A great small forward has become one of the most valuable pieces a team can possess in the modern era. To demonstrate that fact, here are the small forwards from the last six championship teams, including the past four Finals MVPs: Andre Iguodala, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, LeBron James, Shawn Marion, and Ron Artest. These players encompass a wide range of skill levels, but the common denominator is elite defense at multiple positions. Of the four best teams in basketball this season, the Cavs, Thunder, and Spurs boast the three best small forwards in the game, while the Warriors play an elite defender and distributor in that spot. All of this is to say that getting these evaluations correct could be incredibly important for the future of the teams that draft or pass on these players.
The best of this year's crop is Brandon Ingram. Ingram is solid, if slightly underwhelming statistically, but absolutely oozes potential. This starts with his size, pterodactyl-like wingspan, and ballhandling ability. This may be recency bias speaking, but Ingram is a very similar prospect to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like the Hellenic Hero at the same age, Ingram does not have one outstanding skill, but possesses a well-rounded game in the type of body that makes basketball scouts drool.
Ingram's handle is one of the causes for optimism surrounding his game. It's still pretty loose, and he's not always able to get to the rim, but it's advanced for an eighteen year old combo forward. When you combine a decent handle with Ingram's length, it becomes easier for him to get to the rim in one or two dribbles, a skill that projects to the next level. To become an offensive star, Ingram not only needs the ability to get to the basket, but he needs to shoot at a high enough percentage to keep defenses honest and good enough court vision to take advantage of double teams and poor defensive rotations.
His shot isn't where it needs to be yet, though over 40% from deep gives some room for optimism. His numbers on free throws and two point jumpers paint a less sanguine picture of his shot's effectiveness. Even if he only develops into an okay shooter, his high release point ensures that most of his catch and shoot attempts will be effectively uncontested. Ingram only posted a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio, but I was really impressed by his court vision. He would use his height to make passes over the top of the defense, including to the opposite corner, and made some nice interior passes off drives. Any improvement in his handle should pay dividends in his assist totals, and I would not be surprised if he eventually averaged 4-5 assists a game in the NBA.
Ingram is mostly "just a guy" on the defensive end of the floor. Duke played quite a bit of zone this year, which camouflaged his talents, but on most plays he did not make much of an impact, either positively or negatively (unlike Ben Simmons, who I'll be evaluating in a couple weeks). Ingram certainly looks the part of a defensive terror when he's guarding on the perimeter, with his arms outstretched from baseline to baseline, but his lack of lateral quickness and strength currently limits his impact. That could certainly change as he gets stronger allowing him to guard power forwards.
The best aspects of Ingram's defensive game are his ability to block shots and grab tough rebounds. After watching him, I was surprised that he averaged "only" 8 rebounds per 40 minutes. Ingram has a penchant for aggressively pursuing rebounds in traffic and will scrap with bigger players. In the games I watched, it seemed that he got very few "cheap" rebounds and quite a few contested rebounds. Without charting every Duke game, I would be interested to see if that observation held true for the entire season. A related part of Ingram's game, that is impressive at a first glance, is his ability to take said rebound and go coast to coast, often drawing a foul or setting up a teammate for a good shot.
Ingram definitely belongs in the discussion for a top three draft pick along with Ben Simmons and Dragan Bender. While he is statistically inferior to Ben Simmons, and I don't think I would take him number one, Ingram's length, scrappiness, and youth make him a better prospect than the raw statistics might suggest.
Jaylen Brown needs to hope that he is a better prospect than his raw statistics might suggest, because his raw statistics suggest that he might not know how to play basketball. Despite some deficiencies I'll spend some paragraphs outlining, Brown is listed as a top 5 prospect by many draft experts, and it is easy to understand the rationale behind those rankings. Brown is strong, has long arms, and is athletic. If you were just watching guys run up and down a basketball court, without a ball involved, Brown would look like one of the best players on the court.
