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2014 NBA Draft: Nate Duncan’s Big Board

Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan ranks the top prospects on the eve of the 2014 NBA Draft, and adds a few likes and dislikes.

Nate Duncan

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Here is my final big board of the top nine prospects, a ranking of how good I think the prospects are without regard to team fit or where they will actually be selected. Why only nine? Since my primary focus is actual NBA basketball, I did not have time to get into many of the prospects lower in the draft in the greatest detail after the NBA season ended. But this is based on watching hours of tape of each of the consensus top-10 prospects, in addition to other prospects who intrigued lower in the draft. The board also considers analytics models from Kevin Pelton, Layne Vashro, Andrew Johnson, and Dan Dickey.

The prospects are grouped into tiers, but note that this is a little different than the tier system used by some NBA teams and ESPN’s Chad Ford. For me, the purpose is merely to indicate where there is a big drop off in talent from one player to the next. Ford’s tier system rates overall talent level and is also used to indicate that teams should necessarily select another player in the tier if they fit more with team need.

Tier One

1. Jabari Parker

The newest pride of Simeon Career Academy is the most polished offensive player in this draft. He has a ton of moves and executes them all smoothly and quickly. Parker has crossovers, spin moves, step backs, postups, hesitations, jab steps, rip throughs, fadeaways and a solid jump shot with a high release. He also is quicker than he appears given his slightly doughy body. He has been compared to scoring forwards like Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Glenn Robinson, and he is certainly right in the range with those players. If anything, he is more skilled than Anthony and Robinson, particularly off the dribble.

My general philosophy is that players who can play up (i.e., play a bigger position) generally should, as that creates the most matchup problems. Parker has power forward size at 6’9 with a 7’0 wingspan while weighing in at around 250 pounds. As a power forward, Parker is unlikely to be a great defender, but he’s a little bigger than guys like Anthony and Pierce so he should be able to hold his own against most power forwards. And he should take back whatever he gives away defensively playing the four on offense. In time, Parker should be effective as both the ballhandler and the screener in pick and roll. He did not have a ton of assists at Duke, but displayed solid vision on occasion and has the handle to facilitate the sort of hesitations needed to create and exploit openings coming off the pick.

Parker is the most likely player in this draft to average 20 points per game and to be an All-Star. Anthony is probably the best comparison for Parker–if anything Parker is a slightly better prospect at this point. On a per 40 minute basis, Parker slightly outperformed freshman-year Carmelo in every major category except assist rate. From a subjective standpoint, Parker is a better dribbler and passer than Anthony was at this stage. While he hasn’t the upside of a top-five player in the league due to his athletic and defensive limitations, Parker could easily be a top-15 player. Given how likely he appears to reach that ceiling, he deserves the number one pick in the draft.

2. Dante Exum

Last week’s scouting report on the East Melbourne product encapsulates most of my thoughts on him. He has the highest upside of any player in the draft outside of Joel Embiid on account of his blinding quickness, as he will be the quickest player in the league over 6’5. He also has an improving shot with solid form and is used to taking longer threes since he grew up with the FIBA three-point line. He also shows the vision of a pure point guard, allowing him to make the incisive passes needed to excel at the position.

His defense is going to be even more awful than the typical rookie’s at first due to his lack of high-level experience, and I did see some worrisome signs that he doesn’t always play hard in the floor game. But his lateral quickness will allow him to be a great defender if the effort is there. I think it is very possible Exum becomes a better player than Parker, but the greater certainty provided by the Chicagoan means he should be the number one pick.

Tier 2

3. Marcus Smart

At 6’4 and 227 lbs. with a 6’9 wingspan and awesome quickness and leaping ability, Marcus Smart will be the most athletic point guard to enter the league since John Wall in 2010. And make no mistake, Smart can handle the point just fine on both ends. Although it was an underutilized skill at Oklahoma State, he is very solid running the pick-and-roll for himself or others. His finishing is outstanding for a guard; he shoots 65 percent at the rim. Smart draws heaps of free throws, rebounds like a small forward (including on the offensive glass, where he can get up for tip dunks), has a gargantuan steal rate, and is relatively younger for a sophomore, making him a lot closer in age to some of the freshmen prospects than one might think.

