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Guide to the NBA Draft: Power Forwards, Part Two

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Many words on Henry Ellenson, and a few words on everyone else.

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

As there are so few wings to write about in this draft, and so many bigs, the second group of power forwards in this year's draft took another entire article. As it turns out, I had quite a lot to say about Henry Ellenson, but most of what I saw when watching these players can be summarized, "If he fixes that glaring flaw, he'll be a useful, but unspectacular player." Hardly the stuff of General Manager fantasies, but still an important part of building a team. The one exception to this rule is Skal Labissiere, but I'll discuss him in more depth after analyzing Henry Ellenson.

Henry Ellenson

I would have written Ellenson off as a prospect if it weren't for one skill. Let me start with the reasons I'm not overly fond of his game. He's slow, but more importantly has slow reactions and certainly does not possess the infamous "small area quickness." If he needs to react quickly on defense, to help on a drive, he very rarely gets there in time. The only times he defends effectively as a help defender is when he is already in position, and the ballhandler obligingly drives right at him. Even then, the driver is often able to finish over him, given a modicum of skill and athleticism.

From what I saw, Marquette tried to protect him, often giving Luke Fischer, the other big (and no defensive stalwart himself), the more difficult assignment. For example, when Marquette played Providence, Fischer spent most of the game guarding Ben Bentil. One of the factors working against Ellenson is that Marquette wasn't a particularly great team on either end of the floor, ranking 106th in offense and 89th in defense according to the KenPom ratings. I don't want to pin that all on Ellenson, as he wasn't surrounded by world beaters, but I didn't get the sense he was surrounded by a bunch of bums, either, and I don't think he elevated them that much.

Ellenson's lack of quickness and athleticism also hurt him on the boards. He has picture perfect technique on the defensive glass, but his slowness off the ground leads to more athletic players tipping rebounds away from him despite inferior position. He is still a good rebounder, but this prevents him from becoming an elite one. This lack of quickness and agility also hurts him on the perimeter. It is easy for guards to blow by him and if he is closing out with the intention of contesting, you hope the guy takes the shot, because if not, it quickly becomes a 5 on 4 as it takes Ellenson a while to get back into the play.

On the offensive end, I was surprised by how much Ellenson played on the perimeter. This was partially due to Marquette often playing traditional two big lineups, but Ellenson looked more comfortable on the perimeter than he did inside. I looked up his numbers on hoop-math after watching a couple games to see if my intuitions were correct, and it turned out only 26% of Ellenson's attempts came at the rim. In comparison, 5'8 mighty mite Kay Felder and long distance sharpshooter Buddy Hield each took over 31% of his shots at the rim. Ellenson's post game is best described as "rudimentary." That's not a fatal flaw for a 19 year old, but it's not a point in his favor, either. He also lacks explosiveness around the rim, making it difficult for him to finish some of the offensive boards he collects.

One of Ellenson's selling points is his potential as a shooter, and like his rebounding, there is something there, but not enough to convince me he'll be a difference maker. His face-up game from midrange looked very good, and he shoots a lot of threes for a freshman big. The problem is that he didn't make them, so you are drafting him and hoping that his shooting improves or that his percentage this year was a fluke.

The facet of Ellenson's game that most surprised me was his handle. I knew that he had a reputation as a skilled big, which usually means a big galoot who can kind of shoot and pass, but Ellenson looked good grabbing a defensive rebound and taking it into the frontcourt. The issue here is that he was still too slow to take the ball all the way to the rim, but it's easy to see him as a ++ ballhandler as a center, which is intriguing. His passing is also very good from both the interior and the perimeter, which complements his handle nicely.

I'm on my seventh paragraph and I'm still not sure how I feel about Ellenson. His game feels like an amalgamation of white guy stereotypes, and it's easy to see someone with his athletic and physical limitations washing out of the league or becoming a Jon Leuer type. On the other hand, his handle gives him the possibility for something more, especially if he can improve his body enough to become a center. Personally, at the cost of a lottery pick, I'd rather doff my cap to the team that took that gamble if he works out.

Skal Labissiere

I don't know if I can improve on the wonderful scouting report offered by TheMoon.

What is this? It's like the opening of Blue Velvet where Lynch pans through this nice little burb and suddenly there's a disembodied human ear on the grass right next to the inflatable kiddie pool. Isn't the relevant question with Skal: should he be drafted? Not: where in the Lotto should he be drafted? Inefficient, very nearly picks up a personal foul for every rebound he grabs (seriously), horrible feel for the game, &c.

It was a real chore to watch this guy. All he does is take long 2s. Even his highlights are tedious. I think these are pretty generous:

CEILING: Mark Blount

MEZZANINE: Jason Smith

FLOOR: Steven Hunter

Skal is another big who took less than 30% of his shots at the rim, but unlike Ellenson, showed no knack for playmaking or rebounding. He fouled all the time, only picking up less fouls than Marquese Chriss because Coach Calipari was actually trying to win basketball games, which kept Skal on the bench behind the gauntlet of Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, who you last saw getting schooled by Chinanu Onuaku in the Combine scrimmages before deciding to return to school and then transfer, and sometimes even Derek Willis, the type of slow, white stretch four that becomes a towel waver on the more successful Wildcat teams. Even when he was in the game with Poythress, an effective college four, he couldn't do much against the other team's weaker big man defender.

