Player Profile: Evaluating Deni Avdija as a Primary Offensive Option

DeniLast month, I was fortunate enough to attend the FIBA U20 European Championships in Tel Aviv. I learned a lot about international basketball, the NBA scouting process, but most of all, I learned that if you start talking to someone from Israel about Deni Avdija – especially someone who follows basketball – you’ll have a hard time getting them to stop.

Avdija is a star in his home country, and for good reason. The 18-year-old has been a household name in Israeli basketball for a while now, reaching international recognition last year when he, along with Yovel Zoosman, led the Israeli U20 national team to a European Championship. This July, he secured another U20 European Championship, this time in front of his home crowd in Israel, and this time earning MVP honors.

I am still fascinated with Avdija for a number of reasons, but my biggest question about his game is his ability to serve as a primary shot creator and distributor. There is no doubt that Avdija has top-5 pick upside, but his role as the first option on offense in this tournament tells us a lot about how high his ceiling is and where his improvement areas lie.

Avdija hasn’t always been the focal point of his team’s offense, but was very much the focus this tournament, which is why these seven games are particularly relevant when it comes to evaluating his potential to grow into a team’s lead offensive weapon.


Strengths

Size

Avdija’s frame is one of his biggest assets. Though he’s not blazing fast, his big strides and long wingspan help him cover a lot of ground on the defensive end and enable to finish through contact on offense. I’ll talk a lot more about Avdija’s finishing abilities in a bit, but standing at roughly 6’8” with a 6’10” wingspan, Avdija has a solid frame for a small forward in today’s NBA.

His skinniness hurts him at times when facing more athletic forwards, but it’s worth noting that he is the youngest player on his team and one of the younger players in the tournament, so it’s inevitable for him to get bodied from time to time. Of course, once he gets in an NBA weight room and fills out a little bit more, that will hopefully be less of a weak spot.

“It’s not easy, but it’s not the first time that I’ve played with grown ups, but [my teammates] they’re really doing a great job….giving me confidence and letting me play my game,” Avdija told me in an interview last week. “Sometimes…it’s a little bit harder to be the youngest, but I’m improving.”

High Release Point

Aided by his size and wingspan is the high release point he gets on his jump shot, enabling him to shoot over the top of defenders closing out. In a slow-mo video of his shot below, you can see that while he doesn’t jump too high off the ground, he gets good extension up top and releases the ball from well above his head.

 

His quickness allows him to gain separation and to force defenses to play further back on him, and he takes advantage with his high release point. In the clip below, he drives, pulls back, and shoots over France’s 6’9” power forward Timothee Bazille.

 

Passing

This is the skill Deni flexes most often, and is the chief reason so many NBA scouts are tantalized by his potential. Even when he’s having a bad game by conventional standards, as one scout mentioned to me, he’s still affecting the game in numerous positive ways through his facilitating.

His favorite place to pass out of is the mid post. He absolutely loves seeing over the top of smaller defenders and his height, wingspan, and vision allows him to make well-timed cross-court to both cutters and shooters.

 

Whenever he is in the post, he is usually looking to pass first, so much so that doubling him in the post should be considered defensive negligence.

 

Israel’s 27 possessions derived from Avdija working out of the post resulted in 37 points, an excellent clip of 1.37 Points Per Possession, via Synergy Sports. Avdija is a smart and intuitive passer who doesn’t even need to be doubled to make great reads finding the open man with passes over both his right and left shoulders.

 

 

There are too many instances like these to include in this article, but his post passing is truly a special skill. Additionally, he’s an aggressive and talented outlet passer who routinely goes for full-court passes. Watch how quickly he looks up the court after making a phenomenal off-ball defensive play.

 

He crashes the defensive boards so hard in large part because he begins salivating in transition when he sees an open man. He also pushes after made baskets, something teams are looking to do more and more in today’s NBA. Though the camera cuts away at exactly the wrong time, watch how aggressive Avdija is at connecting with a sprinting Yam Madar after allowing a basket on defense.

 

His eyes widen whenever he runs a fast break with the ball in his hands, showing off his court vision with smart feeds to teammates in transition.

 

Finishing Right

Avdija’s finishing as a whole leaves a lot to be desired, and we’ll touch on his areas that need improvement later in the article. Here, however, I want to acknowledge that he’s a really talented finisher in the appropriate situations, namely when he can absorb contact and finish with his right using his length and finesse. This is a good example against France’s Bazille.

 

Most of his skilled finishes from the right side look like this one. He absorbs the contact, shifts his body to the right, and goes up with his right, relying on his long arms and soft touch to make the layup fall.

He’s also confident in both his floater and his runner, as he demonstrates in the same semi-final game against France.

 

Weaknesses

As for the things that hurt him in this most recent tournament, finishing from his left was certainly an area that jumped out. But for the purposes of this piece, we’ll focus on that as an opportunity, which I’ll cover in a little.

In the tournament, the thing that hurt him the most was his inconsistent free throw shooting. Obviously, this too can be looked at as an opportunity for improvement, but Avdija left 18 points at the line with missed free throws, including a string of several missed in a row. Avdija shot just 51% from the line in his last season at Macabi Tel Aviv (EuroLeague, Israeli League, and Adidas NGT combined) and shot just 60% on 45 attempts in the European Championship. This is an alarmingly low rate for such an effective scorer, though he has had his fair share of inconsistencies shooting from deep as well. With teams looking to free throw shooting as an indication of future improvement in three-point shooting, this might be the area that Avdija needs to address most urgently in order to put some scouts’ fears at rest.

