By: Mike Garcia
The term “modern NBA” always struck me as funny. All teams need defense. All teams need shooting. All teams need playmaking. However, it’s up to the player’s talent to dictate where the trend goes.
In my eyes, the Lakers are the pioneers. Who plays big guards? The Lakers. Who started small ball? The Lakers did with Magic in Game 6 of 1980, obviously. Who played seven seconds or less first? Magic. Who acquired 3-point shooting at power forward? Robert Horry with the Lakers. Who initiates transition play at power forward? Lamar Odom with the Lakers.
My introduction to NBA basketball started with the 1980’s Lakers. I didn’t wake up to the idea of what talent was until I learned that not everyone could pass like Magic. Not everybody could shoot like Bird. I thought everyone was on a level playing field in terms of talent, but every player is different. Magic and Bird are Magic and Bird because no one else was talented like they were talented.
Nothing else made that clearer to me than memorizing statistics on basketball cards. I bought my first Beckett magazine, which gave me the first notion of what a scouting report was. There were short paragraphs about how great the next crop of rookies would be. Larry Johnson was the best guy in that draft, so he’d have the most valuable card. Stacey Augmon was a defensive stopper and defensive stoppers don’t make valuable cards.
I loved the Lakers of the 1990’s. I understood that Nick the Quick was a gunner and a low-percentage shooter. I knew Eddie Jones was really active on defense with a developing 3-point shot, but he could also finish at the rim with the best in the league. I realized that Cedric Ceballos was the best finisher I had ever seen that decade — anything 3’ and in, he just had tremendous touch and dexterity.
Fast forward into the 2000’s. I knew Shaq and Kobe were elite level talents, but as a die-hard Laker fan, I had a vested interest into what kinds of players would make their championship window bigger.
That’s when I really got into the draft.
I had a few ideas of how to approach a draft from a philosophical standpoint. If you wanted a mature, sure thing player, pick an experienced NCAA player with accolades. That being said, the idea of drafting the best athlete available was paying major dividends for franchises. Kevin Garnett used to look like he could trip over his own feet just running the floor. Kobe Bryant was the first guard drafted out of high school, then Tracy McGrady followed suit. Even Monta Ellis had tremendous speed and scoring ability out of high school.
So, I started watching the NBA Draft. Before there was NBAdraft.net or DraftExpress, there was ibiblio.org. There were no videos. There were no photos of players. There were brief descriptions of basketball players from their own scouts.
Best Athlete Available
The 2000 NBA Draft was an odd one. The league started to transition from drafting upperclassmen to drafting younger NCAA players based on potential. Why not? If elite high school prospects could make the jump into stardom, why can’t other freshman and sophomores?
Kenyon Martin rose to the top of that draft based on three skills:
2-hand power dunks:
The ability to swat from the power forward position:
And signs of an 18’ jump shot.
Guys like Stromile Swift (Soph.) and Darius Miles (HS Sr.) were drafted #2 and #3, respectively, because of their athletic upside. After all, you could just train them in the NBA, right? Right?
Big wings made a splash that year too. Mike Miller, Dermarr Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Keyon Dooling rounded off as big wings and project point guards.
The Lakers had the 29th pick. They dominated the 2000 season. Why not just get another big point guard? Marko Jaric was on the board. Chris Carrawell was a 6’6” SG out of Duke. Why was he slipping so far? Mamadou N’Diaye could give some defensive presence while Shaq sits on the bench. How awesome would it be to have a big point guard next to Kobe?
Instead, they drafted Mark Madsen. He was tough, intelligent, and very active. But I didn’t understand why the Lakers chose to go in a different direction. I was wrong, too. Carrawell and N’Diaye didn’t last long. Jaric had a decent NBA career, considering.
It turns out that Kenyon Martin and Michael Redd had the best NBA careers from of that draft. How did Redd slip so far? I had a lot to learn.
A Risky Trade Idea and Motor
With the mindset of drafting the best athlete available, there was one guy in 2001 that stood out. His name is Gerald Wallace. While he didn’t have the ball-handling ability of Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, the guy played the wing position like a power forward. I wasn’t interested in his scoring ability. I was interested in how he rebounded and played defense. I read when he was in high school, he averaged roughly 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals per game during his senior year. That’s a tremendous amount of activity for any elite wing player. That kind of activity would later be known as motor.
