2011 Draft: Filling Holes With March Madness Talent

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It’s been a tough year for college basketball. No superstars, no super teams, no crazy headlines or attention grabbing scandals. Just a bunch of equally matched teams running around, waiting for March. But now that the month is here (and the Sweet 16 no less), who cares about all of that? Now’s the time to finally take notice of players who aren’t named Jimmer or Kemba. Players who rebound, block shots, play defense, know their subsidiary roles and excel at them.  Take Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried for instance. A double-double machine who, on Thursday, literally wouldn’t be denied an upset victory over Louisville by making all the little plays which don’t end up on a box score; he’s college basketball’s Kevin Love (minus the scoring).

The Knicks aren’t the best when it comes to making high pressure decisions. For example, taking advantage of a favorable position in the draft. Since 2005 the Knicks have had eight first round draft picks at their disposal. Six of them aren’t on the team anymore (seven if you include Renaldo Balkman), and only one has made an All-Star team (David Lee as an injury replacement).  I suppose Danilo Galinari and Wilson Chandler were fine ingredients in that they magically turned into Carmelo Anthony, but Channing Frye over both Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger, and Jordan Hill over everybody else, aren’t proudly discussed decisions. But even in what’s considered to be a serious down year in terms of talent, the Knicks are in a pretty good position to improve their team.  No players in this draft will ever become more capable scorers than Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire; this clearly isn’t a need. And worrying about grabbing a point guard for the future isn’t necessary when the window to win a championship begins next season with a probable Chauncey Billups/Toney Douglas tandem. The Knicks are in the bittersweet position of having a humongous weakness, but recognizing the issue and (hopefully) being able to solve it.

After going through the 2010 draft with zero picks to choose from, this June 23rd in Newark, New Jersey, the Knicks should have themselves a mid-first rounder. (I say “should” because the Houston Rockets have the right to swap first round picks should they choose to do so. Right now Houston is in danger of missing the playoffs, placing them ahead of New York in the draft order. So from their end the deal could prove fruitless.)

Here are a few players who could be available, with their scouting reports courtesy of DraftExpress.com and NBAdraft.net. Most look like a reach, but there’s nothing wrong with that when drafting for need…

Vanderbilt Center—Festus Ezeli: As of two weeks ago, he said he hasn’t begun to think about entering the 2011 draft, but after an almost dominant first round performance (and an excellent Sports Illustrated profile), albeit in a loss, Ezeli is probably putting that whole “entering the draft” thing in the forefront of his mind.

Extremely tough and capable of getting up and down the floor in a hurry in transition, some of the weaknesses Ezeli showed last season do continue to be a problem for him this year.Ranking amongst the worst players in our database in assists-to-turnover ratioEzeli is not a natural passer, and doesn’t have a great feel for the game when he steps away from the rim. His free throw percentages (60%, up from 37% last year) are indicative of his questionable jump shooting ability, another area he could continue to work on. Though the athletic center has some deficiencies, he’s made a very positive impression on the offensive end this season and could become an extremely interesting prospect if he develops further. Ezeli’s biggest weakness at this point is his inability to stay out of foul trouble. A physical and aggressive defender, Ezeliis amongst the top pace-adjusted shot blockers in our database, but ranks as the most foul prone player as well. Ezeli is only averaging 22.6 minutes per-game this season because of his lack of discipline defensively. A terrific interior presence on the defensive end, even if he’s still learning the fundamentals of defending away from the basket, Ezeli has improved his awareness, but needs to do a better job going straight up on shooters. His ability to cut down on his fouls would be a big a huge boost for Vanderbilt, who would benefit immensely from having him on the floor for more minutes.

Kansas Forward—Marcus Morris: Apologies to Jared Sullinger and Derrick Williams, but this is the most complete frontcourt player in the country.