Skal's best attributes are that he can block shots and he will maybe one day be able to hit the three, but his surprisingly advanced age (20 year old freshman), his lack of feel for the game, and his lack of productivity make him a player I would not draft. He's just so far away from being a good player - I took notes on four different Kentucky games and the most impressive plays I noted were an open 18 foot jump shot and a help side block. I wrote a pretty scathing review of Marquese Chriss, but at least he made some very impressive plays. I was very bearish on Melo Trimble before he returned to school, but he had a few very impressive plays per game. Let me move on.

Domantas Sabonis

Sabonis is listed at 6'10 with shoes, and I think that might be a generous measurement. He just looks smaller than you would expect a PF/C to be, which could be a problem because he has a center's game. Sabonis is one of those players who dominated the NCAA, but might have to add other elements to his game to be more than a 9th or 10th man in the NBA. From a more optimistic perspective, there are some aspects of his game that suggest he may be able to do so.

Billy Beane once referred to a third baseman named Youkilis as "The Greek God of Walks." In keeping with that theme, I dub Domantas "The Lithuanian God of Positioning." It's uncanny how often he is in the right place on the basketball court. It's the type of skill I don't know if you can teach by the time a player reaches the NBA, and he accomplishes this along with excellent footwork in the low post, competitiveness on the boards, and a soft touch. This combination of skills allowed Sabonis to lay waste to the West Coast Conference this year, and even put up some impressive games against better teams and big men, such as Jakob Poeltl in the NCAA tournament. I still suspect he would struggle against length, and could point to a few possessions against Malik Dime in Gonzaga's blowout of Washington, but that would hardly be conclusive evidence.

For Sabonis to be a truly dangerous offensive player, I think he needs to keep developing his outside shot.For the good of the team, it made sense to have Kyle Wiltjer play on the perimeter and Sabonis play inside. At the next level, that will likely change, at least on some possessions, as Sabonis is paired with a rim protector. He was an excellent free throw shooter for a big (77%) and was very accurate on a small sample of 18-20 footers. He has a very deliberate set shot that, while effective against big men who were more scared of his post game, may need to be sped up against NBA defenses.

Sabonis' positioning skills also extend to the defensive end. I was surprised how effective he was on defense, and much of his effectiveness was driven by the fact that he was nearly always in the right place at the right time. The question is whether that will be enough in the NBA. While Sabonis was effective on the defensive end, some guards finished over him despite his perfect positioning, and teams have to ask themselves if that will be a regular occurrence in the NBA. While it is very possible Sabonis turns into a less athletic Dante Cunningham when going up against length and athleticism every night, I hate to bet against players with excellent basketball instincts, and I suspect Sabonis will find some way to turn into a productive player, though the odds of him becoming anything more than that, given the questions about his athleticism and tweener-ness, are pretty long.

Brice Johnson

Johnson was statistically very similar to Sabonis this year, but has very different questions about his game. Within ten minutes of seemingly every North Carolina game I watched, an announcer would start talking about his lack of focus and defensive intensity. But in contrast to Sabonis, Johnson could sometimes make up for a lapse in judgement with an athletic block or steal, leading me to think that if he remained focused, he could be at least an average NBA defender. The other problem I see for him defensively is that like Sabonis, he seems to be stuck at the four, being too small to guard most centers, and not quick enough to guard on the perimeter, which decreases his versatility, and thus his value.

On offense, Johnson is fast and bouncy and has a good nose for the ball. He should be an effective offensive player halfway between Kenneth Faried and Brandan Wright. He's really good in the mid-range, with a combination of short jumpers and hooks that always seemed to bounce in. I think he was helped by playing next to Kennedy Meeks, a real center with girth. The combination of the physicality of Meeks and the speed and athleticism of Johnson allowed UNC's front line to overwhelm teams, possibly creating more opportunities for Johnson to finish around the rim than if he were the sole focus of defensive attention. He also created easy baskets for himself by running the floor well in transition.

A big question for Johnson is whether he will be able to shoot. Like Sabonis, he was most effective playing inside, but sported an impressive free throw percentage. If he can be an accurate outside shooter, than that would give him the type of inside-outside offensive game that could make him an even better offensive player. The potential is there for Johnson to be at least an average player on both sides of the ball, with a slightly more likely outcome that he is limited by his lack of shooting or his lack of defensive awareness, ending up as a(n NBA ready) useful bench contributor, a fine use of a late 1st round pick.

Other Power Forward Types

Cheick Diallo is the classic "power forward in a center's body", though he does have an impressive wingspan, which allows him to block shots when he's not blocking wrists. I'll merely note that it's rather worrying he could not get on the court at Kansas and move on to Pascal Siakam, an undersized center who put up gaudy numbers at a mid major. Unfortunately, his dad's not famous, so he's not being mocked in the lottery. More seriously, Siakam reminds me of Thomas Robinson, as an older (22) garbage man dominating a younger league, but Siakam is a better rim protector, which may help him become a more effective player. Joel Bolomboy is another small school big with impressive rebounding totals. He distinguishes himself by teasing the possibility of an outside shot, but is probably not a good enough defender to make a rotation for at least a couple years, and possibly ever.