Monday, March 26, 2007

Roy Hibbert Climbs into Rarified Air

Like we’ve heard all season long, Ohio State’s Greg Oden stands alone atop the list of post players in the 2007 draft, and deservedly so. Once Oden and Kevin Durant (provided they both enter the NBA Draft) are taken #1 and #2 (or #2 and #1), teams will be selecting from the next tier of players. At least one team (probably many more than one!) will be looking to anchor its roster with a young center- and if Greg Oden is off the board, Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert, regardless of what happens against Ohio State in the Final Four, is the best available player at that position. Coming into the NCAA Tournament, Hibbert was a lottery pick, maybe even a top 10 prospect. Based on what he’s done thus far in the Big Dance, Hibbert has vaulted himself into the top five selections of the draft!

Thus far in the Tournament, Hibbert, a legitimate 7-footer, has delivered in virtually every facet of the game; he’s done everything a team could ask of its center. In Georgetown’s four Tourney games (victories against Belmont, Boston College, Vanderbilt and North Carolina), he’s scored 13 points per-game (in line with his season average of 12.7), he’s grabbed 11.5 rebounds per-game (almost double his season average of 6.9), he’s dominated the offensive boards, averaging an astounding 6 offensive rebounds-per-game (up from his already respectable season average of 2.7), he’s blocked shots at clip of 2.8 per game, slightly exceeding his season average of 2.5 blocks per-game, including 6 blocks in the Elite Eight again #1 seed North Carolina! He’s also protected the ball, with just four turnovers in four Tournament games.

The strengths in Roy Hibbert’s game translate well to the NBA. His an NBA-ready body (7’2”, 280 lbs) will provide the size and strength needed to be a dominant rebounder and shot blocker at the next level. Hibbert is also surprisingly quick for a man his size, which should make him an outstanding offensive rebounder and weak side shot blocker in the NBA. As for Hibbert’s offensive game, which predominantly exists on the low block, he will likely score at a similar rate in the Association as in the NCAA, because wherever you go, a six- or eight-foot shot is a six- or eight-foot shot. His quickness will also allow him to get to free throw line with some regularity, where, unlike many centers, he will not be a liability- he shoots a solid 70% from the line. The added physicality of NBA defenders is something that he’ll need to adjust to, but his strength will allow him to not only withstand the banging in NBA, but to dish out a little punishment too as well. Additionally, Roy Hibbert does not waste possessions. He does not turn the ball over frequently, averaging less than one turnover for every 20 mintues on the floor!

Critics will point to the abundance of unsuccessful centers in (and no longer in) the NBA who were selected high in the draft as a warning against selecting Roy Hibbert with a high pick in the draft. Why keep rolling the dice and spending high draft picks on centers? The fact remains that most successful teams have one or both of the following type of player: a versatile point guard who dictates the pace of the game and a dominant big man who scores in the post and provides an intimidating presence on defense. The same reasoning that justifies selecting Greg Oden with the #1 overall pick justifies selecting Roy Hibbert at #3, 4 or 5 overall.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

If You Like Noah in the Top Five...

Why exactly are Joakim Noah's NBA prospects so much better than Tyler Hansbrough's? They essentially play the same game! Both of their games are predicated on energy and hustle, both are tenacious rebounders, neither has consistent range from beyond 15 feet and, at 6'9" and 245 lbs., Hansbrough's body is more suited to endure the abuse of the NBA's inside game.

Both have played 36 games in 2006-07, with Hansbrough averaging 18.6 points and 7.9 rebounds (3.0 offensive rebounds) per-game, to Joakim Noah's 12.1 points and 8.3 rebounds (2.6 offensive rebounds) per-game. In terms of field goal, Hansbrough is solid, hitting on over 53% of his shots, but that pales in comparison to Noah's absurd 62%. While NBA competition will bring both of these percentages down to earth, Hansbrough is far more likely to shoot 53% in the NBA than Noah is to shoot over 60%. Looking at free throw line, where Hansbrough not only got nearly twice as many opportunities as Noah (295 FT att. vs. 168), but his 76.3% free throw percentage easily trumps Noah's 64.9%. This is significant since, given their high-energy inside play, the free throw line is a place where both are likely to get a lot of opportunities.

Defensively, the edge has to go to Noah, as both players have recorded the same number of steals this season (41), but Noah's has blocked nearly FOUR times as many shots (66 to 17). However, Noah's 90 turnovers represent 18 more than Hansbrough's total of 72, offsetting some of his positive work at the defensive end.

Neither of these players has superstar potential, but both have of look of players that will spend 10-12 years in the NBA and contribute to a lot of wins with their hustle and toughness. It just makes no sense, given the similarities in their statistics as well as their respective styles of play, to rank Joakim Noah as a top 5 prospect for the NBA Draft while Hansbrough may not crack the lottery.