All of this makes him an analytics darling, ranking number one in Pelton’s draft rater. His only real weakness is shooting, although that was exacerbated by the fact he took some awful shots at OSU. It is possible that was part of a counterproductive effort to prove to scouts he could shoot. Still, his solid free throw percentage means that he should improve, even if his left thumb-heavy form needs a lot of improvement.

At the NBA level, Smart should be unstoppable off the dribble and an excellent defender and ball hawk at either guard position. His strength and competitiveness might even allow him to be a change of pace defender on threes in certain matchups. With the injury to Embiid, Smart ranks a clear number three on my board.

4. Joel Embiid

Before the latest injury to his navicular bone in his right foot, Embiid ranked a clear number one on the board. While the Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons are a little overblown due to Hakeem’s vastly superior athleticism, Embiid’s defensive potential, skill level and awesome per minute production would have been too difficult to pass up.

The injury changes much of that.* First there is the chance Embiid never really recovers, or that he reinjures the foot. But even if he returns at full strength, the expectation is he will miss much of the upcoming year. For a player who was being drafted so high based on his potential rather than what he is now, missing nearly a full year of development time at a crucial age could really lower his ceiling.

*We will assume that physicals uncovered no further issues aside from the foot issue and the supposedly healed stress fracture in his back.  Obviously more injuries mean a further downgrade.

Nevertheless, the Cameroon native still has that same upside, even if it is less likely now that he realizes it. While this list was compiled without regard to the actual draft order, I believe Orlando and Utah at four and five should swing for the fences with Embiid if he is available. While those teams have some reasonable pieces (and I like Utah’s better than Orlando’s), neither of those teams have anyone on board who projects as even an All-Star at their peak. Winning championships, or even becoming a contender, requires successful risk-taking. Embiid could absolutely flame out, but how else are either of these small-market squads obtaining a superstar? This is an especially salient question considering both will likely have a mandate to improve next year instead of picking up another high lottery pick in 2015.

Unfortunately, the incentives of employment dictate against drafting Embiid. While I am not saying this is the philosophy of either organization, it is much easier for a GM to keep hitting singles in the draft and point to his solid draft record to maintain employment. If Embiid is drafted and he completely flames out, it could well lead to the firing of the GM who drafts him in the top-five. But if the goal is to potentially win a championship instead of continued employment, Embiid should get drafted in the top four.

Tier 3

5. Andrew Wiggins

As my scouting report on Wiggins indicated, I believe Wiggins’ offensive ceiling is lower than some believe due to his lack of moves and feel for finishing inside. Analytics models agree with me, as I have not seen a pure numbers-based approach which ranks him higher than tenth, and Pelton ranks him 19th.

That said, Wiggins will be an excellent defender, should evolve into at least a good standstill shooter in time, and is a monster in transition. Even if he never evolves into more than an awesome 3 and D guy who can also finish alley oops, he won’t be a bad pick here. And that seems his floor–he could still evolve to be Paul George offensively. While I do not think he has the upside to be a truly great scorer, it must be acknowledged that most disagree with me. In some respects, ranking Wiggins fifth is an acknowledgement that the consensus of other scouts on Wiggins’ upside is so much higher than my own. That potential puts him ahead of Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle.

6. Julius Randle

The full scouting report on Randle provides more ammunition for this ranking. But in summary, Randle is the second-most likely player in this draft to average 20 points per game, though Smart and Exum both have much greater upside. He is a bull in the paint, but also is pretty explosive and has a very high skill level for a 19-year-old power forward. Although he lacks much defensive upside, his scoring and rebounding should translate. In this range, that is an excellent pick.

7. Aaron Gordon

The San Jose native’s best attribute will be his ability to defend positions two through four at an elite level. Although he is unlikely to be much of a star creating offense for himself due to his poor shooting and somewhat subpar finishing on drives, he is above-average at everything else. He is a near nuclear athlete, with a 39-inch vertical that accurately portrays his leaping ability. He hits the offensive glass, can grab and go in transition, and is fantastic filling the lanes or finishing dumpoffs inside with dunks. He is also an excellent interior passer.

