This year, I decided to take the plunge and head to “sin city” for the spectacle that is the NBA’s annual Las Vegas Summer League. And just like Bilbo returning from his great journey to the misty mountain, I’ve come back with a tale or two to tell…
This is part 1 of a multi-part article series that will include tales from that I heard from the mouths of NBA insiders (such as NBA scouts, front office executives, coaches, etc.) during my time at the Vegas summer league. These NBA insider tales will cover a variety of topics that includes: the 2017 NBA draft, previous NBA drafts, player trades (those that did happen, and those that didn’t), the international basketball landscape and more.
One of the most highly debated topics of this years NBA draft was the group of point guards projected to go in the top 10. By consensus, Fultz was considered to be the best point guard prospect (and was eventually picked 1st overall), but there were still plenty of people that questioned his top ranking when comparing him to other point guard prospects like Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. When asked about how he ranked the top point guard prospects in this years draft, one NBA scout, who currently works for a team that drafted in this years lottery (top 14 picks), said that he had: “For this years point guards, I had Lonzo Ball #1, Dennis Smith Jr. #2, De’Aaron Fox #3 and Markelle Fultz #4”. When the inevitable follow-up question came about why he ranked the top point guards in this manner, he responded by saying: “Lonzo Ball just does things that you can’t teach, so that’s why I had him at #1. Dennis Smith? Let me tell you something about him, I had him ranked #2 overall prior to the start of the college season, only behind Harry Giles. I watched him play [in AAU and youth tournaments] against some of the best players in his age group, and he absolutely killed them. I mean, he absolutely dominated… his athletic and physical tools are off the charts, I mean, he has something like a 48-inch vertical, and he just finds a way to get into the cracks of defenses. He’s so quick and elusive, and he’ll just bounce off guys as he maneuvers his way around defenders. He’s really hard for opposing guys to try and guard”. As for Markelle Fultz? “…I just don’t think he’s a leader. I don’t believe he can lead a team, simple as that. I don’t think he cares enough.” Someone asked the follow-up question of whether or not he would’ve picked Frank Ntilikina ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. had his team been given the opportunity to do so. The scout simply smiled, shook his head and said: “No”.
Speaking of Ntilikina, many have wondered why the Knicks chose to pick him ahead of players like Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. When asked about this, one NBA scout said: “Something to keep in mind with Frank is that he’s been playing against much older and more experienced competition [by playing for Strasbourg]. I’ve watched him play against some of the top players in his own age group, and when he’s matched up against guys that are his same age, he was scoring 30 points per game. He would change his entire game when playing against guys his age. He was so much more aggressive than when he was playing for Strasbourg, and he would look to assert himself more. When playing for Strasbourg, you have to keep in mind that he’s playing with guys much older than him; pro’s that have been playing for a long time, and he needed to play as a distributor, and not look to score so much, because that’s what [Strasbourg] needed his role to be…. I actually really like that he was able to change his style of play depending on who he was playing against. It says to me that he can naturally progress from role to role as his game continues to develop.” However, it should be noted that most of the NBA scouts that I spoke with, even though they are high on Ntilikina, seemed to like Dennis Smith Jr. more.
The Charlotte Hornets came away with what many have heralded as one of the biggest steals of the 2017 draft when they picked Malik Monk with the 11th pick. However, some have expressed concerns about whether or not Monk will be a good fit on the Hornets. One scout from the Hornets addressed these concerns by saying: “Malik is just such a great and unique offensive talent. I mean, he’s just such a talented scorer that we decided that we just couldn’t possibly pass him up when he was there at 11. Guys like him, who can go out and score in a variety of ways, they’re a premium in this league… we’ll let the coaches figure out how to best use him and how to best fit him into what we’re trying to do as a team. And with how talented Monk is? We’re not worried about it at all… we weren’t expecting him to be there at 11. I mean, we couldn’t even get him in for a workout, but we’re certainly glad that he was there. He probably wasn’t, he probably would’ve liked to have been picked higher, but we couldn’t be more happy to have him on the team.”
Jayson Tatum has surprised many people with his strong summer league performances, but someone hasn’t been surprised: Danny Ainge and the Celtics. According to a source familiar with the situation, the Boston Celtics have had their eye on Jayson Tatum since he was about 14 years old. According to the source, the Celtics had coaches, trainers, etc. that had been working with Tatum since he was very young reach out to them on their own volition to let them know of his NBA potential. In fact, the Celtics had such extensive knowledge of Tatum and so much confidence in him as an NBA prospect, that they were committed to taking him with the #1 pick in the 2017 draft had the opportunity to trade down to the 3rd pick not presented itself. The Celtics have a strong belief that Tatum will become a 20+ point per game scorer and will eventually become an all-star.
As part of the Jimmy Butler trade, the Chicago Bulls received the 7th pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves and drafted Lauri Markkanen, the sharpshooting big man from Arizona University. Since the draft, there have been some in the NBA blogosphere’s that have pegged Markkanen as early contender for this years’ “bust” pick. However, after talking to several NBA scouts and front office executives, most seem to disagree with that notion. One NBA executive said this about Lauri: “…he’s a lot more athletic and skilled than people give him credit for, especially on offense. He can put the ball on the floor some and can make plays for others, and he’s a tremendous shooter… [I] see him becoming a play-making 4 that can space the floor and really open things up [and] make plays for others off the dribble”. One NBA scout had this to say: “Shooting and scoring are premiums in the league. [Markkanen] can give you both of those. He’ll struggle a bit defensively, but his shooting is great. Everyone is looking for more shooters at every position right now”. I also spoke to several other scouts and NBA front office executives about Markkanen, and what surprised me the most is that many of them focused more on his ability to develop into a play making 4 rather than his shooting and ability to space the floor. In fact, Markkanen was most commonly referred to as a “play making 4” in the discussions I had with NBA personnel, not a “stretch big man” like one might expect. I found this interesting considering his most obvious skill is shooting, not play making, and it will be interesting to see how the Bulls decide to utilize his skills this next season. Lastly, I spoke with a front office executive from the Bulls who had this to say about Markkanen: “We’re very excited to have Lauri on the team. He’s a tremendous talent and we believe that he’ll be an important piece in what we’re doing here now… He’s a great kid and we’re really excited to have him on the team.”