The Sacramento Kings had the 25th pick in that draft. While the Kings and Lakers were enemies, surely, they’d want a clutch player like Robert Horry that they could play beside Chris Webber to hit 3’s and play defense. I thought Horry for a late 1st rounder was a fair trade. After all, a guy like Horry was exactly the type of player that could have gotten the Kings over the hump. I thought that the defensive advantages of Gerald Wallace, even as a rookie, would have been enough to contend for a championship in 2001 anyway.
While the Lakers didn’t make that trade, I always wonder what if. Sure, we would have Horry making clutch shots for the Lakers for championships, but my goodness, I think they would have had a blanket wing defender for a decade.
Wingspan, Speed, One NBA Skill, Draft Depth, and Upside
In 2003, the Lakers had 3 championships under their belts but didn’t have the team speed for a transition game. The long seasons had caught up to the team, especially Shaq and Bryant. Clearly, they needed help.
The idea of drafting the best athlete available didn’t matter as much. Darius Miles and Stromile Swift didn’t show the advanced improvement in their first years in the league like Kobe, McGrady, and Garnett. Skills and work ethic were part of the equation.
The 2003 draft was a special one. We got to witness what it looked like to have elite athletes with NBA level skills. LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade. That’s the stuff of legends. I watched as many high school games of LeBron James as I could. I researched Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade.
In 2003, the Lakers had a late 1st rounder and an early 2nd round pick. At this point, I was still enamored with guys that had specific physical tools. The idea of speed, quickness, and wingspan was in my draft lexicon, and I was going to apply it to the draft.
The idea of drafting for fit didn’t sink in for me. The Lakers needed a power forward in 2000, but Mark Madsen didn’t supplant A.C. Green as a starting power forward. The top of the draft wasn’t just about the best athlete available. It was the best player available, regardless of position, which made sense to me. The worst-case scenario is drafting a player with NBA talent and adding depth to a team. All teams need depth.
What made 2003 a special year was the idea of draft depth as well. While the Lakers had a late 1st rounder and an early 2nd rounder, it was possible to draft starting talent at those respective draft spots. Work ethic, fit, and mentality are all variables that help fulfill a player’s upside, but the talent was there.
I had my eyes on one particular guy: Leandro Barbosa. He’s this Brazilian guard that had a 6’10” wingspan, was a blur on the court, and shot 40% behind the arc. Unlike Stromile Swift and Darius Miles, Barbosa could actually shoot. This is my idea of the perfect draft. Kobe would have a backcourt mate in transition and someone beside him with the physical tools to defend the point of attack. He could steal the basketball. He was quick.
While there was controversy about the form on his jump shot, there were no doubts about the results from a catch and shoot situations. Ron Harper was helping him with the draft process too. I figured this was a no-brainer pick. They had to have the inside word about Barbosa.
I had a short list of guys I wanted. I wanted Boris Diaw, knowing he was a big PG but he wouldn’t slip that far. I wanted Ndudi Ebi, because he was a McDonald’s All-American that could develop. I wanted Sofoklis Schortsanitis because that guy bulldozed teams in Greece. I wanted Steve Blake because I knew he would be a steady point guard. I wanted Malick Badiane, because he had great wingspan. I still wanted swatting off the bench. I would have even understood Derrick Zimmerman because he had a killer wingspan at the point guard position too. It was clear that I thought highly of upside based on physical tools.
Unfortunately, a day before draft night, I dreamt the Lakers drafted Brian Cook.
They drafted him. They drafted Luke Walton too, which I didn’t feel as awful about, but I didn’t really see either guy as potential starters. Brian Cook had great collegiate statistics but I didn’t see the athletic upside. I didn’t see great upside from both guys, especially in terms of athleticism. At least I believed in Walton’s basketball IQ, but I didn’t think that was as necessary on a championship team.
Fast-forward a few years and I watched Barbosa have a more successful career than Cook and Walton. I thought, maybe I’m getting better at this. I didn’t care about the other players I missed.
Best Player Available
Now, it’s 2005. Shaq was traded. The Lakers had a couple of foundation pieces in Bryant and Odom, but star talent was still needed. I remember thinking, it was a big year to try and attract Kevin Garnett onto the Lakers. I thought for sure that the Lakers could package Odom, Butler, and a player to lure Garnett. At least, that was a possibility in my mind.
But in order to make it work, the #10 pick had to be a potential star player. I did my research. I had the three guys on my list in order.