While he handles the ball well and can attack in transition, he doesn’t have the greatest shake to really get by guys. Some have envisioned him as a handler in the pick and roll, but I do not think he has that level of feel or more importantly the shooting to keep defenders from going under the screen. And of course his execrable free throw shooting is a huge issue. Research I did a few years ago indicated that sub 60 percent free throw shooters almost never become decent jump shooters unless they also improve their free throw shooting. And he may well have some mental issues that could prevent that, because his form doesn’t look that terrible. Ultimately, it is hard to believe he will ever develop into much more than a standstill three-point shooter from range.

Nevertheless, Gordon’s defensive versaility, young age for a freshman, and his nice passing touch make him well worthy of this ranking despite his lower ceiling as a scorer.

Tier 4

8. Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic dominated the Adriatic League this past season as a 19-year-old. At 6’11, 280 pounds with a 7’2 wingspan, he has true center size and then some. A more thorough description of his quick feet and postup skills is contained within my scouting report, but he is quite firmly the second-best center in the draft. While he is reported to have some maturity issues, his physical tools are exceptional in every aspect except jumping, while he also has a nice touch. Pelton’s model also loves him, ranking him the third-best prospect in the entire draft.

9. Noah Vonleh

This space previously explained why Vonleh should not be drafted in the top-five range where he is currently projected, but also stated that he started to make sense later in the lottery. His quick feet, excellent measurements, rebounding ability and potential as a shooter are undeniable. A later pick makes the lack of upside from the limitations in his instincts as a scorer and rim-protector easier to live with. He still projects to develop into a starter in the league, and there is still some limited possibility he can turn his physical tools into stardom. It just seems unlikely given his overall lack of feel.

Check out Basketball Insiders’ final mock draft here.

Potential Steals

While a full ranking of the entire draft was not possible, below is a list of players I believe will overperform their draft position:

Vasilije Micic

Readers should be well-familiar by now with my affinity for Micic’s game.  The 6’5 Serbian point guard projects to be the best passer in this draft, and has one of the best handles I’ve seen on a European prospect. He is also a crafty finisher at the rim, and has a solid jump shot compared to most point guards his age.  Micic needs to cut down on the turnovers and will likely be a  defensive liability but you can’t teach his feel for the game. He is far undervalued as a mid-second rounder right now, as I believe he should be the third or fourth point guard off the board.

Artem Klimenko

The mobile center has been stuck playing in the lower divisions in Russia, which has curbed his development since I first saw him at the 2012 adidas Eurocamp.  But seven-footers with his quick feet and touch are rare, and he has a good frame with low body fat that should be able to add some weight if he can get into a U.S. strength program.

T.J. Warren

I ran out of time to watch as much film of Warren as I would have liked, but he is a master around the rim.  Watching him immediately after Andrew Wiggins was jarring, as Warren has such beautiful feel for putting the ball in the basket off the drive.  It has been said that he has only average athleticism, but I thought he applied it better than most to get into the lane and finish.  His jumper needs work, although his poor percentage was exacerbated by pretty miserable shot selection from outside.  Nevertheless, it is realistic for Warren to be a 20-point scorer in the NBA if everything breaks right.  That is very rare for players drafted outside the lottery.

P.J. Hairston

Some of the projections really like Hairston, and I have agreed from a scouting perspective going back to his days at North Carolina.  Hairston is reasonably athletic and uses his big body to get to the basket at times, but his shot is the real star. Hairston boasts an accurate and versatile jump shot that he can squeeze off at a moment’s notice.  He is being talked about in the 20s, and at that range he is undervalued despite the character concerns which forced him to the D-League from UNC.

Potentially Overvalued Prospects

Dario Saric

Saric was being discussed in the 8-12 range before he signed a two-year deal in Turkey that appears likely to knock him out of the lottery.  As was noted in the scouting report, that was a little high for him given the lack of a standout NBA skill aside from his passing.

Tyler Ennis

Ennis too was being talked about in the lower half of the lottery, although that appears to have cooled with him often projected around the 20th pick.  While Ennis is a reputed as a nebulous “winner,” it is difficult to see how he actually impacts the game in an above-average way at the NBA level.  Aside from his passing, he doesn’t have above-average quickness, shooting or individual defense.  Finishing at the rim is also a particular problem.