For what it’s worth, Avdija showed no hesitation raising his hand and walking to the free throw line as soon as a technical foul was called against Montenegro, despite going 4 for 10 from the line the previous game against Ukraine. This type of confident swagger is exactly what people love about Avdija’s character and was on full display throughout Israel’s championship run.

Turnovers

Always aggressive, Avdija’s greatest skill quickly manifests itself as a glaring weakness the moment a risky outlet pass gets intercepted.

 

Avdija committed less than two turnovers in just one of his seven tournament games, surrendering 20 turnovers to go with his 37 assists on the tournament. This is what you might expect from an 18 year old playing the role of a primary option in an intense environment surrounded by frenzied supporters in his home country. He can try really hard to make plays, often to the team’s success, but not without its drawbacks.

Remember his awesome post passing? It’s great until he turns it over thanks to an errant feed to a cutter into a passing lane that was never really clear.

 

In big moments, he sees cutters and gets a little too excited, launching passes over his teammates’ heads and frequently running into miscommunications with the targets of his passes.

 

He also has a tendency to try to force passes inside when they aren’t there. This is especially harmful early in the shot clock and whenever it results in a fastbreak for the opponent.

 

You get the idea, he’s an 18-year-old and does 18-year-old things. People mature with age and experience, and there’s no reason not to expect Deni to do so. This brings us to our most optimistic section…

Opportunities

This section is where we put on our rose colored glasses and view some of his weaknesses through the prism of being potential areas of improvement. Starting with his left-handed finishing.

Finishing Left

The reason to be optimistic about Avdija’s finishing ability is the dynamism he has shown time and time again while finishing on the right hand side. Yet defenders have made the adjustment of forcing him left, which he takes advantage of at times. He can drive left well, but he always goes up either with two hands or with his right hand, unless the layup is uncontested.

This increases the degree of difficulty of these looks and rewards defenders for forcing Avdija to his left. The clip below is a good example of this; Deni attacks early in the possession and is ceded an open lane to his left, which he is unable to capitalize on because he has to rotate his entire body and release the ball awkwardly from his right hand.

 

Even when he’s given an open look on the left side of the rim, he often opts for his right hand, such as in the clip below.

 

This is not to give the impression that Avdija has no idea how to use his left, but it’s worth noting that he seems to hesitate when faced with the prospect of such a finish. He displays the same excellent frame and fundamentals that aid him in finishing from the right side, it’s just that his confidence level in this particular element of his game doesn’t appear to be there.

Remember that first clip of the Serbian defender giving Deni the left lane? They did that all game, and this is what it looked like when Avdija took advantage and tried to finish with his left hand.

 

Bad miss, but not horrendous, right? He still gets good extension, jumps off the correct foot, and it looks pretty natural. With time and the right player development staff, he’ll hopefully be able to integrate left handed finishes into his game more comfortably. This is why I view his finishing from the left as more of a opportunity than a weakness.

Three Point Shooting

All things considered, Avdija appears to be an average three-point shooter with a solid foundation on which to improve. He shot just 29% on the tournament, though it’s worth noting that many of those looks were contested, off the dribble, and difficult attempts.

In last year’s tournament, Avdija shot 41% from behind the arc, a very solid clip for a 17-year-old. This year, he was asked to take a lead role and struggled to produce at the same level of efficiency. There is significant room to grow, but he’s able to get his shot off over the top of defenders pretty easily, just look at how he creates enough separation here with the step back.

 

While he’s not able to connect, his ability to create his own shot from deep is a very intriguing element of his game. He’s demonstrated that he’s able to shoot on the move, shooting well coming off screens and maintaining his balance nicely.

 

Given his high release point and his quickness with the ball, Avdija can develop into an excellent shot creator from distance if he’s able to hit step-back and off the dribble threes more effectively. Next season, his efficiency from deep is heavily dependent on the type of role he will play for Macabi Tel Aviv and whether he’s able to modify his shot selection to be more disciplined.

Threats

Taking off the rose colored glasses, we look now to all the threats to Avdija’s long term development as a lead guy.

Discipline

We covered the issues surrounding his over-aggressive passing in the ‘Weaknesses’ section, but it’s worth harping on again. Many guys show improved discipline and pass selection with time, but this concern is particularly relevant for Avdija’s growth due to his unique style of play.

In order to be a reliable primary option, Avdija has to be trusted not to turn the ball over as often as he did at the U20s. Committing 3.5 turnovers per 40 minutes, Avdija did not necessarily prove that he could be an ultra-disciplined facilitator, though he certainly showed flashes of his phenomenal passing at all turns. That’s why the discipline is so important; in order to unlock his greatest skill, he has to be mentally prepared to pull it back in the right situations.

Post Passing

This isn’t so much a threat to Avdija’s game specifically, rather an external threat facing the NBA environment that could shift how he is utilized.  It’s been well documented that post-ups have declined steadily and steeply over the past few years, per my calculation with Synergy’s NBA data, post ups have decreased over the last ten years by nearly 40%.

In the 2009-10 regular season, NBA teams ran possessions out of the post an average of 11.3 times per game. In the 2018-19 season, that rate was just 6.81 times per game. Teams are shifting away from the post up, which has been contemporarily viewed as being the least efficient type of shot in the NBA.

Screen Shot 2019-08-06 at 11.27.40 AM

As this pertains to Avdija, there are two ways to view this shift in the NBA landscape. You could choose to see the shift as a positive for Avdija’s long term growth, emphasizing that there aren’t many excellent post players in the NBA, so Avdija’s unique skill set will stand out more and be more effective in the modern game. However, I don’t believe this to be the case.

