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Eggplant's Guide to the 2016 Draft: The Combo Guards

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The pessimism continues with a look at the guys who played some point guard in college, but shouldn't in the NBA.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As I was doing some cursory research for an article on shooting guard prospects, it became obvious that there are a lot of borderline shooting guard prospects this year. Due to the overabundance of that player type, I decided to split the article into those shooting guards that at least make a pretense at playing point guard at the collegiate level and those who could never be mistaken for a point guard. As I stated last time, I claim no special insight or expertise in the scouting process; this is just the result of one fan with slightly too much time on his hands watching condensed games on YouTube (because college basketball has so many stoppages nobody should be forced to endure that live), looking at some statistics and doing his best to reckon as to what the future might hold. If I you would like to read about this year's point guards, you can do so here. If you have a very busy executive lifestyle with little time to spend on such frivolities, I was a bit more sanguine on the draft prospects of Wade Baldwin and Tyler Ulis than the rest of the class.

Jamal Murray

Per 40 Pace
7.7 17.1 .454 3.6 8.8 .411 3.8 4.8 .784 1.7 5.9 2.5 1.1 0.3 2.6 2.4 22.9 .590

6 GP v. Top 20 D

39.0 6.3 14.3 .442 4.0 8.5 .471 3.5 5.2 .677 0.8 5.3 1.3 0.5 0.5 3.0 1.7 20.2 .607

When I'm watching a game on YouTube to prepare for these articles, I jot down notes on a Google Doc to review later and come up with both a general perception and some specific points to make it seem like I know what I'm writing about. Here is what happened on plays I specifically noted the presence of both Jamal Murray & Alex Caruso, Texas A&M's NBA quality point guard defender.

- Murray can't do anything against Caruso.

- Murray gets ball w/10 on clock. Caruso completely stonewalls him. Shot clock violation.

- Murray runs Caruso through a few screens. Nails a catch & shoot 3.

- Murray hits catch & shoot 3 after Caruso overhelps.

- Murray cannot drive against Caruso.

- Murray misses stepback over Caruso.

- Murray gets switch, drives, Caruso switches back, steals it.

- Murray tries to take Caruso off the dribble, almost ends disastrously.

There were more plays where the two were matched up for which I did not take detailed notes, but I was very unimpressed with Murray's ability to get to the rim. As can also be inferred from this abbreviated log, Murray's best skill is getting open for catch & shoot threes, often delivered perfectly into his shooting pocket by arguably the best point guard in college basketball.

Murray has an unusual athletic profile. He has a large posterior that suggests an ability to one day take smaller guards into the post, but as of now lacks the strength to take advantage of this attribute, except against the smallest opponents. Murray is also, by my eye test, slow and lacks an explosive burst to the basket. This lack of ability to beat anyone off the dribble is backed up by the stats and I am doubtful whether Murray will ever become a dynamic creator off the dribble. This lack of speed and lateral quickness is also evident on the defensive end, where Murray struggles, to put it charitably.

I am slightly reluctant to completely write off Murray's chances based on his athletic profile for a few reasons. The first is that, despite his lack of speed, Murray is not completely ground bound, allegedly posting a max vertical of 39.5" and elevating for a couple impressive dunks in the Kentucky games I watched. The second reason is that Murray has a rather odd gait at times, especially on defense, where he sometimes resembles a waddling duck vainly attempting to corral a raccoon barrelling towards a trash can. The hope would be that a couple summers working with sports science professionals at places like P3 can straighten out his running style and improve his lateral quickness, allowing him to better utilize his jumpiness and potential strength. He's also a weirdly good offensive rebounder, which could be a harbinger of the strength and nose for the ball needed to be an effective NBA scorer, a bit like Shabazz Muhammad.