Though Morris’ efficient 59.7% shooting is impressive at face value, the fact that his shot selection is distributed almost equally between jump shots, finishing opportunities at the rim, and post-ups makes it that much more remarkable. Ranking in the 83rd percentile amongst all college players in terms of points per jump shot and in the 95th percentile or above in points per shot around the glass and as a back to the basket post-ups according to Synergy Sports Technology, his skill level puts him on a tier above the rest of the power forwards in the college game, along with Derrick Williams. Capable of facing up or turning over either shoulder in the post, Morris uses his sturdy frame, sound footwork, good body control, and exceptional touch both as a jump shooter and finisher to dominate defenders down low. He is extremely fluid with the ball in his hands, and does not rely on any one move in the paint. Able to score effectively in so many different ways with his back to the basket, Morris is just as confident and effective from the mid-post as he is from the block. He’ll inevitably need to make some adjustments to overcome his lack of size and strength to score over bigger power forwards in the NBA, but the tools are there for him to find some level of success, if not a great deal of it. The biggest question-marks regarding Morris’s NBA potential are based on his ability to compete on the glass at the NBA level and effectively mix it up with the bigger, stronger, and more athletic matchups he’d be facing on a nightly basis defensively. Pulling down just 6.6 defensive rebounds per-40 (a career high), Morris provides just an average presence on the glass, lacking the size, length and explosiveness to go out of his area regularly for extra possessions. With Cole Aldrich moving to the NBA, scouts surely would have liked to see Morris become a more prolific rebounder in his absence. Standing just 6’9 and possessing a wingspan which measured shorter than his height, Morris has some limitations that will require him to make some adjustments to defend and rebound adequately at the next level, but if he makes an effort to maximize his physical potential, his approach to the defensive end will go a long way towards helping him overcome those deficiencies.

Reading this assessment of Morris’ play on defense and the glass doesn’t make him all too attractive for filling the Knicks’ current need, but his talent level is one any team would like to have. Undersized college players who excelled offensively have made adjustments at the pro level to fit a necessary role (see Glen Davis) so using a first round pick on a guarenteed offensive threat might be worth the risk.

Morehead State Forward—Kenneth Faried: One of college basketball’s best kept secrets.

Physically, there’s not much new to say about Faried, an extremely explosive and reactive athlete who runs the floor like a deer and finishes very well around the rim. The majority of his scoring contributions come from his excellent ability to catch the ball in mid air and dunk it, either in transition, on alley-oops, cuts through the lane, or just getting open around the rim. He has excellent hands and the hand-eye coordination to go with it, catching and finishing virtually everything thrown his way. The other area Faried provides strong contributions on the offensive end is with his unbelievable rebounding ability, as he shows excellent timing, positioning, and leaping ability in that regard. His motor is non-stop both in regards to rebounding and getting open without the ball, constantly moving, reading the defense, and trying to post up his man. In terms of creating his own offense, Faried is still very raw, showing flashes of post-up and face-up ability at times, but nothing really at an NBA level. Facing up, he can put the ball on the floor for one or two dribbles in a straight line, where he has a good first step and rangy strides for a power forward, but can’t really do much else with it, not really having any change of direction ability with the ball. He’s not a very good handler in the open floor either, lacking fluidity and comfort with the ball moving at such a high speed. Defensively, there are serious concerns about what NBA position Faried is going to play, as he plays almost exclusively at the center position in Morehead State’s 3-2 zone, virtually never allowing him to venture onto the perimeter and get into a perimeter stance. Given his athletic abilities, it’s not outlandish to think he could develop the lateral quickness to match against 3’s in the NBA, and that’s certainly something NBA teams will want to evaluate in private workouts, because at 6’8 with a narrow frame, Faried doesn’t project as a great defender at the 4 position. Even in college, he is constantly pushed off the block by stronger players, struggling to maintain post position, forcing him to overplay entry passes in the paint to try and steal the ball, leading to some easy scores. As a help defender, Faried uses his length well both in the passing lanes and in the paint, blocking and stealing a decent amount of shots, though he doesn’t project as a big-time shot blocker in the pros by any stretch.