The more likely outcome is that Avdija’s post touches will decrease dramatically as soon as he’s plugged in to a modern day NBA offense. His post ups will likely be viewed as more of a once-in-a-while occurrence aimed at keeping defenses on their toes rather than his bread and butter. To survive in the NBA, Avdija will have to learn to play more outside facing up and less with his back to the basket.

Finishing Right

Though this is a strength at the moment against weaker (figuratively and literally) competition, once Avdija walks on to a court with NBA talent, it’s likely this will be an area he needs to work on.

 

He’s not the strongest guy around, and still can tend to shy away from contact underneath, relying on his wingspan and finesse to finish when he should probably be going up stronger.

So….What does this all mean?

Avdija is a super talented prospect who is worth keeping an eye on next year at Macabi Tel Aviv. How he’s utilized in the NBA will be interesting to watch and also massively important for his long-term development.

If he’s trusted with primary ball handling responsibilities and given some room to make mistakes, he’s primed to blossom into an excellent facilitator and multifaceted scorer who impacts the game on the defensive end as well. Yet, if he’s relegated to a catch-and-shoot role on the wing without much rope to create for himself and others, it will likely not turn out the way Israeli Basketball’s most passionate supporters are hoping for.

Naturally, given all the hype surrounding him, I had to ask Avdija about the pressure of being the most heralded young basketball player in the history of the country. His response showed his cool as well as his focus on the court.

It’s nice to have a good name and a good resume, but I can tell you that I’m not thinking about it one minute that I’m on the court. I’m trying to share the ball, [I’m trying for] my team to win first.

And win they did.

Israel

Five Big Things

Since the name of this website is Stretch Five, and since I’ve been away from writing for a while, I have a lot of thoughts I want to get out into the world. What better way to do that then to give you all some bonus thoughts for sitting through 3,000 words about Deni Avdija. This is also my way of doing an homage to my favorite basketball writer, Zach Lowe and his ‘Ten Things I Like and Don’t Like’, as well as Scott Van Pelt’s ‘One Big Thing’. So here are five other thoughts from my trip to Tel Aviv and the rest of this summer in basketball.

Issuf Sanon’s Swagger

Nobody was more fun to talk to or to watch in Tel Aviv than Sanon, who was drafted last year by the Washington Wizards with the 44th pick and took a leading role for his home country of Ukraine. A monster on the defensive end on-ball, the lengthy point guard showed nice tools on both ends of the floor, scoring in buckets for his team throughout the tournament and coming up with 3 steals per game.

I’ve never seen a human being flex more on the basketball court than Sanon did during his 30 point scoring outing and victory over Serbia. After the game, I started asking him about his flexing, and he interrupted me midway through the question to drop some knowledge.

“You have to do it, bro. It’s all about this. If you’re not flexing, you cannot play basketball.”

The NBA can never have too many guys like Issuf.

Yam Madar is a Baller

Seriously, remember this guy. The starting point guard for Israel made waves during the tournament, impressing scouts with his ball handling, creative short range shot making, and court vision. He could very easily find himself in the NBA one day, and his performance in this tournament could very well be remembered as his breakout moment.

If you want to read more about him, check out Mike Schmitz’s piece on Madar and other breakout stars from the tournament.

Israel Loves Basketball

Though several people explained to me that Israel is a soccer country first and foremost, it seemed that everyone has accepted basketball’s place as Israel’s second favorite sport, and its popularity is rising.

Seriously, just check out this video of fans celebrating and lifting Deni Avdija and Yam Madar into the air after their semifinal win over France. There’s a lot of love for basketball in this country, and it’ll be great to watch it grow over the coming years.

The HBL is Gonna Be Awesome

This has nothing to do with Tel Aviv, and I’m not gonna say much more than this because I enjoy my job working for a college basketball team, but you should check out what they’re doing. Really cool stuff.

My MVP and All-Tournament Team Ballot

Being a credentialed member of the media, I got to vote for the all-tournament team and the tournament MVP. Avdija got my MVP Vote, while my all-tournament starting five looked like this:

  • Yam Madar (ISR)
  • Carlos Alocen (ESP)
  • Issuf Sanon (UKR)
  • Deni Avdija (ISR)
  • Georgios Kalaitzakis (GRE)

Honorable mentions to Ivan Fevrier (FRA), Marko Pecarski (SRB), Jonas Mattisseck (GER), Gabriele Stefanini (ITA), and Dimitrios Moraitis (GRE).

Jacob Mooallem is an intern for DraftExpress and a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

The French Prince: Frank Ntilikina’s Potential Two Way Dominance is Already Materializing

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 7.49.10 AM.pngThe energy from Knicks fans outside of Barclays Center ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft was a mixture of resigned hopelessness and naïve optimism. Knicks fans teemed outside the entrance, some holding signs reading things like ‘Fire Phil’ or ‘Sell the team, Dolan’. After a massively disappointing 31-win season, Phil Jackson and the Knicks front office would look to gain back the hearts and minds of its fans by nailing their first round draft pick.

It was immediately apparent that the Knicks fans sitting in the arena wanted the Knicks to select either Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, both college standouts who had shined on the national stage for NC State and Kentucky respectively. Very few people were talking about Donovan Mitchell, the shooting guard out of Louisville who has now established himself as one of the best players in the draft class, and almost nobody was talking about the young man who would soon grace the stage wearing a Knicks cap.

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Sitting in Barclays Center, surrounded by friends and family, a nervous French teenager tries not to check his phone. He is minutes away from his lifelong dream coming to fruition. The commissioner calls his name with the 8th pick of the 2017 NBA draft. His dream has been realized.