Update (4/4/2007)- Following an underwhelming NCAA Tournament both for himself and his Tarheels, it's rumored that Tyler Hansbrough will return to Chapel Hill for his junior season. This is, by far, the right decision. Next season, Hansbrough will add to his collegiate resume, likely averaging 19 and 8 or thereabouts, and once again play for a top 10 team with a chance to cut down the nets in April. Additionally, with the 2008 draft class unlikely to be as deep as 2007's, Hansbrough's stock will undoubtedly rise. Expect him to play himself into the #13-20 range in next year's draft.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Nash is an All-Time Great

On March 14 in Dallas, in one of the great regular season games in recent memory, Steve Nash virtually ensured himself a third straight MVP award. In doing so, he will not only join Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird, three of the greatest players in NBA history, as the only players to win three consecutive MVP awards, he will join them as one of the NBA's all-time greats.

As great as he is statistically, Nash's true greatness shines through in the way he plays the game. He dictates the pace of the game better than any point guard since Magic Johnson and, like Magic, Nash runs the point like he's looking down on the floor from above. Several times in each game he makes passes from near-impossible angles, and he makes them look easy.

Another all-time great trait that Steve Nash possesses is the fact that he simply does not miss big shots. He starts out every game looking to get his teammates, any teammate who's open, easy shots. And as long as the game is going well for Phoenix, his approach doesn't change. But any time a team makes a run against the Suns, Nash is always there to take over. Whenever he feels control of the game getting away from the Suns, his demeanor changes, he looks more like Kobe than Magic. He seems to make every single shot he puts up, single-handedly keeping Phoenix afloat until his teammates get back on track. Late in games when the Suns need a shot, like they did in Dallas, Nash is there to save the day. It's absolutely shocking any time he misses a big shot. That he missed his first open look at the game-tying three pointer was a surprise, but it only served to guarantee that he'd drain his second attempt off of Shawn Marion's rebound and feed.

His numbers already have in elite company, but it's only by watching him that it becomes obvious that Steve Nash is more than an All-Star; more than an MVP. Steve Nash is truly one of the greatest players in NBA history.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

There's Another Rookie in Portland

It's well chronicled that the Portland Trailblazers are a promising young team. And barring the unexpected, Brandon Roy will win this season's NBA Rookie of the Year award, and deservedly so. But it's time to take notice of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trailblazers' other rookie, who has really stepped up his game since the All-Star break. Since the break, Aldridge has averaged more than 3 offensive rebounds per game and has protected the ball extremely well, averaging less than 1 turnover per game. Simply put, he's been instrumental in helping the Blazers maximize their possessions.

Since mid-February, Aldridge is shooting 55% from the field, averaging 13.7 points, 7.3 rebounds (3+ offensive) and 1.6 blocked shots per game. He's been even better in the month of March, averaging 15.6 points, 9.2 rebounds (including a staggering 4.8 offensive rebounds) and 1.6 blocks per game. And he's getting better- he played his best game as a professional in Denver on March 13, when he scored 24 points (on 11-of-17 shooting), grabbed 17 rebounds (including an absurd 10 offensive boards!), blocked a career-high 4 shots and committed just 1 turnover!

More encouraging than the numbers are the areas in which he is excelling: offensive rebounds, turnovers (the lack thereof) and blocked shots. Players that excel in these areas tend to have long, productive careers with winning teams- and few of them have LaMarcus Aldridge's physical ability. Additionally, Aldridge seems to have found a comfort zone on the floor. Despite having spent less than one season together, Aldridge and Brandon Roy execute the pick-and-roll almost telepathically- Aldridge knows where the open jumper will be, and that he can knock it down, and Roy knows how to get him the ball.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Wake-Up Call from K-Mart

It was easy to sleep on Kevin Martin. It was easy to write him off. The slight build, the funny looking jump shot (keep these in mind!), the fact that he played his college ball at Western Carolina, that he barely played 10 minutes a night as a rookie. Well… WAKE UP! After showing flashes of potential last season, Martin has seriously raised his game this season, establishing himself as the best player on the Kings and one of the top young shooting guards in the NBA. The problem is that Kevin Martin’s wake up call to the NBA would be more easily heard if most of the league weren’t too sleepy to pay attention at 10:30pm Eastern, when an overwhelming majority of his games start.