Brown's best attribute as a player is his ability to get to the rim. His handle is good enough to take the ball end to end in transition, though he tends to lose the ball, or occasionally just fall down, when attacking in the half court. Attacking the rim is most of what Brown does, without any consideration for the number of people between him and the basket and their positioning. Sometimes this works out, leading to layups and free throws, but often it leads to wild misses and turnovers. This can lead to bad games against smart, disciplined, focused defenses, like Brown's 7 point, 3 turnover performance against San Diego State, his 6-25 shooting in two games against Arizona, and a 4-29, 14 turnover performance in 3 conference tournament and NCAA games.
Brown's struggles on offense start with his shot. Brown hit 30% of his two and three point jumpers and only 65% of his free throws. It's possible to only hit 30% of your threes and still be considered a decent shooting prospect, like R.J. Hunter last year. Not all 30% seasons are created equal; it's a bit different when you watch the games and see how badly Brown misses the basket on some of his shots. Defenders can play off him and he doesn't quite have the handle and athleticism of Ben Simmons, who is able to play efficiently anyway, despite the same handicap. It is possible Brown eventually learns to shoot, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Brown's other problem is a stratospheric turnover rate. This has a few causes. He can make basic drive & dish passes, but he often gets tunnel vision, missing open shooters and driving straight into the help defense. His handle is pretty loose and he gets his pocket picked in traffic fairly often. He also, like Kris Dunn, has strange turnovers when he occasionally just loses the ball for no real reason. His overall awareness isn't great. He has the physical profile to be a good defender, as he is strong enough to defend both forward positions and quick enough to be able to stay in front of his man, but lapses in concentration have lead to improperly switched screens, failure to get back in transition, and a tendency to bite on pump fakes.
Brown does have a nascent post game that looked pretty good, he looked to be strong enough to guard most NBA fours, and a few years of experience in the league could be enough for him to learn how to play interior defense. The problem is, even if he sticks full time at power forward, I don't know how valuable that makes him. The best case scenario may be Rudy Gay at the four. That's a useful player, but I don't think it's an upside that's worth using a lottery pick to acquire, especially when there is significant downside potential.
It is difficult for me to balance Brown's positives (physical profile) and negatives (awareness and skill level), but in the end, I don't think he'll make my top 20. I understand the appeal and there's always a chance he figures everything out, but he has several skills he needs to drastically improve to become a star, and the odds are against that. Brown was only a freshman this year, albeit an older one that will turn twenty before next season starts, and he is reportedly very intelligent off the basketball court, which could help him continue to develop as a player. Of course, so are Bismack Biyombo and Etan Thomas and neither of them ever developed good court vision.
On the surface, Prince looks like the perfect 3&D prospect for the modern NBA. He's tall enough to play either forward position, he can shoot a little, he can handle a little, he gets steals and blocks, and he has cool wing stopper hair, like Kawhi Leonard or DeMarre Carroll. If I were ranking prospects without ever watching them play, just balancing the numbers with the consensus projections, I would rank Prince as a lottery prospect, maybe even in my top ten. However, in an effort to approximate due diligence, what I saw while watching Prince made me less than optimistic about the contributions he will make to his first or second team.
Much of Prince's appeal is in his potential as the basketball swiss army knife, a versatile defender that can guard twos, threes, and fours. While that may be possible down the road, I don't think he will be able to defend most power forwards, even stretch fours, anytime soon. Prince has broad shoulders but very skinny legs, and any time he was asked to check a real big man, like Kansas' Landen Lucas, he got annihilated on the glass, to the point I started to feel sorry for him. It's possible that strength will develop by the time Prince is in his late 20's, but that will likely be too late for the team drafting him to take advantage of his skills.
The rest of Prince's defensive game was also somewhat questionable. I was a little apprehensive going in, as Baylor mostly plays a zone defense, a style that has been known to inflate a player's defensive numbers cough*wesleyjohnson*cough. What I saw was a player with good tools who nonetheless was prone to drifting in and out of the game, losing shooters, and getting taken advantage of on closeouts. Like the much younger Brandon Ingram, Prince will sometimes make a spectacular play on defense, but was not a very impactful player possession to possession. I think Prince still has a chance at becoming a good NBA defender, but he has a lot of work to put in, and was not done any favors by his college environment. For this reason, I again would not want to be the first team to draft him, but would maybe look to acquire him after a few years of learning the ropes.
