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Guide to the NBA Draft: Power Forwards, Part One

What do most of the NCAA's skilled power forwards have in common? They're mostly not very good at defense. We investigate this year's combo fours.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the interests of space, procrastination, and unique page views, I have split my article on power forwards into two parts. This first part will focus on power forwards who are (mostly) smaller and have a perimeter oriented skill set. There's not always a clear dividing line between the two; should Henry Ellenson be considered a stretch four or does his size and lack of mobility put him closer to the "center" end of the spectrum? I chose the latter option, but regardless of the answer to that question, skilled offensive players that can hold up defensively against big men are valuable players. Here's what I saw while watching a few such players who will be in the NBA next year.

Ben Simmons

The most discussed and dissected player in this class, you probably already have an opinion about the presumptive number one pick. And, well, it's all true. He's an amazing athlete with fantastic court vision who is a poor defender who probably doesn't help his team win as much as the numbers suggest. And I think he should still be the number one pick.

It's weird to think about in regards to a player who has been described as a generational talent, but Simmons is kind of a tweener. In the NBA, I think he will be best suited as a power forward on offense, but as a small forward on defense. Now, the major difference between Simmons and most tweeners is that he has an amazing handle, which could let him play on the perimeter. The problem is that his shooting is non-existent at this point, so defenses don't have to play him honestly. When he's matched up against bigs, he's so quick and smooth that it still doesn't matter, but I think he'll be more limited against the NBA's better wing defenders.

Simmons' best attribute is his passing. If there's an alley-oop to be found, he'll make the pass. His assist to turnover ratio dropped precipitously during the last few weeks of the season as his team fell apart, but his ball skills and vision make comparisons to guys like Lamar Odom, Blake Griffin, Boris Diaw, and Draymond Green reasonable. His first step is better than that of those players, making him a matchup nightmare against most big men, and his post game is good enough, especially because of his passing, that it's not tenable to switch smaller players on to him. If he learns to shoot, he'll be an incredible offensive weapon. If he doesn't, which is more likely, he'll still be a very effective player.

The problem with Simmons in the Odom-Diaw-Green-Griffin role is that if he continues to play defense like he did at LSU, he'll give back a lot of the value he creates on the offensive end of the floor. Let's start with the good. Simmons has good hands and anticipatory skills, and possesses excellent lateral quickness, showing the ability to switch onto smaller players on the perimeter and stay in front of them, forcing a negative outcome. The problems come when he has to play interior defense or make a rotation. Simmons apologists usually blame the poor team surrounding him for what looked like disinterest. If that's true, it doesn't bode well for his first few years on the Sixers, but I think a more likely explanation is that he was often simply slow to make the correct read.

Like so much of his game, his rebounding is cause for both optimism and concern. The individual raw numbers are impressive, his team's rebounding was poor, and when watching him play, I noticed quite a few missed box outs. On the plus side, he got nearly all the uncontested and missed free throw rebounds. To be fair, there were a few possessions where he looked like he was trying and pulled down some impressive contested rebounds. I don't want to put all the blame for this on Simmons. Some of his most impressive rebound totals came while LSU was without their only competent big man, Craig Victor, meaning that someone had to get rebounds, and Simmons was the only player big and athletic enough to do so. Is that a point in his favor, or an indication that the stats are hollow? I think it's a bit of both.

His interior defense was very poor. 6'8 NCAA power forwards would go right at him in the post, and he would put up minimal resistance. It was as if he got 50% of his strength sapped from his body during the transition from offense to defense. LSU was the 147th ranked defense in the nation (by Ken Pom) despite the presence of some other solid defenders on the team, such as the aforementioned Victor and fringe NBA prospect Tim Quarterman. The Tigers were 32nd in defense last year with Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin taking the minutes that went to Victor and Simmons this year, and a similar perimeter rotation. To survive at power forward in the NBA, he needs to get stronger, tougher, and more aggressive defensively. He also needs to get better at making rotations and closing out to shooters, which he did inconsistently at the NCAA level.

I've spent three paragraphs criticizing Simmons' defense, so I want to re-emphasize that he is a special offensive talent. When you watch him, as in the video below, it's immediately obvious why he's the number one prospect, and he makes plays in the open floor that are well beyond the capabilities of anyone else in this draft. I would still take him number one based on the information that I have, but there is enough room for doubt based on the weaknesses I observed that I would understand if a team that has better access to information about his work ethic and mental makeup would pass him up for Brandon Ingram.