- Danny Granger
- Andrew Bynum
- Fran Vasquez
Why did I have Danny Granger over Bynum? He was a good athlete. He was a senior player out of New Mexico St. Here’s a self-made player that went from junior college to Division I. His senior year was fantastic. He shot 56% from 2-point, 43% from 3-point, averaged 9 rebounds per game, 2.4 assists per game, 2 blocks per game, and 2 steals per game. He played point-forward for New Mexico to close out the games. They finished 26-7.
I wanted a Pippen to Kobe’s Jordan. I figured the Laker franchise wanted a mature, experienced player. Well, here he is. He did everything on the floor. I was shocked that he wasn’t a Top 5 pick. Here I am, hoping that he slips because he’s from a small school and he’s a senior, and he’s available. This is the first time that it occurs to me, that my draft list doesn’t look like a mock draft anymore.
Andrew Bynum had the physical tools. Drafting Bynum meant that the Lakers changed to a completely different direction compared to their previous drafts since 2000. They had chosen experienced players in Walton, Cook, and Madsen. They tried with an international pick, Sasha Vujacic. They needed more.
Andrew Bynum was a project player. I read about a private workout where he was a bit overweight. He had good hands and didn’t exactly make elbow jumpers. Clearly, he was going to be a project.
Why did I want Fran Vazquez? I just wanted a guy at power forward that could swat, rebound, and finish. I wanted Odom at small forward. I wanted a big front line to support Bryant. In the end, he wanted to stay overseas.
The Lakers chose Andrew Bynum. I was excited, although I admit I wanted Granger, still. I thought he would have opened up the championship window more quickly, as he didn’t need as much development time. But at least, the Lakers had a project that they could work with, and I had faith in the organization.
Work Ethic and Health
While initially unhappy with how Andrew Bynum started in the league, I was shocked by his development by 2010. I once compared Andrew Bynum to Brendan Haywood as an upside. Haywood was a guy that similar size, wingspan, and mechanical moves. Out of UNC, he was a 12 point per game, 7 rebound per game center, but averaged 3.5 blocks per game. If the Lakers had that, they finally got a rim protector. But that was his upside, and the Lakers drafted a really raw player who they hoped they could transform into a contributor on a championship level.
By 2008, Andrew Bynum blew up. Not only was he physically stronger, now he had a post base. He once struggled to gather up for a dunk, now he’s catching lobs. He worked his way into being a 3rd option on offense and shot well from the field. He was actually intimidating. He really surprised me.
He was critical to two championship runs for the Lakers as well. The Lakers could not have gotten there without him, but his rise to stardom was fast, and I knew there was a cost. Not everybody can be Kobe Bryant in terms of work ethic and health. Knee injuries caught up to him. I personally felt that he burned out after working so hard. I learned that’s how Kobe separated himself from the rest of the league. I learned hard work is a talent, but health is luck. I learned that a player’s mentality, and a modicum of talent, meant a long career.
Motor, Archetypes, and Shooting
The Lakers were finally back in the lottery in 2014. They had struggled with injuries. They played uninspired basketball. Nick Young was the team’s leading scorer. The Lakers needed help everywhere.
I remember exactly who I wanted in 2014. Alongside Jacob Rude of LakeShowLife at the time (Now of LakersOutsiders), I wrote the most about Julius Randle. I also covered Rodney Hood, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, and Noah Vonleh. I distinctly remember having Randle at the top of my board at #7. I recall getting a lot of feedback where some said that I ranked Rodney Hood and Zach LaVine too high. Adreian Payne was the right archetype. I wasn’t as convinced that Vonleh’s high school athleticism translated well to the NCAA level after he got stronger. While I loved Marcus Smart’s abilities on defense, I wasn’t as convinced of his playmaking at the NBA level. He was mostly a straight-line driver that had trouble exploding at the hoop.
The guy I wanted was Randle. I knew Hood could shoot but I didn’t expect much else on the floor. I knew LaVine would meet my other requirements of a legitimate NBA prospect (elite athleticism, played PG in high school, great shooter), but it was how Randle played against Adreian Payne and Michigan St. that had me convinced. Unlike the other guys, he had a great motor. He had a post base and couldn’t be moved. He could handle the ball well for a small forward, let alone a power forward. He just needed to learn how to shoot. I didn’t think that was a big deal. If Karl Malone, Chris Webber, and Blake Griffin did it, why can’t Julius Randle?
For once, the Lakers picked the lottery guy I wanted. I finally believed in the front office’s ability to draft. Guys like Rodney Hood and Zach LaVine? It turns out they would have been fine at #7 in the draft as well.