Born in Belgium, the son of two Rwandan refugees, Frank Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-kee-na) has been playing professional basketball since the age of 15. Starting at SIG Strasbourg in the French LNB Pro A, he later graduated to FIBA Under-18 tournaments. In his final year, Ntilikina led the U18 French National team to an undefeated championship run and earned MVP honors.

His professional career in France ended with him being drafted by the New York Knicks on the night before the final game of the championship series. Ntilikina flew back to France to play his last game before returning to the United States, ready for the big stage. He left the France pro scene having consistently improved his offensive game every year, shooting 52% from three in his final year. Scouts heralded his raw potential and dynamic frame.

One year later, at just 19 years old, Frank Ntilikina is still raw. He is younger than half the lottery picks from the most recent draft, including both Miles and Mikal Bridges, Mo Bamba, and Shai Gilegous-Alexander. His potential remains largely untapped, though in the past year, Ntilikina has shown flashes of excellence and brief glimpses into how he could one day blossom into a two-way star.

At 6’6” with a 7 foot wingspan, Frank Ntilikina is not built like a typical NBA point guard. With his long frame and quick footwork, his body resembles that of a swingman more than a point guard. For comparison, Jaylen Brown measured in at the combine at 6’6.75” with a wingspan of 6’11.75”. Tyreke Evans is 6’5.25” with a wingspan of 6’11.25”.

Ntilikina’s size is incredibly relevant in any discussion about his game and potential. His size allows him to guard three or four different positions and makes him an enormous asset when switching pick and rolls.  Switching screens has become universally desired in the NBA, as more teams are looking for players who can switch any screen 1-5. While Ntilikina is not quite that defender yet, he is certainly well on his way. His body still needs some more muscle in order to avoid getting rocked by oversized big men, but watch how he defends Dirk Nowitzki (someone twice his age) on a pick and roll switch. He absorbs Dirk’s contact with his chest and doesn’t allow him to get into the paint.

Ntilikina Dirk Switch.gif

Guarding the pick and roll is Ntilikina’s most NBA-ready skill. He allowed .694 Points per Possession in 242 possessions guarding the pick and roll ball handler. That number, .694 PPP,  was the best in the NBA this past season among all players with a minimum of 200 such possessions, per Synergy. For a rookie point guard to be that adept at covering a pick and roll is almost unheard of; the only other player in recent years who has defended the pick and roll in their first year this well is 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Ntilikina’s positional versatility is huge reason that fans should be excited about his upside. Though he played 71% of his minutes at point guard last year, he can easily slot into the shooting guard position, as he is a defensive asset and doesn’t constantly need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. He is able to defend NBA small forwards already and does not get bullied by more athletic swingmen who try to exploit his somewhat skinny frame.

Ntilikina Wiggins Switch Post.gif

His post defense is excellent for his size, allowing only .45 points per possession on a very small sample size of 20 possessions. But proof that a player is a good post defender rarely comes from analytics, usually those judgements are made from the eye test.  There is plenty of footage of Ntilikina switching the pick and roll, getting posted up by the bigger player, and having to fend for himself on the defensive end. Check out how he guards Saric on this switch. He’s able to successfully front the post and deny the pass while recovering once he catches it. Dario Saric is damn near seven feet tall and is an above average inside scorer.

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Teams are certainly paying attention to these things. With the Celtics, Rockets, and Warriors all playing elite switching-based defenses, NBA executives and coaches are understanding that defenders who can guard multiple positions are exceptionally valuable. Ntilikina looks like someone who has the potential to be a defensive menace one day for this reason. His lateral quickness and quick reaction time allows him to guard almost anyone in isolation, where he held opponents to .703 Points per Possession, and his size and reach enables him to switch into the post and take on bigger defenders. Once he adds more muscle this competitive advantage will become intensified.

It’s not all roses, especially on offense. Ntilikina has a long way to go before he can be an above average, or maybe average offensive player. However, he has showed consistent improvement throughout his professional career both abroad and in the NBA.

Perhaps the area of his offensive game that most urgently needs improvement is the frequency with which he commits turnovers. He started the season committing 16.7 turnovers per 100 possessions used and lowered that to 9.4 after the all-star break. For him to become a great offensive player he will likely have to lower that number even further.

His ball handling has been an area of concern with scouts from the moment he arrived on the scouting scene. With a 6’6” frame, it can be especially hard to control the ball effectively and dribble through traffic. Ntilikina appears to be working on his ball handling this summer, posting workout videos on social media.

 

It’s notable that only 20 of his 131 turnovers were due to a “Lost Ball” situation whereas 92 were due to a bad pass. This suggests that the issue is not his technical ball handling ability, but his decision making and pass selection. Improved decision making, especially at the point guard position, comes with increased reps and years of in-game experience.

His three point shot is another area of concern where he has shown the potential to grow. After shooting abysmally in his first year professionally, Ntilikina improved his shooting percentage from deep consistently throughout his professional career in France. He shot 32% from three in his rookie NBA season, a number that is not great but is not abnormal among active rookie guards; Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr, and De’Aaron Fox all shot around 31% in their rookie seasons.

The aspect of his shot that should be intriguing to Knicks fans is his shooting off the dribble. Teams overwhelmingly went under pick and rolls executed by Ntilikina, and until his off the dribble three point shot improves, teams will continue to disrespect his shot.  At 6’6”, Ntilikina has the ability to shoot over most guards with relative ease and vertical space, so working on pull up jump shots should be an area of interest for Ntilikina. He’s shown confidence from long range off the dribble in the past, but getting those shots to fall with consistency will require hard work. Ntilikina shot an encouraging 33-78 on pull up jump shots this year, per NBA stats. That 42% off the dribble may not seem like much, but those shots falling will cause defenses to play much tighter on him and will open up space for the entire offense.