Murray's main selling point is his jump shot. Murray hit 41% on nearly the same volume of threes as Buddy Hield. Even if that is his only NBA skill, a very good 19 year old 3 point shooter with decent size is still worth a first rounder. There are a couple factors that make me slightly hesitant to anoint Murray the next great shooter. Murray was assisted on over 89% of his threes, compared to 68% for Hield, he played next to an excellent point guard, and he hit about 78% of his free throws, the mark of a solid but less than excellent shooter. I think there is a decent chance that Murray becomes a useful offensive player with a situational post game and deadly long distance shooting, but even with improved athleticism, he has such a long way to go on defense, and in creating offense in the half court, that I would be reluctant to draft him in the top ten. There's a very good chance Murray could become an effective scorer without becoming an effective overall player. In fact, I kind of expect that outcome, at least for the first several years of his career. (The reader should probably know that I was similarly bearish on the superficially similar Devin Booker last year, and that seems to be off to a good start, even if we don't know if he'll ever be able to defend.)

Denzel Valentine

Per 40 Pace
8.3 18.0 .464 4.2 9.4 .447 3.4 4.0 .853 1.0 9.5 9.6 1.3 0.3 3.3 2.0 24.3 .608

7 GP v. Top 20 D

37.0 7.9 18.6 .423 3.3 8.4 .390 3.9 4.4 .871 0.9 7.8 7.9 0.7 0.1 2.4 1.6 22.9 .557

Valentine has quite a few similarities to Murray. Both are excellent shooters. Both have issues creating shots at the rim. Both were placed in excellent positions to succeed this year. Both are horrible defenders. The main differences between the two players are that Valentine is a virtuoso passer but Murray is three and a half years younger and has more athletic upside.

At first glance, Valentine appears to be similar to another heady, but slower than your average Canis reader, prospect, the Spurs' Kyle Anderson. There are a couple important differences distinguishing the two players. Anderson is a few inches taller and had much better defensive stats at UCLA, but Valentine is a much better shooter. Which set of attributes is more important? While shooting is often viewed as the most important skill a player can have, size and wingspan can be more important when compensating for lack of speed and athleticism. It was much easier to imagine Anderson eventually finding a productive defensive niche in the NBA as a skilled power forward than it is to imagine Valentine not becoming a huge liability as the NBA's slowest shooting guard.

As a NBA player, Valentine will have to adjust to a very different role. It doesn't matter how good of a passer you are if you can't use your shot or dribble to move the defense ever so slightly out of position. Just ask Kendall Marshall. Instead of being the focal point of the offense, Valentine's inability to get to the rim means that he'll be functioning as a secondary offensive option and won't have the opportunity to replicate his crazy college counting stats. His shooting ability means that he could provide off-ball gravity, and his passing ability, which is really superb, could be deadly against an already scrambled defense. I don't want to end this section without emphasizing his passing ability. Whether it's making the pass ahead to jumpstart a fast break, making quick decisions in the half court, or making the highlight pass for the alley oop dunk, it's the type of elite skill that few other prospects in this draft possess.

As I'm writing, one of the themes of this piece seems to be the importance of defense, and my (either) just emphasis or naive overemphasis on that end of the floor. I would be very reluctant to draft a player in the lottery who I was fairly sure would be a big negative on one end of the floor. Unless Valentine surprises there, which may be possible with more effort and a reduced offensive load, though I'm skeptical, he may be best suited as a 7th or 8th man that can provide some juice for the second unit. That's still a useful player to pick up in the middle of the 1st.

Dejounte Murray

Per 40 Pace
6.2 14.9 .416 1.0 3.6 .288 3.4 5.1 .663 1.5 6.2
4.7 1.9 0.3 3.4 2.8 16.8 .485

3 GP v. Top 20 D

35.7 6.7 19.3 .345 0.3 3.0 .111 4.7 8.3 .560 2.7 9.4 4.3 2.3 0.3 2.7 4.0 18.3 .399

The other Murray is the closest thing to a point guard on this list. He is big, athletic in a smooth instead of explosive way, and extremely raw. Murray's biggest flaw is obvious from the stats listed above. He can't shoot. He can't really run an offense at this point in his career either, so the team that drafts him will be in the position of hoping he develops one of the skills, allowing his athleticism to be put to better use.