Shabazz Napier

How high would Napier be drafted had UConn not won the national championship? Great tournament performances have often been the springboard to being overdrafted, and Napier seems the most likely candidate here.  Napier is now being talked about as high as the 15th pick to the Atlanta Hawks, but would have likely been a fringe first-rounder prior to the tournament. Overweighting tournament performance is particularly problematic when a prospect has four years of less inspiring performances before that tournament. Aside from his shooting (which is excellent despite his odd propensity to kick a leg out for no reason), Napier too does not have any particular standout skills.  In particular, finishing at the basket projects to be a problem for him.  At 22, there is less upside left to project.   I believe Micic the superior prospect to either Ennis or Napier.

Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson

The analytics models love these two UCLA players, and perhaps that alone makes them worth a flier starting in the mid-to-late 20s.  But despite my respect for the analytics, their lack of athleticism really makes it hard to see how they can succeed at the NBA level.  Anderson has been compared to Boris Diaw, but it must be noted that 32-year-old fat Diaw is still much more athletic than Anderson is right now.  The Frenchman was a superb athlete in his youth, regularly throwing down alley oops when he played for Phoenix.  Anderson is not going to be able to stop anyone the way Diaw could, which means that he must be a focal point of the offense to make him worthwhile in the pros.  How many teams will find it beneficial to eschew their traditional offensive sets to let Anderson run the show, especially good teams drafting so late?

The scenario for Adams’ success is even murkier.  He is an even worse athlete than Anderson, recording an unheard of for a guard 24-inch standing vertical at the combine.  He was able to finish inside in college, but it was mostly through craftiness running the baseline, making cuts and offensive rebounding rather than beating anyone with the ball in his hands.  A lot of that was facilitated by having a big man in Anderson handling the ball and the Wear twins fanning out to the perimeter–in a normal NBA offense he will likely muck up the spacing. He is only an average shooter and does not project to be especially deadly beyond the arc.  Individual defense also is not his forte due to his lack of athleticism, although he does have preternatural anticipation for steals. Unless Adams can become money from downtown, is it hard to see how he gets his points in the NBA.

While I greatly respect the basketball IQ of both players and would like to see them succeed, the athletic limitations will likely sink them.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid Are Trying To Run Into The Playoffs

The Sixers are going to get out and run. If they want to make the playoffs, Joel Embiid will have to start catching up.

Dennis Chambers

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“We were up on the NBA champions 19 to zero,” Brett Brown said as he recalled his first game as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach back in 2013.

Brown continued his recollection of the events that night, Oct. 30 to be exact, of how a ragtag roster upended LeBron James and the Miami Heat on opening night.

“We won three in a row,” Brown said. “I felt we surprised ourselves and the league. We were in great shape. We were in great cardio shape, we ran.”

Despite a three-game winning streak to start that season, Brown’s Sixers would end the year with just 19 victories. But the head coach kept his team in shape and running, all the way to being the fastest paced team in the league that season.

Present day, nearly four years after the events of Brown’s first night manning the sidelines for Philadelphia, and much has changed with the team. There are new faces, a new attitude, and certain expectations that are developing within the walls of the Sixers’ training facility.

But on the court, not much is changing.

“I feel like that part of it, and the base of it, this year is far superior because of the pieces,” Brown said referring to his offense. “We’ve had however many years to try to have our system in place and coach the coaches. I think from a ‘how do we do things’ perspective, we’re far advanced than that timeframe.”

As Brown kicked off his fifth season at the helm of the Sixers on Wednesday night in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, his team’s play embodied the notion of being superior to years past.

Despite a 120-115 loss to arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia flashed the promise of the new pieces the team’s head coach boasted about. Making his NBA debut as a 6-foot-10 point guard, Ben Simmons quickly asserted himself in the game and displayed his affinity for grabbing a rebound and beginning a fast break—just as his coach preached.

Against the Wizards, a team with a point guard in John Wall who is known for running himself, the Sixers outscored Washington in fast break points, handily. Although Philadelphia forced just 10 turnovers, they managed to score 23 points off of their opponent’s mistakes. On top of that, they pushed the paced and outscored Washington 19-4 in fast break points.

