With the NBA Draft a couple weeks away and the Blazers still sitting pretty with the 10th pick it's time to start exploring potential draftees. We're going to divide the draft class by position, first looking at candidates who will likely fall within the Blazers' natural drafting range and then exploring outlying possibilities.
Since center is Portland's position of greatest need we'll start with two centers likely to go in the 10-ish range.
Steven Adams--7'0, 255lb Center from Pittsburg, 19 y.o. Freshman
Watch this guy for more than five minutes and you can see why scouts and prognosticators are pricking up their ears at the sound of his name. His combination of size, speed, and fluidity is rare. He's not the strongest or most intimidating center prospect we've seen. Greg Oden was a scarier physical specimen. But Adams has that athletic grace thing working for him, moving more like a 6'8" guy than a 7-footer. He glides across the court. Not only does he dunk, his above-rim leaps look effortless, like a big cat jumping. Most big-man defenders are "one direction, one speed" guys. Even if they're quick, it's in a straight line. Adams shifts directions and speeds as easily as he jumps. Watching him go out to hedge on a screen and then go back-left-back-right in his recovery as he picks up a cutter is awesome.
Imagining Adams' potential as a weak-side shot blocker or trailing defender doesn't require much creativity. If he's a big cat when dunking he'd be a bird of prey on the other end, swooping in to swat the shot. He's off his feet in an instant, has good reach, and can sail a long way.
Offensive rebounding is Adams' other translatable skill. Some guys get offensive rebounds and put-backs because they're bigger or because the defense gets lazy. You get blinded by the awesome dunk at the end without realizing that they'll not be able to get those at the next level because they won't have the same advantage. Adams has the knack for offensive rebounding. He's already grabbing the kind of boards and converting the quick, modest put-backs that NBA rebounders get. He edges in his body, secures the ball, and delivers it back to the rim as efficiently as possible.
Keep Adams in any of these situations and he's going to do fine. Get him out of his element and the story changes radically.
Take away offensive-rebounding put-backs and the over/under on his points scored for the year is 2. His jump shot, post moves, post set-up, handle, catching ability, finish at the rim (outside of the clear dunk), and free throw shooting are incompetent. There's no other way to put it. Stick him on the floor and you're instantly playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end.
That'd be fine in a Joel Przybilla way if Adams were a great defender. He looks good when he's on the move but any time he has to cover a specific man or even specific area of the floor he gets in trouble. He gets bullied out of post defense. Cutters slip by him too. He's got the tools to defend but he doesn't have the instinct yet.
Worse, his offensive rebounding doesn't translate to the other end. He's a poor defensive rebounder. Whenever you see a guy dominating on the offensive glass while suffering on the defensive you have to employ a quick flow chart:
1. Was he being used enough to defend the perimeter that he didn't have a chance to get rebounds? (For Adams the answer is no. Proceed to Step 2.)
2. Start asking if he has a desire/intensity problem.
Offensive rebounds offer an added treat: the scoring attempt after. Defensive rebounds are just work...important work, but often thankless. The physical techniques are similar. The results can speak volumes about your approach to the game.
Verdict for the Blazers
Adams will be one of the more intriguing possibilities in the draft for Portland. The Blazers need a center, a shot-blocker. He's only 19. His potential is strong, differentiating him from most other centers at or below his range. He's a strong candidate for the best value pick in the draft, which is why scouts and internet types love him. In isolation selecting him could be a great move.
But the Blazers aren't playing in isolation. They need immediate help. Adams does not qualify. 30 years ago he would have been tabbed as a freshman with the potential to be a Top 3 pick after his junior or senior season, having learned how to play. Nowadays that potential makes you a lottery pick, no seasoning required.
But the NBA is not school. In college guys like this become the focus of the program. They're nurtured, brought up carefully. Coaches know they'll end up sinking or swimming with the performance of this one guy. Nobody else will replace him.
In the NBA they have another name for guys like this: fresh meat. Players do learn and develop, but it's not the same environment. They're professionals, expected to do their job. They're fighting with at least 2 teammates for floor time and position. Behind those 2 are 100 others who'd love nothing more than to take that spot and the contract attached. Coaches are invested in getting results, not developing your individual game. In some ways those two aims are congruent, but not always.
