five on five basketball after Calipari’s putting him in the post experiment with failed. Assuming Denzel falls past his hometown Pistons, the Knicks should pounce because he really is the perfect fit with his versatility and ability to be a triple double threat every time out.

DeAndre Bembry, on the other hand, might be New York’s most realistic shot at a best kept secret and slam dunk. They’ve had success looking for contributors at St. Joes with Langston Galloway and Bembry has the feel of a late seventies Knick because of his great Afro. His playing style is also a distinct throwback, as he likes to stuff the stat sheet as well. He plays with a confidence that took his small school team to the NCAA tournament too, runs the floor well and the shot is not broken especially because you could see it got better when he actually worked with a professional shooting coach in the pre-draft process. Bembry didn’t want to declare until he was ready and goes into Thursday with a heavy heart from the murder of his brother and best friend. Atlanta’s 21, which they seem to be throwing away for financial reasons and Al Horford, is a possible spot to grab him. A playoff team getting Bembry at the mid twenties to ride on their bench for multiple seasons would be a shame.

Malik Beasley is the other wild card if he drops far enough into an area close to Bembry after having a rod put in his leg and not participating in as many workouts as he would’ve liked. Beasley’s tremendously efficient rookie season at Florida State and his invite to the Green Room makes it likely he’ll still go as smidge higher than DeAndre even though they are pretty comparable.

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Thon Maker, Denzel Valentine and DeAndre Bembry not materializing would be disappointing but not surprising. Kyle O’Quinn, at the worst, can net the Knickerbockers a second round pick with some $3 million cash added in for another one. What has happened is that many who have written this draft off completely as weak probably weren’t going to do the homework on 60 prospects anyway. The irony is that the teams that are at the top of the standings exploit and capitalize through these channels and pathways for player acquisition more than the average team. It is no coincidence that the same teams are picking first, second, third etc. every year while the Cavs, for example, were signing Jordan McRae to end of season contracts. Picks traded far into the future without protection are now being conveyed, a major quandry for teams that have stacked them up. This sets the stage for second round steals and if you’re anything like me, you’ll like looking for the next Isaiah Thomas, Hassan Whiteside, Kyle Korver, Monta Ellis, Khris Middleton, Goran Dragic, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasols etc. Now that we’re forced to actively search for them like other unfortunate teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, it’ll likely be easier to accomplish. Say what you want, these are still the top 60 amateurs in the world getting drafted and it’s a chore to try to save them from a life in the developmental leagues, where their journey becomes even more improbable and crazier to suggest.

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Starting with wing players, Pat McCaw is in a group of his own. In his case and the ten domestic players I will be selecting, they are capable of first round performance but just need a little extra to push them to that level. For UNLV’s McCaw, it’s his strength. It is critical to understand what you are getting and to agree that the weaknesses don’t override the strengths. Pat is a very fluid athlete with a great length and clearly sees himself as a two way player with the ceiling of his favorite player, Penny Hardaway. You want performers who know who they are and what they want to be, more so for second rounders. Pat McCaw aces all of the tests, like interviews as does Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert. Brogdon, from Virginia, may not have the ceiling of those younger than him but it wouldn’t shock anybody if he cracks the starting lineup of a needy team. His leadership in the locker-room and the respect he gets from his peers could make him a ten year veteran. Michigan’s LeVert, by all accounts, would’ve been firmly in the mix to be chosen in the first round had he stayed healthy. Caris reminds me a lot of Shaun Livingston and can be a great sixth man right away, and can command nice second units. A Jones fracture in his foot is not the end for Caris LeVert, it certainly wasn’t for Kevin Durant. The last of my wings, not internationally, is Wayne Selden. Selden has screamed under-performer while at Kansas. A highly touted recruit, he didn’t put it together as quickly as most hoped but came on strong this year. Watching Wayne play is a lot like watching J.R. Smith. The decision making is questionable and he’s a streaky shooter. He seems to be better off the field so perhaps that will help reach his potential.

France’s Isaia Cordinier and Adriatic Basketball’s Rade Zagorac are two intriguing Euro stash options. Cordinier plays with a lot of style, energy and athleticism but has average size and handle. The Croatian Zagorac, 6’9, was overshadowed by his teammate, Timothe Luwawu, and can do some of the same things he does and better. He competes like a Klay Thompson and can play the shooting guard position too had it been asked of him. Staying an extra year would’ve been positive for Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson too. It only takes one team to believe and thankfully for Malachi, it appears Memphis is one of them in the first round and looks to throw him into the fire. He’s raw and isn’t currently much more than a catch and shoot guy but certainly does have upside and could’ve been a great scenario in the second for Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks.