Murray is the classic upside pick. His off the dribble jumpers sometimes miss more badly than mine, he gets bullied by stronger players, and lacks adequate defensive awareness. Some of his struggles come from a lack of strength. He has ideal height and length for a point/combo guard, 6'5 with a 6'9.5 wingspan, but he is only slightly heavier than Tyler Ulis. That means that Murray will often get to the rim, but be unable to finish. That seems to be a very correctable weakness, however, as Murray becomes older and stronger. Similarly, his awareness is not great right now, but you can see glimpses during plays where he comes up with steals or makes good passes. Watching Murray actually reminded me a little bit of watching LaVine when he was learning to make the pocket pass on the pick and roll. You can see him developing while still being reminded of how much work there was to do.

One of the aspects of Murray's game that I like is his aggression. Even when it might have been a bad idea, he continued to attack the basket and was always looking push the ball in transition. At his current skill level, that will lead to a lot of turnovers and wild layups in the NBA, but as his skills continue to develop, he could become a dangerous weapon off the dribble. That makes Murray a difficult prospect to project. When does taking the gamble on him based on his physical tools become a good idea? Normally, I might suggest that Murray would be a good 2nd rounder. In this draft, I might take him in the late 1st, though I could say that about 25 players by the time this series is over.

Grayson Allen

Per 40 Pace
7.6 16.0 .473 2.9 6.7 .427 6.2
.838 0.7 4.9 3.9 1.5 0.2 2.3 3.0
24.2 .616

7 GP v. Top 20 D

38.6 7.3 15.9 .459 2.9 6.7 .426 4.3 5.6 .769 0.6 4.9 2.7 1.1 0.3 3.0 2.1 20.3 .554

Allen is one of quite a few prospects in this draft who is a knockdown college shooter with major question marks surrounding the rest of his game. Let's start with the positive. The first, and most obvious, point in his favor is his shooting ability, attested to by his three point and free throw percentage. The second point in his favor is his constant aggression. Allen gets to the rim in the half court more effectively than any other real backcourt prospect in this draft and draws more than his fair share of fouls. While watching Duke, it struck me that some of those fouls were the consequence of a very charitable interpretation of the rules, but when a player drives to the basket that often, he is going to get some calls.

What are Allen's weaknesses? Besides looking like Ted Cruz, the man with the worst face in college basketball has been typecast as the dreaded "shooting guard in a point guard's body." That is true to an extent. Although Allen is capable of making good passes, his decision making process is far more likely to result in a kamikaze drive to the rim than running the offense to set up a teammate. Allen is also 6'4ish, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could spend quite a bit of time at the two in the NBA.

His constant driving also results in a surfeit of plays where he looks really bad, even if his turnover rate is surprisingly low. I'm pretty sure that Allen led the NCAA this year in "amount of times sliding into the stanchion", he doesn't have the most impressive counter moves when Plan A goes awry, and when Duke played against teams with NBA quality big men he had a bit more difficulty finishing inside, as could be seen by a 2-11 showing against Kentucky and 3-18 against Utah, though he had much better games later in the year against Louisville and North Carolina. His athleticism is less than elite, which explains why he is often touted as a second round pick. This shows up most clearly on the defensive end, where he is pesky at best and overmatched at worst.

Overall, I'm not sure what makes Allen much worse than Jamal Murray as a prospect. He's a year older, which hurts, but he's around the same size, is the same quality shooter (if not better), a better passer, better at getting to the rim, and probably a better defender. Murray is a better leaper, should eventually be stronger...and that's pretty much it at this point. It will be interesting to see if there is a large discrepancy between the combine numbers for those two. I would probably still take Murray first at this point due to youth and assumed superiority of physical profile, but I wouldn't feel great about it, and if they test similarly at the combine I could reverse my judgment on that question.