Offensively, Prince is not bad enough to pass up, but is not good enough to take in the first round if you are worried about his defense. He is a decent shooter, who will sometimes miss a wide open catch and shoot corner 3, then nail a contested off the dribble above the break 3 the next possession. His floor game is acceptable, but limited. He will make really bad passes at times, but is pretty good off one or two dribbles. The problem is that this usually leaves him in floater range, rather than at the rim. He is better than you would expect at hitting awkward floaters, but that's not a skill you would want to depend on at the next level. But whatever else you can say about him, his interview game is top notch.
Bembry is a player I want to love, if only for aesthetic reasons. Along with Chinanu Onuaku, he is one of the guys in this draft who looks, and plays, like he came straight out of the 1970s. Bembry is a not quite point forward with an inconsistent jump shot and a killer afro/beard combination. The Saint Joseph's player was relatively impressive during the NBA Combine scrimmages, is currently listed as a fringe first rounder by Draft Express, and is rated even higher by some other draft amateurs with interesting opinions.
The intrigue surrounding Bembry begins with his passing ability. Bembry dramatically improved his assist to turnover rate to 2.2 this year, an outstanding mark for a wing, by increasing his assists and cutting back on his turnovers. He is capable of pinpoint, highlight passes on the move in transition, and from a standstill in the halfcourt, including some casual one handed crosscourt flings. The problem is that he's not quite skilled enough to be a primary ballhandler in the NBA, so he'll need more ancillary skills to earn the playing time to allow his passing and decision making ability to shine, either by getting to the rim or hitting threes.
Bembry is not an explosive athlete who can get to the rim at will, but he is strong for his size and crafty, with good footwork and a nice Eurostep that he busts out in transition. If he could shoot, I think that would open up the floor for him to be able to use his existing skills to become a very effective offensive player. Of course, shooting is currently his weakness, having made just 31% of his threes and 63% of his free throws over three years at Saint Joseph's. I don't know what the odds are that he'll improve, but they probably start to be worth it around pick 20-25.
As a strong, smart player, Bembry is a solid defender who has the versatility to guard both wing positions. He is long enough, strong enough, quick enough, and I think he has very good body control, a tool that is difficult to quantify, but I think can be very important to a player's success or failure. He is a little small to move to the four, even later in his career, and there is no guarantee he will be a rotation player, but if he learns to shoot, he could be a steal for some team drafting in the late first or early second.
Of the prospects in this paragraph, I like Dorian Finney-Smith the best. Similar to Taurean Prince without the gaudy defensive stats, I think that DFS has about the same chance to be a solid NBA defender at both positions and is only a slightly less capable shooter. He is also stronger than Prince, giving him a better chance of surviving at the four. Close behind is Troy Williams, whose athleticism, defensive potential, and slick handle give him a high ceiling, but whose questionable shot and even worse decision making leave me pessimistic he'll reach it.
Jake Layman played for a Maryland team stacked with offensive talent, putting up an extremely efficient offensive season on low usage. Whether this was a case of a talented player not getting the right opportunity or the rest of the team hiding his weaknesses, I do not know, but his lackluster passing ability makes me reluctant to draft a wing who is reliant on offensive skill to contribute.
Daniel Hamilton is one of the more unusual prospects in this draft. He is like a poor man's Denzel Valentine, who can pass really well, shoot kind of well, and cannot get to the rim, settling for a ton of low percentage floaters. He is slow and unathletic for a prospect, meaning he'll probably struggle to defend at the next level. Damion Lee is a generic D-League wing, who can kind of shoot, kind of handle, and kind of play defense, but probably can't do any of those things at a high enough level to stick on a NBA roster. But sometimes those guys improve more than you think they will after reaching their mid-20s.