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The second round boasts a number of quality power forwards, as the draft doesn’t have many quality centers outside of Thon Maker, a consideration for my high ranking of him. While not a place of highest need, the departure of Derrick Williams makes it prudent to add another forward to the fold if you’ve gotten the wing player you really wanted. Brice Johnson’s knack for rebounding and evolving offensive game makes him attractive. A mobile and dependable player that takes high percentage shots, Johnson’s had a stellar career at UNC but needs to work on his focus defensively.. Michael Jordan and Charlotte have surely taken notice. Ben Bentil was actually the leading scorer at Providence, not Kris Dunn, with 25 PPG per 40. While Bentil won’t become Dwyane Wade like Dunn will, he is a “modern” NBA stretch four. Having only picked up a basketball just a few years ago as a teenager in Ghana, he possesses a seven foot wingspan and the footwork of a soccer player. He can go into chucker mode sometimes with his jumper but that won’t be a problem once he sees it affect his minutes. Cordinier’s fellow countrymen in France, Guerschon Yabusele, is a tank weighing almost 270 pound and rest assure there won’t be a lot people wanting to body him up. He is undersized and a tweener in that sense, but that isn’t as much of a detriment as it used to be. Yabusele has soft hands, a good touch and is improving on the other side of the ball, letting his speed take over but is still very raw against weaker competition.

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Similar to quarterbacks, every team needs a young point guard waiting in the wings to serve as depth in a point guard’s league. Jerian Grant had a forgettable rookie year but even the oldest players in every draft progress differently in their systems. For Grant, because of his reliance on the pick and roll, things didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Initially, Tyler Ulis was at the top of my board for point guards in the second round because of his intangibles, but the crop seems better than originally thought. For wing players, the race is on to get into the top half of the round but with point guards you could get away with waiting till the end of the second round and perhaps even into the undrafted free agent pool to fill up the summer league (Yogi Ferrell, Marcus Paige and Isaiah Cousins among others).

For me, NC State’s Cat Barber is the best of the rest. Barber has the quickness of a Jeff Teague and is capable of producing in that way. He can pull up from anywhere, come off the dribble and often gets unfairly criticized for trying to create for himself. Oakland’s Kay Felder is the more willing passer, with an absurd nine assists a game and is fun to watch. Felder and Ulis are all of 5’9 but Felder is definitely the more imposing figure since he doesn’t weight 149 soaking wet even with Ulis’ chiseled core. Unfortunately for Felder, if he were a few inches taller and went to Kentucky, he’d be the darkhorse first round pick Ulis probably is. Brooklyn born combo guard Isaiah Whitehead revived Seton Hall’s program and is a name Knicks fans would most like to hear. It’s fairly impressive what he did with the ball not going in the basket around 37% in his two years, a reason why his stock didn’t rise as much although him being decent at the free throw line relives some of those concerns. With his bulldog mentality, seriousness and Eric Bledsoe build, I’d have no issue taking him above Ulis, Barber and Felder as long as it’s somewhere inside the second round.

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Finally, no draft is complete without role players. The term “3 and D” doesn’t always adequately describe the importance and value of these players but is well understood. Maryland’s Jake Layman and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff can carve out those kind of careers, maybe plateauing like a Chandler Parsons. Layman, coming from a disappointing Terrapins team with Melo Trimble, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter, embraced his job as fourth or fifth option early on. Meanwhile, Uthoff in Des Moines intelligently took on the responsibilities of 2015 second round pick Aaron White after he left and saw an uptick in usage. Jeff Hornacek would love to draw up plays out of timeouts where Uthoff takes advantage and shoots off screens. The New York Knicks have positioned themselves to continue building up their roster, whether that be through a late first to select Maker, Valentine or Bembry, or multiple seconds for two of McCaw, Brogdon, LeVert, Selden, Cordinier, Zagorac, Johnson, Bentil, Yabusele, Barber, Felder, Whitehead, Layman and Uthoff. We’ll have to tune in to find out if any of these players will wear the orange and blue next season. Free agency will follow a week after that and we’ll have you covered on it as well! The Knicks are already off to a great start in their quest to return to the playoffs and become a destination for years to come.

jeffphil

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