If you go to school, show a talent for writing, but lack some of the basics you'll probably find someone to help you along. If you get hired at the Wall Street Journal based on that talent but then they find that you can't even spell, your experience will be much different. You'll still get taught, but you better fix it quick and start producing. And don't expect those editors to be nice to you in the meantime. If they are, consider yourself lucky. Unlike the school teacher, that's not their job.
In short, Adams could be great. Adams could also be a huge bust. The questions for the Blazers:
1. Can they afford that risk compared to other moves they could make executing or trading the pick?
2. Can they afford to wait 2-3 years to find out whether this guy will turn into a star, just a player, or a bust? The only thing sure about Adams is that he's not going to help for sustained minutes now. But that's exactly what the Blazers need: sustained minutes now from a decent center.
If this were a Japanese Role Playing Game the Blazers would just get a potion to fuse Adams and Meyers Leonard back-to-back, making a two-sided, four-armed center that flipped faces on either end of the court. In real life, already carrying a project center in Leonard, the decision about gambling on Adams will prove more complex.
Cody Zeller--7'0, 230 lb Center from Indiana, 20 y.o. Sophomore
Cody Zeller is the anti-Steven Adams. He carries around a utility belt full of practical, polished moves on offense. He can score from either block with his back to the basket, going right hand or left. He can face up and dribble into the lane. His jump shot is under-utilized but looks sound. He's got good touch. Because he kept opponents guessing (and they often guessed wrong) he drew plenty of fouls in college. He hits his free throws too.
Zeller has good hands, efficient footwork, and knows how to get separation without overwhelming athletic ability. He's mobile on both ends of the floor. He's smart and puts himself into position to succeed. He's not intimidating but he's got a motor.
Zeller comes to the league fully-assembled, ready to play right out of the box. He'll learn fast, pick up the game, likely playing to his full potential at each step.
The big questions surrounding Zeller: Will his game carry over to the NBA level and how many new tricks does he have left?
Footwork, fidelity, and smarts will always translate. The open jumper, touch, finish once he gets his shot up...these will serve Zeller well and keep him from floundering completely. But his calling card in college wasn't dominance in any given area, rather the potential to do everything well which in turn kept opponents on their heels and guessing. Lack of bulk, strength, and inclination will likely keep Zeller from getting good post position in the NBA, reducing the effectiveness of part of his arsenal. Talented, experienced, hyper-athletic defenders will also inhibit his face-up dribble drive. They won't have to guess. They'll just wait for him to make a move and stay in front of him. Strips and stymies will start to replace fouls. Likely he'll have to develop on the least-practiced part of his game: the jumper. That's fine, but it's not really the reason he's getting drafted.
Lack of strength, bulk, and toughness will also cost Zeller on the defensive end. He's going to get barbecued in the post. He can't make up for it with shot blocking, as that's not his game.
Add this all up and Zeller starts to look more like a stretch four with some extra skills and athleticism (but not much "stretch" to his jumper yet) than a true center. That's also fine, but again you have to ask what expectations would lead to him being drafted as a lottery pick. Chances are they are more center-related than perimeter power forward.
Zeller won't bust but there's a chance his popularity peaked his freshman year of college. (Perhaps a warning to those who would salivate over Adams.) His potential at the next level isn't as boundless as speculated. Zeller doesn't have the overall talent or the body to be one of a handful of superstars who does everything well even though that's his college M.O. He'll have to develop a couple of bankable skills, deeply grooved and repeated often, to show his value on the court.
Verdict for the Blazers
Zeller would bring more immediate help than Adams and as much as any big man in the draft who won't go in the top four. He's your guy if you want production now. But the questions about what kind of production, where on the court, and at what position make this a hard call. If Zeller can't post up on offense he becomes one of a host of perimeter players for the Blazers. He'll learn to hit those open jumpers but how does that differentiate him from everybody else on the team? More importantly, how does it change the attack?
Double-underline that question on the defensive end. No shot-blocking, inability to hold position against big guys, and questionable rebounding don't add up for a team that needs all three.
Zeller wouldn't be the worst pick in the world for the Blazers. He'd fit in the rotation now. He'll still be contributing 3 years from now, as a reserve power forward if nothing else. But the Blazers need more help and pop that he can provide. If they want solid, all-around play they need to go with a veteran and a more proven track record. If they do select a rookie, they'll be looking for a diamond. They can't afford to end up with a CZ instead.