T-minus 20 days until the first Trail Blazers preseason game.
We're in the home stretch but dang am I itching to watch some actual basketball again. The combination of no new games and an internet connection so slow it can barely stream youtube videos has me going through serious basketball withdrawals. Well, I'm fed up and spent the past few days trying to find a game, any game, with even the slightest relevance to the Blazers.
Good news. I found one. The entire Nike Hoop Summit is on youtube and, as a likely lottery team, the list of participants doubles as a short list of the players the Trail Blazers might consider drafting. In fact, six of the first seven picks in Draft Express's mock draft played in the Hoop Summit. For the love of sweet mercy let's talk about some game film.
Before we get to the individual players, a few observations about the game itself.
On offense, many of the current trends in the NBA seem to be making their way down to the high school level. This game sported numerous attacking point guards, very little (and ineffective) post play, and versatile bigs that should have any team hoping to mimic the Warriors drooling all over themselves. Seriously, the Chase Jeters and Caleb Swanigans (both big bodied, back to the basket players) looked slow and helpless against the suffocating length of the World Team. Skal Labisserie and Chiek Diallo swarmed all over the defensive end, walling off the rim and even switching numerous pick and rolls to start the game. Even against mismatches, post ups were thwarted by pesky hands and active weakside defenders. Anyone yearning for a return of the post up might have to wait awhile because the next generation of players has gotten the memo that versatility, length, and positionless basketball are en vogue.
The defense was a bit less instructive. The USA team ran a lot of half court and full court traps trying to speed up the game and challenge some of the World's ball handlers. The World Team knew the Americans had little experience shooting from the international three point line (since it was a USA Basketball event they used FIBA rules) so they sat back in a zone for most of the game. Besides some initial switching from the World Team in the first few minutes, there wasn't much to learn about big picture defensive trends.
Finally, man are high school players skinny. I suppose that's a good thing considering many of them are 17, or even younger, but for someone who almost exclusively watches the NBA it was a good reminder of how freakish and huge the league actually is -- kinda like seeing professional players up close for the first time. You don't really appreciate how exceptional these guys are and how much work they put into their bodies until you see them in person or watch young players who haven't matured yet.
The Franchise Players
The race for the number one pick is a two man contest between Skal Labissierie and Ben Simmons, and it's easy to see why. Both guys ooze potential and are the perfect fit for the new NBA. Both guys' hype train has gone too far but comparisons to Anthony Davis and LeBron James respectively aren't completely and utterly absurd. Just somewhat absurd.
Skal is seven feet tall with the wingspan to go with it. He's not quite as pterodactyl-esque as Anthony Davis but he's got the reach and the timing to be a monster shot blocker. Skal controlled the paint and turned away attacker after attacker by just being insanely long and in the right place. Now, he doesn't have that soul sucking, jaw dropping, that kinda seems unfair quality that Davis has but I can't think of anyone I've seen that more closely mimics The Brow. And he might be even quicker along the perimeter.
Skal switches guarding Isaiah Briscoe as the clock winds down. Briscoe is one of the best point guards in the class but he stays right with him stride for stride eventually contesting a tough, pull-up jumper. He's got the potential to be a poor man's Gobert around the rim who can also switch along the three point line. If you were trying to build a modern defense, it would be tough to imagine a better anchor.
Simmons' potential on offense matches, if not exceeds, Skal's potential on the defensive end. He's a near perfect fulcrum for a modern NBA offense -- a big forward (he's 6'10") who can run a pick and roll, attack closeouts, and make super quick reads in almost any situation. Simmons made numerous touch passes throughout the game seeing plays develop one, two, and even three steps ahead of the defense. He's the rare big who not only keeps the ball moving but can make point guard type plays in the blink of an eye. Of all his qualities, his passing ability is certainly the most intriguing.
He can also catch the ball along the perimeter and make something remarkable happen.
After the handoff, both defenders follow Murray, leaving Simmons wide open. When he catches it, he makes a quick decision and is at the rim in one dribble making the simple dump pass. The speed at which he gets into the lane on this play is impressive for a small forward and just unheard of for a power forward. He played almost exclusively small forward in the game so I wasn't able to get a good sense of his post defense, but if he can defend the block adequately against most opponents, small ball with Simmons is gonna be deadly.
All of that shows Simmons can play within the offense but he can also initiate it as well. During the last two minutes of the game, when Team USA had pulled within just a few points, the World squad resorted to high pick and rolls for Simmons and he did quite well. He attacked when he could and used his height to whip the ball above defenders, slinging the ball to shooters all across the court. Does that sound like the M.O. of a certain member of the basketball royalty? I can't imagine what Simmons would do with the additional space and great shooters he'd have at the NBA level.
Now, Simmons lacks the physicality, raw athleticism, and innate finishing ability that takes LeBron to a whole ‘nother level. He only took one shot outside of eight feet and passed up a number of open looks. These flaws will prevent him from being a once in a generation force but a solid jump shot could push him into the top 10 players in the league. In fact, I haven't even discussed his best attribute.