Things aren’t perfect for the team, however. Regardless of their superiority in comparison to the team and personnel four years ago, the Sixers still feature a rookie point guard in Simmons, as well as another in Markelle Fultz. Youth leads to mistakes. Whether directly caused by the newcomers or not, a bit of sloppiness led to 17 turnovers by Philadelphia on Wednesday night’s opener.

“I still want to have Ben play with a higher pace,” Brown said. “I want to act responsibly at the end of the break where we can be a little more organized, a little bit more disciplined at the end of a break. But putting up 115 points, and I don’t think we played that well offensively, 13 turnovers in the second half, four or five to start the third period. We have the answers to the test. When people say what’s it going to take for you to get into the playoffs, it’s Joel Embiid’s health and we gotta care way better for the ball.”

The biggest question mark for this Sixers team is obviously Embiid’s health. Starting the season on a minutes restriction, Embiid logged just 27 minutes. Still, that was more time than either Embiid for Brown expected.

During the early stages of this season, Embiid’s minutes will be dictated primarily on the big man’s conditioning. For a team that likes to get out and run the way the Sixers do, that could present a few bumps in the road from the get-go in getting Embiid adjusted to the pace of their game.

Monitoring Embiid’s minutes intelligently and effectively is always at the forefront of Brown’s mind, though. Just like the pace of his team’s play.

“I sat down with the sports science people this morning, and they’re very thoughtful with how they come up with this decision in relation to the loading,” Brown said in reference to Embiid’s minutes. “You can judge the loading scientifically in blocks. There was only one section of his loading, his chunk of minutes, that they deemed to be in the high area. It was torrid pace up and down. The other times he came in he played at a reasonable pace.”

Should the Sixers find themselves in a run-and-gun game, be it by their own doing or their opponent’s, Brown thinks Embiid’s minutes could see a drop off from the opening night number in those instances.

“We’ve done two things,” Brown said. “We still have his health at the forefront, and selfishly for me, and the team, and Jo, you’re able to get maybe eight more minutes than you thought you were gonna get from him.”

While the Sixers look to progress through the season, so will Embiid and his minutes total. Brown isn’t going to change the principles of his offense, with Simmons at the helm he’ll look to enhance the pace at an even higher rate. For the 7-foot-2 center, getting back into game shape so he can consistently run with his team is the most important thing for Philadelphia at the moment.

“It was all on me,” Embiid said about his minutes total. “The way I looked, if I wasn’t tired I was going to play. It’s just about the way I feel. If I look tired, they’re gonna take me out. If I don’t look tired, I’m gonna stay in and keep playing. I thought yesterday I was fine. There was a couple stretches that I was a little bit tired, but it’s all about pacing myself.”

As Brown mentioned, Embiid is Philadelphia’s answer to the playoff questions. For the 76ers, and Embiid himself, pacing will become the staple of their study guide over the course of this season.

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Sooner or Later, Everyone Will Realize LeBron Is Chasing Kareem

If LeBron continues at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before he surpasses Kobe, Karl and Kareem.

Moke Hamilton

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As he stood at half court, the shot clock ticked downward from 10.

His nimble center set a high screen for him, and he wisely utilized it.

With Al Horford guarding him, LeBron James sized up the big man before taking a step back three that had just too little muscle behind it.

With the Celtics trailing by three points, rookie Jayson Tatum grabbed the rebound and wisely handed the ball off to Kyrie Irving, who instinctively (and surprisingly) tossed it ahead to Jaylen Brown.

As Brown brought the ball up the floor, he noticed that he had the numbers—there were three Celtics and only one Cavalier.

LeBron, however, was the one Cavalier.

In a split second, Brown took inventory and wisely decided to take his chances with a pull-up, game-tying three pointer.

Brown’s three was a tad long and James, who was out of position, couldn’t stop Horford from tipping the ball out. As it caromed off the rim, it made a beeline toward the courtside seats. Poetically, magically, the ball ended up in Kyrie Irving’s hands.

Irving turned toward the basket to fire the shot his team needed, but, to nobody’s surprise, James was in his face.

Irving necessarily took one escape dribble to his right and forced an off-balance three-pointer that caught nothing but air.