Love him or hate him, Draymond Green has developed from a 2nd round pick into a multiple time all-star, defensive player of the year and 2x NBA champion. How did he do this? Well, one of the biggest reasons is because he’s an extreme competitor. One former NBA scout told this story about Draymond’s extreme competitiveness: “During his workout with the Warriors, Draymond and the other prospects in his workout group were scrimmaging against one another, and Draymond’s team lost… After his team lost, Draymond looked over at the Warriors coaches and front office staff members that were in attendance, and pointed right at the general manager, Bob Myers, and said “run it back, run it back. No one is leaving until we run it back”. I mean, can you imagine? Here’s this guy, not drafted yet, pointing right at the general manager of the Warriors and telling him to run the scrimmage back so his team can win… [Draymond] has always been an extreme competitor, and that’s one of the reasons why the Warriors drafted him. He competes, and he wants to win.”
“The Greek Freak”, Giannis Antetokounmpo just won the 2016-17 NBA’s most improved player award, and is one of the most exciting up and coming stars in the league. However, Giannis wasn’t seen as a sure-fire all-star when the Bucks drafted him with the 15th pick in the 2015 NBA draft. In fact, according to one long-time NBA scout, essentially everyone outside of the Bucks organization thought picking Giannis at 15 was not only a reach, but also a big gamble. Here’s what he had to say: “If anyone tells you that they knew that Giannis was going to be an all-star talent, they’re lying. No one had a clue that he was going to become what he is now. When he was drafted, at the time, it was seen as a reach and a big gamble… I was one of the first guys to see Giannis play in person, and you know what? We didn’t even know if he was playing on 10-foot rims, and the level of competition he was playing against was terrible… he could do a lot of things, but there were a lot of other factors surrounding him that made it really hard to figure out if he could play in the NBA.” Another NBA scout said this about the process of scouting Giannis: “I really liked him. I went early to one of his games and watched him go through some ball handling drills, and just seeing how he could handle the ball for a guy his size? That was really impressive to me. He was constantly working to improve and had a unique combination of athleticism and skill for his size. But did I think he’d become what he is now? No way. No one dreamed that he’d become anything like the player he is now.”
Ivica Zubac is a young, and popular international big man prospect that was drafted by the LA Lakers in the 2nd round of the 2016 NBA draft. Discussing the process of scouting Zubac, one LA Lakers scout said: “I walked into the gym, and I was trying to act like I wasn’t there to just watch him, because you know, you don’t want to seem too conspicuous or anything. So I was looking around, you know, watching other guys and all, but in my head I’m thinking “Ok! Ok!” And after watching the kid for 5 minutes, just watching him warming up, seeing his size, how he moved, his footwork… after 5 minutes of watching him, I turned to my guys and told them “I don’t need to see anymore”. I instantly felt drawn to him and his talent… Sometimes, you just watch a guy and your gut tells you that he’s the one, and that’s how I felt about Zubac.”
One of the more disappointing NBA prospects in recent drafts is former college star and phenom, Jimmer Fredette. One former NBA scout described Jimmer in this way: “Anyone in this room can defend better than Jimmer. I’m serious… I think he has the desire to defend, so it’s not due to the lack of effort, or that he doesn’t care enough, but he just can’t play defense. You watch his feet, I mean, he just can’t move his feet. It’s like he’s standing still on defense… he’s a great person, you won’t meet a better person than Jimmer, and he works really hard, but he can’t defend a chair in an empty gym. He also has some serious problems running pick and rolls correctly.” Another NBA scout had this to stay about Jimmer: “I don’t think he cares [about defense]. I think he’s an offensive player who doesn’t care about defense… I mean, it’s like his feet are stuck in buckets of cement.” However, one NBA scout did imply that when Jimmer was coming into the league, that many believed that he would eventually become a starter or solid rotational player.
After trading Paul George, the Indiana Pacers have now turned to Myles Turner, their young and talented big man, to become the new face of the franchise. The Indiana Pacers drafted Turner with the 11th pick in the 2015 draft, and at the time, some believed it to be a somewhat risky pick since Turner didn’t produce much during his one year with Texas. However, according to one Pacers scout, the Pacers were well aware of Turner’s talent and potential when they picked him. Here’s what he had to say: “Me and some other scouts were allowed to attend some of the teams’ practices to watch Turner, and I’ll tell you what: he was amazing. He was flying all over the court and blocking shots out of nowhere. I mean, he was a shot-blocking machine, it was incredible. He was dunking on everyone, rebounding every ball, guarding guys on the perimeter and making shots… I left the gym feeling like we had found someone special.” Another scout from a different team also mentioned that he felt like the Texas coaches weren’t using Turner correctly, and that was the predominant reason why he didn’t produce more in college. “I love the Texas coaches, and they do a great job down there, and they did some good things with Myles, but they just weren’t using him right. He could’ve done much more had they changed some things and used him correctly.”
That’s it for now, but be sure to check back for more in the near future! There’s still plenty of tales to be told.
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