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Fans, scouts, and analytics models all have different projections about the direction of Ntilikina’s career. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections forecast him to be a replacement level bench player, comparing him to Shaun Livingston. I don’t think this comparison is necessarily fair, as Livingston’s offensive game is incredibly unique and he does not have the same athletic explosiveness as Ntilikina, due to a nearly career-ending knee injury. From the eye test alone, he plays more similarly to George Hill than Shaun Livingston. Hill has been a reliable perimeter defender his entire career, though his consistent three point shooting ability is something that came later in his career. At around 6’1”, Hill does not have the same positional versatility Ntilikina possesses, but has been a reliable perimeter defender throughout his career.

PTS/G AST/G REB/G 3P% AST% TOV%
George Hill Rookie Season (Age 22) 5.7 1.8 2.1 33% 16.6% 14.5
Frank Ntilikina Rookie Season (Age 19) 5.9 3.2 2.3 32% 20% 19.8

When new Knicks Head Coach David Fizdale announced the he had a “crush on wingspan,” I suspect Frank Ntilikina’s ears perked up somewhere. Wingspan and length have been increasingly valued in the NBA, and Ntilikina is the perfect future point guard for a lineup that is a defensive juggernaut, something Fizdale has been open about his desire to build.

In his only full season as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, Fizdale’s team was tied for 6th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. If Fizdale wants to recreate that same energy in New York, Ntilikina will likely be the lynchpin of that defense in the way that Mike Conley was the centerpiece of the last one. As a versatile perimeter defender who can switch, Fizdale is certainly looking to maximize Ntilikina’s potential as a defensive menace.

In discussing his love for wingspan, coach Fizdale suggested playing Kristaps Porzingis, the 7 foot 3 inch Latvian franchise centerpiece, at small forward. This revelation surprised a lot of Knicks fans, but with most big men trying their best to refine their play on the perimeter, it is not that surprising that coach Fizdale would entertain the idea of trying this out, especial.

Porzingis is the undisputed franchise cornerstone in New York, and it would seem to indicate something positive about Ntilikina that he and Porzingis seem to have great chemistry. Last season, Porzingis was assisted on almost 40 of his made baskets by Ntilikina, the most of anyone on the team aside from Jarret Jack.

“There’s a real friendship between KP and me,” Ntilikina told the French radio show Basket Time. “We both come from Europe.” He has called the experience of playing with Porzingis “unbelievable”.

Ntilikina also looks to forge a connection with new draft pick Kevin Knox, the dynamic two-way swingman out of Kentucky. Knox, who is also oversized for his position with an above-average wingspan, projects to be an athletic combo forward who can finish at the rim and be a dynamic, multi-positional defender.  At only 18 years old, Knox has the potential to grow alongside Ntilikina and Porzingis and develop a deep chemistry together.

The next two years will be crucial for Ntilikina’s development. His ceiling will be determined by his ability to improve on offense consistently, especially when it comes to long range shooting and disciplined passing. The NBA hasn’t ever seen a player built exactly like Ntilikina, with a dynamic frame and a moldable offensive game, Ntilikina should be one of the young players oozing with potential that NBA fans keep an eye on throughout the next season.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

 

SLOB Sunday: Playoff Edition, Round 1

Welcome to another edition of SLOB Sunday! This is a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

Quick refresher on the rules of SLOB Sunday:

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Pacers vs Cavaliers – Game 4 dipo slob.gif

I have absolutely no idea how Victor Oladipo is able to set his feet on the move, contort his body 180 degrees, and release a perfect shot in less than one second. It’s a work of art. He has been magnificent against the Cavaliers, shooting 40% from three and carrying the Pacers to a Game 7 in Cleveland. I also cannot take my eyes off the fan sitting behind the basket wielding some sort of pink flamingo.

Warriors vs Spurs – Game 5

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It must be so frustrating to guard Klay Thompson. Danny Green does a great job staying attached to his man at the hip when Klay sets the screen for Durant, but he makes the fatal mistake of trying to go over Javale McGee instead of following Klay under. With Thompson shooting a career-best 44% from three this year, Green has practically no choice but to play overly aggressive on every screen.

Blazers vs Pelicans – Game 2

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I love the gutsy play call here by Terry Stotts in the 4th quarter. Anthony Davis almost gets to the ball in time to break the play up, but Lillard picks up enough speed when he curls around the Mo Harkless screen to finish the play. Impressive body control here by Lillard, finishing that lob with two defenders attached is no easy feat.

 

76ers vs Heat – Game 1

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I’m not sure if the credit for this play deserves to go to Marco Belinelli, who acts as a nice decoy by cutting sharply through the middle, or Dario Saric, who sets an good screen for Belinelli then dashes to the rim, or Dwyane Wade, who completely dies on JJ Redick’s screen. Nonetheless, Ben Simmons does an excellent job of delivering a rocket to Saric in the perfect spot. The Sixers scored 130 in this game, largely because of bad defensive communication by Miami, but it also helped that they shot 18-28 (64.3%) from three point range.

Raptors vs Wizards – Game 6raps slob.gif

This play is all about Kyle Lowry. He’s able to tie up Markieff Morris on the screen, despite being 10 inches and 40 pounds smaller than the man he’s screening. This causes Gortat to have to help out on Siakam, who is unguarded under the basket. After Lowry gets the ball, he immediately attacks the middle because Gortat is too far back to contest his floater.