The Importance of Interviews and Workouts
Then, there was Jahlil Okafor. I loved what he did on the floor for Duke. He has a 7’5” wingspan, mitts for hands, and created shots at will. I didn’t care that he was an average shot blocker or rebounder. Those were things that project players learned and he was a 19-year-old prospect. I just cared that he could get buckets. The Lakers didn’t have a guy outside of Kobe. After all, he did just enough to help Duke win the NCAA tournament.
Sure, he was bad at defense. He lacked motor. I didn’t care. I just wanted one thing to translate: field goal percentage. He shot 66% for the entire season for Duke, and it wasn’t just based on physical tools. He has incredibly nimble feet in the post. Want to know why the NBA went to perimeter shooting? It’s because there are no more post up players that could shoot 56% from the field like James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I really thought Okafor was next in line.
I recall D’Angelo Russell skyrocketed up mock drafts in January. He just had a phenomenal month. He displayed court awareness that was a step ahead of everyone else. He was big for a PG. Not that I would be disappointed if Russell was drafted, but Okafor was my guy.
Then, I watched the interviews.
D’Angelo Russell came off as a very intelligent individual. He worked out alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. He went up against Chris Paul. Don McLean raved about his basketball intelligence.
The Lakers worked out both players. D’Angelo Russell completed his second workout. Jahlil Okafor, well, didn’t.
Russell was their guy. That was the right choice.
Stride Length and NCAA Development
The 2016 draft was all about Ben Simmons. While LSU didn’t reach expectations of NCAA tournament play, Simmons’ talent with ball-handling, passing, and defensive versatility made him a clear prospect for the #1 pick.
However, Brandon Ingram was the guy I wanted. I watched him during the early weeks at Duke, and he looked like a 3-and-D guy but was really timid on the court. During the regular season, Amile Jefferson got hurt, and Coach Krzyzewski moved Ingram to power forward. He finally came out of his shell. He was more aggressive offensively and went from the 4th option on offense to the 2nd option behind Grayson Allen. Despite his skinny frame, he was physical in the paint and used his 7’3” wingspan to grab rebounds and protect the rim a bit. He attacked the basket much more often. He shot 48% behind the arc in January. By the end of the season, he was a tremendous isolation scorer at the NCAA level. This was the first time I had seen such rapid improvement within the season.
He showed a base level of triple-threat skills and great length, but there was a new element that I paid attention to that I didn’t before: stride length. Blame Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ingram and Antetokounmpo were forwards that could start at the 3-point line, take one dribble, two strides, and be at the rim.
This, to me, would be his one defining trait that few NBA players have. As shown by the end of last season, he showed the same rapid development and aggression, as well as the ability to finish surprisingly well.
Continuous Learning, Workouts, Analytics
Analytics have come into the fold more than ever when it comes to evaluating NBA prospects. It seems that every year, the bar gets raised in terms of height, wingspan, hands, standing reach, skill set by age, athleticism, and skill set by position. While it isn’t always as clear that the top 5 NBA prospects will all become franchise players, year by year, skill set expands deeper into the second round.
I’ve looked at analytics this year much more than I have in years past. It isn’t about assists, but assists in the half court. It isn’t about field goal percentage, but true shot percentage and free throw rate. It isn’t about 3-point percentages, but free throw percentages, distance of 3-point shots, and 3-point volume. We look at different statistics and try to find or create future models of success.
Then, there’s the NBA combine. There are players that put up fantastic numbers in terms of lateral agility and maximum vertical.
But the question is, do you see that on the NBA floor? Just because Steve Blake was the #1 athlete in his draft, doesn’t mean it all translated into elite point guard defense or finishing at the rim. Just because Kevin Durant was ranked 60th best athlete during his testing doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the deadliest NBA players in the league. When it comes to Semi Ojeleye and Jordan Bell? It translates, but that isn’t the case with all prospects.
Throughout all of this, I’ve learned about the one thing missing. Work ethic and skills advancement are the most difficult to quantify. For some, shooting takes years to develop. For others, it takes months. What makes a player tick bodes well for long-term success, and that’s why I’m higher on Tatum and have him Top 3. There is no analytics for guys like Andrew Bynum or Ben Wallace. It never made sense that Bruce Bowen became an elite 3-point shooter despite being a poor free throw shooter.
If there was a way to scout skill advancement over time, it’s arguable that those guys would be at the top of the draft every year.