In 41 minutes, James scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had nine assists and two blocks. During the game’s final 20 seconds, he was everywhere he needed to be and everywhere necessary to thwart everything the Celtics tried to do.

And to think, he had the nerve to call himself out of shape.

* * * * * *

Sure, the 102-99 victory that the Cavs earned over the Celtics on opening night is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a stark reminder as to just how truly dominant James can be. As he enters his 15th season, its beginning was quite appropriate.

As written about in this space before, as James attempts to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive year, the arguments over his place among the game’s greats persist. Some say he’s one of history’s top five players, while some say he’s the greatest ever.

Others don’t think he’s better than Kobe Bryant.

Regardless where you stand on LeBron, something that was written in this space last season warrants revisiting: if he continues to be as durable, as skilled and as talented as he has been over the course of his career, we may eventually be calling James’ name not alongside Kobe or M.J., but Kareem.

Entering his 15th NBA season, James had accrued 28,787 total points—seventh in history.

He trails only Dirk Nowitzki (30,270), Wilt Chamberlain (31,419), Michael Jordan (32, 292), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), who rank sixth to first, respectively.

What has been most startling about James’ climbing through the ranks of the game’s best scorers, though, has been that he’s seemingly done it naturally.

All six of the greats ranking ahead of him were deemed “scorers” more than anything else. Meanwhile, James has always ranked behind the likes of someone—Kobe, Carmelo, Durant, Curry or Harden—when the deserver of that title was argued.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, James entered his 15th season on Tuesday night trailing Kareem by 9,571 points. Most would deem him too far away from to be able to challenge for that top spot, but if LeBron stays healthy, he will have a serious shot.

Through 14 NBA seasons, James has played in 1,061 of a possible 1,132 games—93.7 percent. As the only other contemporary player to crash the top five, it is Bryant who remains his measuring stick.

Through his first 14 NBA seasons, Bryant played in 1,021 of a possible 1,116 games—91.5 percent. During those 14 seasons, Bryant scored a total of 25,790 points. James scored 28,787.

What made Bryant special was that he was able to continue to be an elite scorer right up until he tore his Achilles tendon at the age of 34. The miles eventually got the best of him, and during his last three seasons, he managed to score just 18.9 points per game.

Consider this about the top three scorers in NBA history, though: Kobe and Kareem each played 20 seasons. Malone played 19.

James’ first 14 seasons have resulted in more total points than Bryant, and only about 150 less than Malone’s (28,946).

Unsurprisingly, through 14 years, Kareem was far away from James, having scored about 1,100 more for a total of 29,810, but over the final six years of Kareem’s career, he averaged just 18.2 points per game.

Kareem turned 34 years old right as his 12th season ended. From there, he showed his age and began to slow down considerably.

To this point, LeBron has done no such thing.

* * * * * *

The discussion as to where James truly belongs in the eyes of history will persist.

Those that see the glass as half-full will reason that the mere fact that he’s been able to sustain his greatness for so long—much less the fact that he has made it to the NBA Finals eight times—will resonate.

Others will point to his record in those Finals (3-5) as evidence of his inferiority to the likes of Jordan (6-0) or Kobe (5-2).

Those are arguments for a different day.

What is fact is that seemingly without even trying, LeBron is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA. And if he manages to play 19 years like Malone or 20 years like Kobe or Kareem, at the end of the day, he’ll be the greatest one of them all.

Whether he continues to score the 27.1 points per game he has over the course of his career, scores 25 per night from here on out or, for some reason, becomes merely a 20 point per game scorer, it’s only a matter of time.

And as we saw on opening night, particularly in the game’s final 20 seconds, LeBron still has plenty of it.

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How NBA League Pass is Changing

Ben Dowsett dives deep into some of the technical improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

Ben Dowsett

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As the NBA continues to grow in popularity, demands for available programing rise in lockstep. A new mammoth TV rights deal that began last season promised increased visibility and advertising dollars, and was the primary factor in a sudden jump in the league’s salary cap figure. Between that and an exploding digital marketplace, there are a lot of eyes on the NBA as an entertainment product.