Not only has K-Mart nearly doubled his scoring average from last year (21.4 in 2006-07, 10.8 in 2005-06), he has raised his field goal (49.6%), free throw (85%) and 3-point percentages (40.2%), which were already outstanding (48%, 84.7%, 36.9% respectively in 2005-06). Last season, when he got consistent minutes, Martin was of the best players on the Kings. In the 39 games he played in January, February and March, Martin averaged nearly 14 points in under 33 minutes per game, not to mention shooting over 50%, 80% and 40% from the field, free throw line and 3-point range. Why his minutes, and as a result his scoring, were cut nearly in half in April is a mystery. For evidence that the Maloof brothers made the right decision in not asking Rick Adelman to return as the Kings’ coach, just look at Kevin Martin’s improved play. Incidentally, if anyone needs more evidence that Adelman needed to go, consider that Ron Artest was the player that lobbied hardest for him to stay.

Why does this matter? Why should anyone care about a skinny shooting guard in Sacramento? Because after next season, when Martin will earn (and dollar-for-dollar, he does earn it!) just over $1.8 million, Kevin Martin will become a free agent, and NBA owners will line up to “make it rain” on K-Mart. What contending team wouldn’t pay top dollar for a young, versatile sharpshooter? And no amount of complimentary nights at the Palms will make playing for the Kings, a mediocre, declining team in an insignificant media market and an inconvenient time zone, an attractive proposition.

Kevin Martin, both in body and game, is the second coming of Reggie Miller- fast and wiry, an extremely agile shot-maker, and MONEY on both his free throws and three pointers. At 24 years of age and in his third season (as was Reggie Miller), K-Mart’s numbers (21.4 ppg, 49.6% FG, 85% FT, 40% 3pt, 4.2 rpg) are comparable, if not equivalent to Miller’s (24.6 ppg, 51.4% FG, 86.8% FT, 41% 3pt, 3.6 rpg), and Martin has yet to play with a teammate who looks to create for others; Mike Bibby is very good, but he’s looking to score, not pass. Whether he’s clutch like Reggie on the biggest stage is yet to be seen- the Kings don’t play many big games these days. If (When?) he takes his game to a contending team that thrives on unselfishness, like the Spurs or the Suns perhaps, Kevin Martin will be a star.

Monday, March 5, 2007

A BIG, Bright Future for the East

The relative weakness of the Eastern Conference is the most widely discussed topic regarding competitive balance in the NBA. The Western Conference has won six of the eight post-Jordan NBA titles (only two of the past three, however), seven of the eight league MVP awards (Allen Iverson is the lone Eastern Conference player to win the MVP in that span and he now plays in the West as well), and has generally been the deeper and more talented conference by a rather wide margin. Having been home to players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber in their respective primes, the Western Conference has also had a virtual monopoly on dominant big men for the better part of the past decade as well.

As a result of numerous well-spent draft picks, the Eastern Conference looks poised to challenge, if not overtake, the West’s dominance in the paint. There is an outstanding lineup of big men under sub-25 years of age, both solid bangers as well as potential superstars, who will be vital in winning back some respect for their conference.

First, some bigs that can (and someday will!) carry a team to the Promised Land:

  • Chris Bosh- The forgotten SUPERstar of the 2003 draft, Chris Bosh is the best big man in the Eastern Conference. At just 22 years old, his game already resembles that of Kevin Garnett in his prime, both in terms of style and stats. Toronto has put this year’s 13-18 start completely behind them. Since January 1, Bosh has lifted his game to new heights, averaging over 24 points, nearly 10 free throw attempts and shooting better than 53% from the field. Bosh’s emergence as a legitimate SUPERstar has, not surprisingly, coincided with the Raptors’ 19-8 record in the New Year, the best of any team not from Dallas and Phoenix, as well as their emergence as a legitimate candidate to win the Eastern Conference.
  • Dwight Howard- As great as physical specimen as there is in the NBA. Despite the fact that his offensive game is still pretty raw, Dwight Howard is the best center in the Eastern Conference. A bit more polish on his 8-12-foot game, combined with his athleticism and coordination, will make him absolutely un-guardable. Howard’s defense and rebounding already allow him to play bigger than his 6’11” and 265-lb. size. The improvement in his offense is inevitable, as evidenced by his average of 22.8 points-per-game (on an absurd 70.7% from the floor!) this February, which is by far the best of his career.
  • Emeka Okafor- Physically, as well as with his shot blocking (2.8 per game) and offensive rebounding (4.1 per game, 2nd in NBA), Emeka Okafor looks like the second coming of Moses Malone. More than any player currently in the NBA, including Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, Okafor looks like he could average 16-18 boards per game one day; it’s already surprising any time he grabs less than 15 rebounds in a game. Like Howard, Okafor’s offensive game could use some polish, but he is also progressing. He is shooting about 58% from the field since January 1, and his season field goal percentage (54.2%) is the best of his career.
  • David Lee- Aside from being far-and-away the best player on the Knicks, David Lee is the best pure rebounder in the NBA, period. Better than Ben Wallace or KG. He’s the best “inch-for-inch” rebounder since Charles Barkley. Lee has a combination of Charles Oakley’s love of high-impact collisions and Dennis Rodman’s radar for the basketball. If anyone needs more proof that Isiah Thomas is only occasionally awake during Knicks games, consider that Lee, who is young (age 24), productive (hitting over 60% of his field goals and 81% of his free throws), and the ONLY bargain on the Knicks’ roster (salary <$1,000,000), can’t crack the starting lineup.
  • Al Jefferson- The Celtics will not be that bad next season…. seriously. In 2007-08, Boston will team a top 5 draft pick, possibly Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, with Paul Pierce, who will be healthy and rested, and Al Jefferson, who in his third season is emerging as a monster down low. Another positive sign is that his numbers are improving as the season goes on; Jefferson averaged 13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg before Jan. 1, and he’s averaged 14.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg since. Another thought for Celtics’ fans to consider before taking to the streets to club their players’ knees to ensure the league’s worst record: at just 22 years of age, less than 3 years older than the sought-after Greg Oden, Jefferson’s 2006-07 numbers (14.2 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg), against superior competition, are comparable to Oden’s Ohio State stats (15.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg- NBA opposition will bring this down to earth). This is NOT to suggest that a) Jefferson’s upside is equal to Oden’s, or that b) Oden will not develop into a franchise player in the NBA; this is meant to suggest that the area where the Celtics least need help is in the low post. Oden would certainly help, but the cupboard is not bare.
  • Andrea Bargnani- When he was drafted, it was predicted that the selection of Andrea Bargnani would pay off not today but probably two years from now. Not only has he adapted to the NBA in just his first season without looking totally lost, Bargnani’s poised to grow into one of the NBA’s most versatile scoring big men. Since January 1 (when the Raptors’ season came together), Bargnani’s scoring has increased (12.6 ppg since January 1; 9.7 before), as has his field goal percentage (45% vs. 40.2%), 3-point percentage (41.3% vs. 30.4%; over 48% in February!), as well as his already great free throw shooting (87.5% vs. 81.2%). No rookie this side of Brandon Roy is having nearly as successful a season as Bargnani, who is more comfortable in the NBA with each passing game. Don’t be surprised if he averages over 15 point per game over the rest of this season, and more than 18 next year.

After the Big Six, there is another crop of up-and-coming big men in the East. It certainly a step down, but this crew has the potential to make a big impact on the NBA in the coming years. A few big men, all 25 and under, to keep an eye on:

  • Andrew Bogut- Still something of a role player, but in just his second season, Bogut has improved both his scoring (12.2 ppg, up from 9.4) and rebounding (8.8 rpg, up from 7.0). Size (a legit 7 feet) and skill (18-20 foot range), along with Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva and Mo Williams (for now) keeping defenses honest from outside, will allow Bogut to grow into one of the East’s best big men.
  • Anderson Varejao- The Cavaliers’ best rebounder and defender, averaging 6.7 rebounds in less than 24 minutes per game. He is foul prone (3.4 per game), but simply does not turn the ball over (.8 TO/game). Varejao’s non-stop, high-energy play makes him the most valuable player on the Cavs not named LeBron James. Just how valuable? We’ll see- he’s a free agent after the season. Look for him to get a deal in the neighborhood of $8-10 million a year.
  • Zaza Pachulia- Maybe the best center in the East that no one’s ever heard of. In addition to his productive offensive game (11.7 ppg on 45%+ from the field), Pachulia is an outstanding rebounder (2.8 off. rebounds/game, 6.7 total in just 27 min/game) and foul shooter (79%; 82% since Jan. 1). He does need to improve his defense; he’s averaging 3.7 fouls and just .5 blocks per game. The Hawks are improving, and while Joe Johnson is clearly their best player, Zaza Pachulia will be vital in getting them back into the playoffs.
  • Eddy Curry- He’s developed into a legitimate scorer and will end the season averaging more than 20 a night (currently at 19.6 ppg). Sadly, there’s nothing else on a basketball court that he does well; he’s a bad foul shooter (under 62%), turnover-prone (3.4 TO/game) and, at 6”11” and 300 pounds, Curry is averaging a sad 7.1 rebounds and .5 blocked shots per game.
  • Nenad Krstic- Not known for doing anything noteworthy on defense, but he’s a developed into a very good offensive weapon. Before blowing out his knee in December, Krstic was averaging more than 16 points and 6.8 rebounds (2 of them on the offensive glass), and occupying the attention of opposing big men both on the inside and the outside.
  • Samuel Dalembert- In his sixth year, still just 25 years old, Dalembert, is one of the most valuable players on the 76ers. Despite his unrefined offensive game, he’s averaging a career best 10.6 points and 9.1 rebounds (3 of them offensive!) and more than 2 blocks; in the month of February his rebounding average shot up to 12 per game!