Bucks vs Celtics – Game 5bucks playoff slob.gif

In need of a quick bucket, the Bucks are able to execute a beautiful, simple out of bounds play to get the ball in the hands of one of their best three point shooters. Marcus Smart does a great job of staying active on defense and tries to read the play, but gets to Khris Middleton a millisecond too late. Middleton was on fire this series on SLOBs, hitting one of the shots of the year over Jaylen Brown.

If you’d like to learn more about how Khris Middleton is quietly one of the best players in the NBA, check out my profile on Middleton from February.

Until next time, enjoy Round 2, everyone!

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

2017-18 NBA Season Awards Picks

james_harden_lebron_james_rockets_cavaliers

Hello friends! What an NBA season we’ve had. Whether it was Kawhi Leonard mysteriously disappearing, a #1 pick forgetting how to shoot, postgame fights in a secret hallway, or all things associated with LaVar Ball, this season never failed to deliver insane and hilarious moments. Now, let’s ignore all of them and focus on meaningless awards for the next 1,500 words. After me…

Most Valuable Player

  1. James Harden
  2. LeBron James
  3. Anthony Davis
  4. Kevin Durant
  5. Damian Lillard

James Harden has had a statistically incredible season, averaging over 30 points per game and 8.8 assists per game, leading the Rockets to a league-best 65 wins. In addition to points per game, he leads the league in PER, USG%, Offensive Win Shares, Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 Minutes, and Box Plus/Minus. At one point, the Rockets held the highest offensive rating in NBA history, but they have fallen to merely the 10th best offense all-time, amassing a measly 1.147 points per possession. He’s the clear cut MVP in my eyes.

I’m not going to lie, I had a whole column written out trashing LeBron for saying he’d vote for himself for MVP. I still might publish that column. But the fact that he played all 82 games (81 if you discount Wednesday’s joke of a basketball game against the Knicks) is really impressive, and he is as statistically dominant as he’s ever been. The Cavs have endured a legitimate amount of nonsense this season, the turnover is unprecedented and as the lone constant I think LeBron deserves a great deal of credit, even if his team is the 4th best team by record in the Eastern Conference.

As for Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, they’ve both had great seasons in the past, but they both reached a new level this year, carrying their teams to 48 and 49 wins respectively and into the playoffs. Davis was a beast this season, averaging nearly 30 and 12 after the all-star break and keeping the Pelicans afloat after Demarcus Cousins’s injury.

KD had a really nice year, he still might be the greatest scorer of all time, though his shooting percentages have fallen off just a bit from last year. He complained about the ‘Blog Boys’ on Bill Simmons’ podcast, and I’d just like to say, first of all, thanks for the shoutout. Second of all, the other thing I took from that podcast was KD saying that he is obsessed with developing the ability to make every shot on the court, and he’s actually progressed pretty well to that goal. Courtesy of NBAsavant, we can see that he’s made a shot from just about every angle this season. He’s as dynamic of a scorer as they come and will be a menace in the playoffs.

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Rookie of the Year

This is legitimately the closest and most stacked Rookie of the Year race that I can remember. Over the last ten seasons, the average win shares for a rookie of the year has been 4.8. Last year, Malcolm Brogdon won the award after a very solid rookie year where he put up 4.1 win shares averaging 10 points per game.

This year it’s a whole different ball game. Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell are all putting up insane rookie seasons, leading their teams to playoff spots in their first season in the league. Ben Simmons has 9.2 win shares, Tatum has 7.1, and Donovan Mitchell has 5.2 and is averaging 20 points per game.

Tatum has been great this season, but it’s hard to get past the fact that Mitchell and Simmons were both the most important offensive options on their team for at least most of the season, whereas Tatum had Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to take some of the offensive load off. It’s a small reason, but I feel like the role a rookie plays on their team should matter for Rookie of the Year voting.

Mitchell set the rookie record for most three pointers made in a season, and his shooting revived the Jazz from a 17-26 record, leading them to the 5 seed in the West. He’s shot ridiculously well, his 1.26 points per possession on spot up jump shots ranks in the 95th percentile in the league this season. He’s had more 25 point games this season (27) than LeBron, KD, Larry Bird, and Hakeem Olajuwon had in theirs. He has been absolutely magnificent.

I’m going to ignore the petty beef that exists between Mitchell and Simmons, except to say that the hoodie that Donovan Mitchell rocked this week was incredible.

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Mitchell makes a good point, but Simmons’s season has spoken for itself. He’s 27th in the NBA in Real Plus Minus, his team has somehow achieved 52 wins, and the Sixers have won all their games down the stretch without Joel Embiid. His 2,732 minutes are twelfth in the NBA, and he’s going to be the first rookie to average 15 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds per game since Oscar Robertson(Basketball-Reference).

I am going to show you two players’ rookie seasons. One of them is Ben Simmons, another is a rookie from about ten years ago. Ready?

Pts/G Ast/G Reb/G Stl/G True Shooting % Usage % PER Offensive Win Shares Defensive Win Shares
Player A 16.1 7.8 5.1 2.2 54.6% 22.2% 22.1 6.8 3.6
Player B 15.8 8.2 8.1 1.7 55.7% 22.3% 20 4.2 5.0
(Source: Basketball-Reference)

The rebounds probably gave it away, but Player B is Ben Simmons. And his statistically close counterpart? None other than the Point Gawd himself Chris Paul.