Caris LeVert

Per 40 Pace
13.8 .457 2.2
.424 3.8 4.7 .802 0.5 6.1
5.1 1.7 0.4 2.3 1.8 18.6 .590

4 GP v. Top 20 D

37.5 5.3 12.8 .412 2.8 6.3
.440 3.0 4.0 .750 0.3 4.6
3.0 2.0 0.0 2.8 2.3 16.3 .560

(stats from 2014-15 & 2015-16 combined)

LeVert is the most difficult type of prospect for me to evaluate from afar because any evaluation as a NBA decision maker would be based on medical factors. LeVert has missed much of the last two seasons with leg injuries, which is an automatic red flag. The question becomes, are those injuries congenital, or should LeVert have as good of a chance at a healthy career as anyone else in this draft? I can't answer those questions, but what type of prospect is LeVert, when healthy?

LeVert's greatest physical asset is his size. At 6'7, he has a height advantage over most guards and can often see over the top of the defense. When I watched him play, I saw him utilize this strength by making passes over his defender to cutters and baseline lurkers that most guards aren't in a position to see. He also uses his height to gain separation on midrange fadeaways, a shot that he should be able get off in the pros, though he has only converted on non-rim 2's at about a 30% clip the past couple years, which is a little concerning. Finally, he is a difficult closeout, as he can shoot over the top of most smaller guards.

Even with his court vision, LeVert's best asset is his shooting. He has hit over 40% the past two years and has the ability to shoot off the catch and off the bounce. 6'7 combo guards who can shoot, pass, and possibly defend competently don't grow on trees. The best comparison might be Rodney Hood, who has a similar profile as a tall shooter with ballhandling ability and questionable defense. When I was judging Hood at the time, I characterized his defense as "unplayable", which turned out to be too pessimistic. LeVert's defense, in contrast, looks merely mediocre. He's very skinny, which hurts against stronger players and on the boards, but he's long enough and smart enough that he won't get torched by non All-NBA players.

My biggest worry with LeVert, besides health, is the possibility that his stats have been inflated thanks to the Michigan system. John Beilein likes to run a five out system, four out at minimum, that prioritizes shooting and ballhandling over defense. This has resulted in previous Wolverines like Trey Burke and Sauce Castillo coming out of school with numbers perhaps a little gaudier than their talents warranted thanks to more open shots and unclogged driving lanes. However, LeVert has a much better athletic profile than either of those players, which should make his transition to the NBA a little easier. Assuming his combine numbers are good and medical reports come back positive, a decisively non-guaranteed outcome, LeVert's size, shooting, and court vision could make him worthy of a top ten pick and the best pro out of this group.

Malik Newman

Per 40 Pace
13.9 .398 3.0
.382 2.3
.687 0.4 4.0
0.1 2.6 2.2
16.4 .521

3 GP v. Top 20 D

3.7 8.7 .423 2.3 5.0
.467 1.7
3.0 .556 0.0 2.7
0.3 0.0 1.3 1.3 11.3 .567

Newman has much less impressive stats than the rest of this group and the mirror, mirror on the wall says he is probably the worst prospect of them all. (I'm so, so, sorry.) Newman's best attributes are his quickness and his three point shot, which looks good despite a mediocre free throw percentage and a sub 32% mark on two point jumpers. Newman has great quickness and has drawn stylistic comparisons to Monta Ellis, but has not been able to translate that quickness into any production on defense or success in creating high percentage looks for himself or others near the rim.

I'm sure it's possible to find successful NBA guards who looked worse than Newman as freshmen, so it's not completely impossible that he eventually develops into a quality player, but the odds are against it. Nearly all of those successful players improved at a higher than expected rate at some point during their careers. Now, the unexpected happens all the time, but you shouldn't really expect it, I write in one of the least necessary sentences in the history of this blog. Thus far, Newman appears to nothing more than an undersized shooting guard with limited defensive potential who needs to drastically improve in some area of his game if he's going to be a NBA player. That's fine. It's why the continent of Europe exists, so guys can hone their games while getting paid before returning in their mid twenties to the traditional unrehearsed chorus of "who is that?" That, and producing Porzingis raps.