Oakland Center—Keith Benson: Here’s a big body.

Defensively, Benson makes a tremendous impact at the college level with his length and shot-blocking instincts, but has some work to do to improve his NBA projections. While he doesn’t hold his ground very well when getting backed down, he does an awesome job of staying on his feet and contesting shots when his man makes a move. As we noted last season, Benson is not assertive defensively, some of which can be attributed to his desire to stay out of foul trouble. He’ll need to add muscle to his frame (particularly his lower body) and be more willing to initiate contact if he wants to be able to defend the center position on the next level, an important step considering he doesn’t have the lateral quickness or fundamentals to step out and defend power forwards on the perimeter effectively. Unlike the average 22-year old senior,Keith Bensonhas quite a bit of upside considering that many of his weaknesses are reparable. He’s going to dominate the Summit League and flash some impressive NBA tools along the way, but he’ll need to be more consistent, show greater intensity on both ends, add some weight to his frame, and continue refining his game to make himself a more attractive draft prospect. If he can make the necessary adjustments, Benson could be a name worth watching in March and heading into workout season.

Texas Forward—Tristan Thompson: The previously mentioned Marcus Morris recently said Thompson was “going to be good” someday. In the first round of the tournament, Thompson went up against Oakland’s Benson, one of the more dominant big men in college basketball, and beasted him. The Longhorn freshman had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and six (!) blocks, five of them coming in the first half.

He ranks as one of the top per-40 minute pace adjusted reboundersamongst prospects in the college game. Finally, Thompson is also a very good finisher, efficiently scoring tip in opportunities, fast break feeds, and simple catch and finish opportunities. Apart from his ability to finish, draw contact, and crash the glass, Thompson is limited by his skill-level at this point. His awkward jump shooting mechanics make him a non-factor away from the rim and renders him as a highly questionable free throw shooter (48%) and midrange scoring threat. He’s capable of making quick, decisive straight-line drives to the rim by exploiting his long strides and nice first step, but needs to become a steadier ball-handler with both hands and a better decision-maker to maximize his potential as a face-up threat. With some 40% of his possessions coming in the post according to Synergy Sports Technology, Thompson doesn’t have a true go-to-move, and is still a work in progress as a NBA caliber shot creator. Defensively, there is a lot to like about Thompson at this point. Maligned for his effort level at times early in his career, the Findlay Prep product is a consistently active defender at this point in his career who can adjust shots around the rim and make an impact in the passing lanes out on the perimeter.

Richmond Forward—Justin Harper: He’s the best player on the least likely Sweet 16 participant, and is having one hell of a tournament so far. On the offensive end he’s a prototype Mike D’Antoni power forward, but is that really what New York wants?

Has been on an absolute tear shooting 49% from 3 on a high volume of shots as a senior … Likes to roam around the perimeter, gain possession of the ball and face the basket … Utilizes his excellent foot speed well to beat defenders … Proficient at getting defenders off balance with a pump fake/jab step and then blowing by them and getting to the rim using the dribble … His quickness and shooting ability makes him excellent in pick and pop situations. May not have the frame to put on considerable weight comfortably … Back to the basket skills are underutilized. Usually will post up but then face the basket and isolate and use the dribble to beat defenders instead of maintaining low post position, keeping the ball high, and scoring via post moves … Playing at Richmond doesn’t help to convince scouts that he can compete against top tier talent at the same high level consistently … Rebounding ability would benefit from more leg and upperbody strength.

Overall, it’s looking like this draft is filled with thousands of questions and very few answers. There are no sure things, no dominant players capable of taking the league by storm or changing the face of an organization. I really like Faried, but it’s probably due to a bad case of band wagon hopping. He seems to know his role as a hardworking rebounder and even though he’s mostly played against lesser talent in college, someone with his motor and relentless attitude on the defensive end could be a spark in pointing the Knicks’ attitude towards the right direction. They need it.

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