I don’t expect anybody to care about the 2006 Rookie of the Year Voting, but Chris Paul received 124 out of 125 first place votes (whoever voted for Deron Williams, I very much dislike you). That means Chris Paul’s season, carrying a bad Hornets team to 38 wins, was deserving of a nearly unanimous victory, due in large part to just how good his numbers were. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the 76ers won Fifty Two gosh darn games this season. That’s ridiculously impressive.

My ballot goes

  1. Ben Simmons
  2. Donovan Mitchell
  3. Jayson Tatum
  4. De’Aaron Fox
  5. Kyle Kuzma

Coach of the Year

No one really cares about this one so I’ll be brief. I judge for this award based on a few things:

  • How well a team performed versus how much talent they had
  • How the rotation, late game adjustments, and strategic decisions are managed
  • How well the coach diffuses problems in the locker room

The last one is really hard to know sometimes, but it’s worth putting down because it’s an underrated aspect of coaching in my opinion. With that being said:

  1. Quin Snyder
  2. Gregg Popovich
  3. Dwane Casey
  4. Brad Stevens
  5. Erik Spoelstra

The Jazz are one of my favorite storylines of this season because of how well they were able to bounce back from the adversity of losing their leading scorer in the offseason. Additionally, they recovered really nicely from Gobert’s injuries and were able to manage roster turnover on an high level. Quin Snyder proved his metal as a top-notch coach this year, and I do think the voters will give him this award.

Defensive Player of the Year

  1. Rudy Gobert
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Robert Covington
  4. Draymond Green
  5. Aron Baynes

Gobert posts the third best defensive rating in the NBA, and despite having missed a quarter of the season, he has proven his value over a long enough period of time that I feel that he’s worthy of the award. He still has the fourth most blocks and the highest block percentage in the league, and the most defensive win shares per game. From a viewing standpoint, it’s not hard to see how much he impacts the game. He’s been the anchor of a Utah defense that posted the second best regular season defensive rating in the league, and despite his missed time, he’s been the most impactful and valuable defensive player this season.

Covington’s numbers are equally impressive, and I love it when a wing player can have such a measurable defensive impact on a team. The 76ers, who posted the third best regular season defensive rating, have relied on Covington’s ability to guard multiple positions and force turnovers in bunches. His team allows just 99 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, a defensive rating that is good for fifth in the league among qualified players. He and Simmons have incredible versatility when guarding perimeter players, allowing Philadelphia to get creative with their lineup combinations. I’m looking forward to watching Covington, Simmons, and Embiid lock down teams for minutes on end in the playoffs.

Most Improved Player

No list. Give the award to Victor Oladipo. Enough said.

Sixth Man of the Year

No list. Give the award to Lou Williams. Enough said.

All NBA Teams

First Team
  • James Harden – HOU, G
  • Damian Lillard – POR, G
  • Kevin Durant – GSW, F
  • LeBron James – CLE, F
  • Anthony Davis – NOP, F/C
Second Team
  • Russell Westbrook – OKC, G
  • Chris Paul – HOU, G
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo – MIL, G
  • Lamarcus Aldridge – SAS, F
  • Karl-Anthony Towns – MIN, C
Third Team
  • Stephen Curry – GSW, G
  • DeMar DeRozan – TOR, G
  • Al Horford – BOS, F
  • Draymond Green – GSW, F
  • Nikola Jokic – DEN, C

All Rookie Teams

First Team
  • Ben Simmons – PHI, G
  • Donovan Mitchell – UTA, G
  • Jayson Tatum – BOS, G/F
  • Kyle Kuzma – LAL, F
  • Bam Adebayo – MIA, C
Second Team
  • Frank Ntilikina – NYK, G
  • De’Aaron Fox – SAC, G
  • OG Anunoby – TOR, F
  • Lauri Markkanen
  • John Collins – ATL, F/C

That’s it for my 2017-18 NBA Season awards ballot! If you made it all the way to the end of this article, you must either be my parents or really love basketball, so let’s do some first round playoff predictions while we’re here.

Toronto over Washington (6)

Milwaukee over Boston (7)

Philadelphia over Miami (6)

Cleveland over Indiana (6)

Houston over Minnesota (5)

Golden State over San Antonio (5)

Portland over New Orleans (7)

Oklahoma City over Utah (7)

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll enjoy watching these playoffs as much as I will.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

SLOB Sunday! Week of 4/1/2018

Welcome to another edition of SLOB Sunday! This will be a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

Quick refresher on the rules of SLOB Sunday:

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Celtics vs Thunder 3/20

Celtics SLOB.gif

If there was a Basketball SAT, Al Horford would get a 2400. Look at how well he slips the screen and fades, leaving Rozier with two defenders. Even more impressive is his sixth sense that Russell Westbrook is zooming in to block his shot. Seriously, I don’t know how Horford even gets that pass back to Rozier off in time, what incredible vision by Horford and a great pass by Rozier to Baynes. This two big man lineup for the Celtics has worked wonderfully so far, putting up 1.12 points per possession and holding their opponents to .98 PPP over 800 regular season minutes where Baynes and Horford share the floor. The inside-outside threat of the two together causes a litany of matchup problems for the defense, you see it here with Carmelo Anthony being forced to guard 7-footer Aron Baynes. It will be interesting to watch how Brad Stevens utilizes this lineup in the playoffs.

Nuggets vs Raptors 3/27

NuggeTS SLOB.gif

The player to watch here is Jamal Murray, who inbounds the ball and sets a nice screen on Pascal Siakam, then bolts to the three point line, shaking Fred VanVleet. Also love how Jokić creates space here, using his pivot foot to hold off Pöltl and complete the pass to Millsap. Nice play design here by Coach Malone, and nice shot by Murray to finish the play.