Marquese Chriss

Chriss has been climbing draft boards since the season ended, currently projected by Draft Express to be drafted at #3 overall, after spending most of the year operating below the radar for a mediocre Washington team. What is it about Chriss that has so many people optimistic about him? And why has his stock exploded after the end of the season? The reasons to like Chriss are easy to see. He's extremely young, athletic, very good at finishing alley oops, and he makes spectacular chase down blocks in transition. He has some promise as a shooter, hitting 35% of a small sample size of threes this year and allegedly impressing in an empty gym. He also flashed a nascent ability to attack closeouts. Many analysts see the combination of athleticism and scoring potential and conclude that Chriss has star potential.

If you want to see the downsides to Chriss' game? Watch game. If you want to put in some time, I suggest watching this game, and following Chriss around the floor. Chriss was as horrible as the numbers suggest on the defensive glass, taking himself out of plays on contests, putting up zero fight on possessions on which he had position, standing around on the perimeter instead of going after the board, almost never putting a body on his man, and even getting a defensive board taken out of his hands at one point. The Huskies were one of the most athletic teams in the nation, but were out-rebounded on the year, and Chriss was one of the main reasons.

Chriss' awareness isn't great on either end of the court. He can often be caught standing around watching the ball on defense, and has a tendency to get burned on cuts. His post defense is pretty poor, and San Diego State attacked it in the game referenced above, with Chriss lacking the strength and awareness to hold his own, giving up a couple of "& 1" opportunities and getting beaten to the offensive player's preferred spot on many occasions. He's also not much of a passer, being almost exclusively a finisher of opportunities created by Washington's guards.

As mentioned before, Chriss is very young, and many of his defenders will cite this fact as a way to excuse his defensive and mental limitations. It is probably true that Chriss will improve on these areas of his game, but I think many people underrate how far he has to go in those areas to be a NBA player. His assist to turnover rate would be poor for a center and Chriss was the worst defender I observed in preparation for this article, which was no easy task. I would not be surprised if Chriss eventually turned into a useful player. I would be surprised if he became a star or reached his potential on his first team.

Robert Carter

One of my newer pet draft theories is "draft the fat guy." Based on the success of Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Jared Sullinger relative to expectations, it is possible that a less than ideal physique can camouflage an otherwise good athletic base. When looking for bargains in the second round, any factor that can cause a player to be underrated is worth considering. Of course, the fact that a player can't stay in shape in college is also a cause for concern, but with a late pick, you won't be getting a great player most of the time anyway, so you might as well bet on that upside.

As you have probably guessed, Robert Carter fits the bill, with one of the highest body fat percentages at the combine and a fluctuating weight that was even mentioned in his recent DX profile. That being said, he's strong, quick, and boasts a 7'3 wingspan, making him an ideal power forward or even a small ball center. Another intriguing factor to consider with Carter is that the sheer amount of offensive firepower on his team may have artificially diminished his role. Carter shared the floor with Melo Trimble, a shoot first point guard, Diamond Stone, a center who was always underneath the basket, and Jake Layman, another prospect. There simply weren't enough touches to go around, and Carter would sometimes disappear from games, but was very efficient when called upon, shooting 62% from two point range, suggesting he could have done more with a bigger role in the offense.

Carter is one of many players in this article that can kind of shoot, maybe, but he distinguishes himself from Chriss and the upcoming Bentil with his court vision. Not only can Carter put the ball on the floor, he can create offense for others. He had some really intriguing possessions, like one against Indiana on which he Euro stepped on a drive and kicked to the corner for an open 3. When a 250 pound player does that, he has my attention. He also showed some craft in the post, although he got called for more offensive fouls than you would like to see.

The best approximation of a stretch four I saw Carter defend was Indiana wing Troy Williams. Carter wasn't terrible in the halfcourt, but was beaten down the floor by Williams several times in transition. I'm not confident that he'll be able to defend the perimeter at a high level, and Georges Niang took advantage of lackadaisical effort on a few possessions during the Combine scrimmages, but he's strong enough to defend the post and he's a very good defensive rebounder, so I think he has the potential be an acceptable big man defender in the NBA. It's possible he might be better suited as a small ball center than a power forward. Like his offensive game, whether he becomes better than acceptable on defense hinges on whether or not he can excise some lapses in concentration. All in all, he's not a perfect prospect, and I wish he was a slightly better shooter, but I am more confident that Carter will be able to contribute on his rookie contract than any player in this article, save Ben Simmons.