Simmons is absolutely devastating in transition. He's got a killer inside-out cross-over that just screams "Only NBA players make this kind of move".
The defender literally jumps in the wrong direction giving Simmons and easy passing lane to the corner. I can see him blowing by even the staunchest NBA defenders in the open floor.
His defense isn't even all that bad. Of course, it has to improve but that's true of all rookies, let alone high school seniors. He's not very tenacious but he moves his feet relatively well and always seems to be on balance. I never caught him leaning or reaching, no lazy swipes as ball handlers drove past him, or anything like that. His center of gravity was almost always over his feet even when he was closing out and recovering to a shooter.
That's nothing revolutionary but it represents a good base to start with. Simmons comes from the baseline to challenge the shooter and is able to change directions quickly. He recovers and Luke Kenard has absolutely no chance. A player who can carry an offense without undermining your defense is one definition of a franchise player.
You might say the opposite thing about Skal. He can anchor your defense without undermining your offense. He might actually have some offensive value as well depending on how far out he can extend his range. He already appears to have pretty good touch on his jump hook although NBA players will push him off of his favorite spots. Skal's jumper was silky smooth and he's got a great rhythm and high release. Forget blocking his shot and if you crowd him he's got more ball skills than I expected.
He misses the initial layup before following his own shot but it's rare to find a seven footer that can move like that. A transformational defensive player who can't be ignored on offense and may develop into an above average scorer? Sign me up.
There will be lots of talent in next year's draft but these are the two game changers. After that, things get intriguing but not revolutionary. Every player beyond those two has a number of concerning limitations. Of course, they're only 17 so there's plenty of time for that to change but right now, they don't seem like franchise players.
The Scoring Guards
Jamal Murray had himself a game! Thirty points and five assists. He's listed as a PG/SG combo and that seems to be a good description. He was comfortable enough in the pick and roll to run the offense but it wasn't second nature. He didn't manipulate space or angles to set up his teammates but he could make the easy pass when it was there. Murray struggled under the USA's pressure at times and he'd need to continue to improve if he wants to play PG at the next level.
But he might not have to and a shooting guard with point guard skills is quite valuable. He's real thick, physical, and he should have the height to hold his own on the wing (6'5"). Jamal knocked down three of seven three-pointers and his shot is compact, quick, and his release is consistent. Reminds me of a certain superhero that left for Dallas this summer (excuse me while I go cry for a few minutes).
The biggest knock on Murray is his lack of quickness. He can charge through a lane if it opens but he doesn't have the blazing speed of Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose. Defenders were able to pressure and stay with Murray and he struggled to create space. He reminds me of Marcus Smart in the way that he moves but with way less defense and a much better shot.
Malik Newman is branding himself as a combo guard but the point guard part might be his own personal fantasy. He didn't get a chance to play it during the game and failed to tally even a single assist. But man can he score and he might have the size to play shooting guard full time anyway.
He gets great lift on his jumper and his release is smooth. I have no doubt he'll be able to extend his range to the NBA three and he knew how to pick his spots when driving. He even showed off an impressive runner at full speed after splitting two defenders.
The problem with Newman is that he didn't impact the game in any way besides his scoring. I didn't notice him much on defense, good or bad, and his assist and rebound totals combined for a big fat goose egg. Scoring is a big part of the game but if you want to be a franchise player and that's all you can do then you better be transcendent at it. Malik didn't display the dizzying array of moves and spots that unstoppable scorers typically have. Of course, he's insanely young but I don't see him being the best player on a championship team at this point.
The Athletic Wings
Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram didn't do much in this game but they showed flashes of what makes them top prospects. Ingram played with a silky smooth pace doing a little bit of everything on the offensive end. He stroked a few beautiful looking jumpers, ran a few pick and rolls, and attacked in transition. It already looks like the game moves slowly for this kid and he could be a handful in a few years.
The "few years" is the key part of that sentence. Ingram is incredibly skinny and seems like he's two years away from being two years away. Any team that drafts him after his freshman year will likely be betting on potential alone and I'd be surprised if he was effective before the last year of his rookie contract.
Jaylen Brown didn't play very much but displayed both his incredible athleticism and lack of skill in the few minutes he saw the court. He struggled to shoot from the field. His release seemed inconsistent with the ball leaving his fingers at awkward angles. He rarely crossed over and never made a creative pass. But give him a lane and look out.
That kid attacks the rim. He just went straight for it a few other times and seems to be the definition of a slashing wing.
The Trail Blazers are looking for a second franchise player to team with Lillard. The sidekick could develop from the existing roster but more likely than not, they'll have to draft that player in the lottery. If they're lucky enough to snag the first or second pick in next year's draft this should be a slam dunk. Beyond that, things get a little dicier.
One game is an incredibly small sample size, not to mention how much time will elapse between now and the draft. Anything we say about next year's rookie class is preliminary at best. But hey, at least we got to watch some actual basketball.