76ers vs Nuggets 3/26

634s slob.gif

The 76ers rank fourth in the NBA on points per possession on sideline out of bounds plays, and a lot of their buckets come from simple back screens like this one. Covington finishes this lob nicely, but I really love the enthusiasm with which Markelle Fultz runs to the top of the key. It even looks like he went a little early, as Ilyasova seemed surprised that he couldn’t set a screen for Fultz’s man. Strange play, but none of it matters because Joel Embiid is a brick freaking wall and nothing gets past him. Sorry, Will Barton.

Real Madrid vs Crvena Zvezda 3/30

If you haven’t heard of Luka Dončić yet, get ready to be hearing his name a lot over the next few months. The 6’7″ shooting guard from Slovenia has been tearing up the EuroLeague and will likely be drafted in the top five this upcoming draft. I started watching Dončić this fall when he led the Slovenian national team to their first Eurobasket championship, beating Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvia in the quarterfinals, the Gasol brothers’ Spain in the semifinals, and narrowly defeating the Bogdan-Boban machine that was Serbia in the finals. Doncic has a excellent jump shot and is big enough to finish at the rim with ease against his Spanish league competition. He will undoubtedly face an adjustment period when he enters the big leagues, but he has been playing professional basketball since the age of 16, and appears to have a pretty high basketball IQ, so I am betting on him being able to adapt to the pace of an NBA game. This cold-blooded dagger is just a small sample of what he is capable of on the next level.

From what I’ve seen, I believe he has the talent and potential of a first overall pick. The last non-NCAA player to be taken with the top pick was Andrea Bargnani in 2006. Clearly, Bargnani’s career (particularly his stint with the New York Knicks) was so horrific that it scared all front offices away from selecting an international prospect first overall for 11 years. But I think Doncic has a strong case, he is likely the best guard in the draft and teams are clamoring for guys who can guard multiple positions and score inside and outside. It would appear that Doncic has the potential to become that guy and then some.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

2018 All Big Ten Name Teams

I know I have many fans out there clamoring for college basketball analysis, and since being a student manager has led to me knowing most names on Big Ten rosters, I have decided to use my acute basketball analysis to compile a list of my All Big Ten Teams based on purely first and last names. Enjoy:

ALL BIG TEN NAME FIRST TEAM

The 2018 Big Ten rosters featured some incredible names, but perhaps none more awesome than Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who literally can go by ‘Thor Thor’. Eugene Omoruyi is a fun one as well, but my personal favorite is Aaron Jordan. The Air Jordan brand was introduced in 1984, Aaron Jordan was born in 1997. Shoutout to his parents.

ALL BIG TEN NAME SECOND TEAM

I really hope Johnny Trueblood is getting royalty checks from HBO. And shoutout to my Nana, I love her very much. Honorable mentions include Maryland’s Alex Tostado, who almost made the first team except I googled it, and tostados aren’t a real food. I was thinking of tostadas and now I’m hungry. Great season everybody, can’t wait for next year.

SLOB Sunday! Week of 3/4/2018

Welcome to the first edition of SLOB Sunday! This will be a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

The NBA is back in full swing after the All-Star Break, which means that 28 of the 30 head coaches had plenty of time to sit around and think of creative inbounds plays (apologies to Mike D’Antoni and Dwane Casey). Before we dive in, let’s establish some rules.

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Nuggets vs Clippers 2/27

CLIPS SLOB.gifThis play is awesome for two reasons: Tobias Harris’s sneaky behind the back handoff, and DeAndre Jordan sealing Mason Plumlee directly under the basket with Hulk-like strength. The nuggets play good defense here, but there is nothing you can do about a seven foot monster barreling his way underneath the basket.

Heat vs 76ers 2/27/2018

76ERS SLOB.gifCovington fakes like he’s going around the screen to his left side, but cuts through the paint at the last second. The play may not have fooled Josh Richardson if it wasn’t for the perfect execution by Joel Embiid on the classic ‘motion with my right arm to the right side of my body while you fake cut there and go left’ play. Seriously, watch Embiid and tell me he doesn’t make that play with his deceptive arm motion. Also, I know this has been said a million times, but those Miami jerseys are probably the freshest in the league.

Jazz vs Timberwolves 3/2/2018

Wolves SLOB .gif

Seriously, how do you even guard this? Perfect execution by 18-year veteran Jamal Crawford faking the back screen on Rudy Gobert. By the time Gobert sees Karl-Anthony Towns pop back up to the top of the key, it’s already too late.

Rudy Gobert is one the best defenders in the league if you believe in the eye test or in Defensive Win Shares, in which he’s currently second to Andre Roberson. But having a big man like KAT who can draw his defender away from the paint creates so many problems for a defense that relies on Gobert to protect the rim.

Also, once again, those Utah jerseys are insanely fresh. Plus the court, just wow. Nike and the Jazz are both killing it.

 

Okay, last but certainly not least, let’s check out this play that appears to be drawn up for DeMar Derozan.

Bucks vs Raptors 2/23/2018

Raptors SLOB.gif

Great defense by Giannis getting around the screen from Jonas Valanciunas, but the crucial mistake here is by John Henson, who helps just a little too much and falls too far back, allowing CJ Miles to inbound the ball to Valanciunas easily. He fakes the handoff and catches Henson a little flat footed, then throws it down without a tenth of a second to spare.

Just so beautiful. I love NBA basketball.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.