Ben Bentil

Bentil was only a sophomore this year, but is already 21. His best skill is his ability to put the ball in the basket. Like almost every player in this article, he played alongside a NBA prospect at point guard, increasing his ability to get easy shots, but over 24 points per 40 is impressive, even with a lottery prospect getting you the ball. Bentil can score inside, off the pick and roll and broken plays, and outside, on two and three point jumpers. He can also put the ball on the floor from the mid-post and get to the rim. It's easy to look at Bentil during one of his hot streaks and see a versatile offensive weapon that is being unaccountably underrated by draft experts.

There are a few issues with Bentil on the offensive end. The first is that his shot has promise, but isn't that good yet, as Bentil hit less than a third of his tries from beyond the arc this season. He took a relatively high number of threes for a big man, but many of the opportunities I saw were a pretty low level of difficulty. Another issue with Bentil's offensive game is that the area of the court in which he does the most damage, the mid-post, is one of the areas of the court it is hardest to translate success from the NCAA to the NBA. Anecdotally, that was the area that Derrick Williams used to torch PAC-10 big men, and Bentil reminded me quite a bit of him. The other weakness Bentil shares with Mr. Williams is his allergy to passing. Bentil is strictly a finisher, posting an anemic assist rate for someone of his usage. This makes him a significantly less dangerous offensive prospect.

Defensively, Bentil isn't a disaster, but I would expect him to be a below average NBA defender. He's technically competent by the standards of college big men and can move his feet well enough, but displayed mediocre awareness, sometimes losing track of cutters along the baseline against the Friars' zone. He's not a shotblocker or really any kind of a playmaker on defense at the college level, so I don't expect that to improve in the NBA. He's usually pretty good at interposing his body between the opposing player and the basket, but I don't see the quickness, strength, and awareness needed to become an above average positional and man defender at the next level.

How valuable is a player with Bentil's profile? A power forward who can score from the mid-post, kind of shoot, not create for others, and defends at a below average level? Here is the list of forwards who used more than 22% of possessions while not posting many assists (less than 10%), steals (less than 2%), or blocks (less than 2.5%) this year:  Ryan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Derrick Williams, Tyler Zeller, Michael Beasley, Andrea Bargnani, Charlie Villenueva. I don't think that is a very tantalizing group of players, meaning that I don't think Bentil will be a very valuable player even if he pans out.

Fringe Prospects

Jarrod Uthoff offers an intriguing mix of shooting and shot blocking. Uthoff has hit nearly 40% of his threes in his career, some from way behind the arc. After watching him let fly from 25 feet, I'm confident he can adjust to the NBA line. I'm not as confident about the rest of his offensive game. He is pretty good off one dribble and in the midrange against NCAA defenders, but I don't think his handle is good enough to get him to the rim in the NBA, and don't know that his mix of midrange junk will work against longer, more athletic defenders. Uthoff also has a weird talent for blocking jump shots, and is a decent help side shot blocker, but is not much of an interior defender when the ballhandler can see him. He is also slow, hampering his effectiveness as a perimeter defender.

James Webb reminds me a lot of Jeremy Evans. He is similarly athletic, capable of throwing down vicious in game dunks, and similarly tweener-y, being too skinny to guard many power forwards and not skilled enough to play small forward. Webb shot 40% on a small volume of threes last year, but that percentage cratered this year, and he hit less than 70% of his free throws both years, leading to considerable skepticism that his shot will play at the three. His handle and decision making are both very poor for a perimeter prospect. He should have some amazing D-League highlights.

Georges Niang is in many ways the opposite of Webb. He is very skilled, capable of operating as a point forward at the NCAA level, a role he might have operated in if it wasn't for Monte Morris, but is lacking in athleticism. He's not a NBA level defender, either on the perimeter or inside, so he needs to be an excellent offensive player to be worth a roster spot. His ballhandling and passing are good enough, but I think he needs to improve as a shooter to exist in the NBA. He has acceptable percentages, but has a slow release and is often reluctant to take some of the many open shots he receives as a stretch big in a high octane offense run by a great college point guard. He'll be awesome in Europe, though.

I don't really consider Perry Ellis much of a prospect. He has all the same warts as Niang, but he's not in the Cyclone's league as a passer. He has some skills that worked really well in the Big 12, but whenever he was matched up against a NBA level athlete, he was unable to finish at the rim, and he's not a decisive or accurate enough shooter to make up for that liability. And offense is his strong suit. I don't think there are many NBA players he could defend competently. He should have a fine career in the Adriatic League.