For the NBA fan interested in watching the entire league and not just their home market (or even for cord-cutters who only want to watch their local team), NBA League Pass is a familiar tool. Available for both single-team and league-wide subscriptions, League Pass is a multi-device platform that allows for both live and on-demand viewing of NBA games.

For many users of NBA League Pass, this is a relatively issue-free experience. For many others, though, League Pass has long lagged behind competitors in the digital sports sphere, with a number of glitches and absent features still present as recently as last season across multiple devices. These issues are a regular source of annoyance for NBA fans everywhere, particularly the most invested ones.

Basketball Insiders spent the summer investigating the causes of some of these issues, both with the NBA and with various extended providers of League Pass. Here’s what we found regarding previous issues, their fixes, and other developments to the service moving forward. (Also be sure to check out our broader report from earlier this week on some of the general new features being offered by League Pass.)

League Pass on TV

For several years at minimum, customers of most cable and satellite providers have been able to enjoy NBA League Pass with virtually no major issues. Companies like DirecTV, Dish, Uverse and others have all had solid programs for years, with full-HD channel lineups and a simple, straightforward purchasing and viewing process.

For customers of Comcast, however, things haven’t been so rosy.

Through the completion of the 2016-17 NBA season, Comcast XFINITY customers were not offered such a robust slate. Just a single high definition channel was available on League Pass via XFINITY last season, and even that one channel wasn’t dedicated only to NBA action.

Unless a game was being broadcast on a national station like ESPN or NBATV, you simply had to cross your fingers and hope that the game you wanted was the one that was showing in HD. Otherwise, you got to watch it in standard definition or not at all.

Before we discuss how this is slated to change moving forward, a necessary aside: This is crazy. Even before the new massive TV rights deal, the NBA was unquestionably one of the most popular sports in North America; for the largest broadcasting and cable television company in the world by revenue to enter the year 2017 without basic HD channels for the league – channels present in hundreds of other areas and on every other major provider, no less – is nothing short of asinine, and speaks to the limited alternatives available and the simple power of a conglomerate like Comcast.

Back to greener pastures: Changes are in motion, even if they’re still moving a little slower and more timidly than most customers would prefer.

Per sources familiar with the service, HD channel options will be in place for all games under Comcast XFINIFY’s offering of NBA League Pass during the 2017-18 season. These will be available under Comcast’s Beta program, one that’s been offered for both MLB and NHL programming over the last several years. A sample MLB Beta page can be found here.

Beta pages are a bit nebulous and tough to access if you aren’t already paying for one of these services, but our research suggests they function reasonably well. There are multiple ways to access Beta channels, either via a voice or keypad search or through the guide – though doing it through the guide won’t be quite as simple as just clicking a single channel (you have to click a Beta channel, then choose the team you want to watch and wait for blackout and subscription verification).

Blackouts are still present for local markets and nationally televised games, but this is to be expected for all such services.

Now the bad news: There are some pretty serious limitations to this Beta program. Firstly, as you’ll note if you click the link above, it’s considered a trial offering. Features like recording, pausing or rewinding games will not be available. For the busy basketball fan who can’t be present to watch his or her team right from tipoff every night, this is an obvious problem.

Additionally, sources say that this Beta program will only be available by the end of November. As the astute NBA fan will note, the season began on October 17 – what about the time in between? The previous version of League Pass will still be available during this period, sources say, but XFINITY customers who want all their games in HD will be out of luck for about a month and a half. Combine that with some apparent clunkiness in accessing the games themselves, and this new development still leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, it’s progress where previously there had been very little. Sources say that work is being done to move each of the NBA, MLB and NHL offerings away from the Beta package and into full-time circulation, which would ostensibly get rid of most or all of those functionality issues. No firm dates were given for this, however, and NBA fans are probably safest assuming this will be the program for the full season once it kicks in during November. Make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

League Pass Broadband

Understanding how NBA League Pass fits into the broadband landscape requires a look back at the history of streaming sports technology. In particular, we have to look at a competitor: Major League Baseball.

For years, MLB’s streaming service has been considered something of a gold standard within the digital world, with numerous parties contacted for this story gushing about their quality. Basketball Insiders’ research revealed this to be a total falsehood – those compliments simply weren’t going far enough. The degree to which MLB has outpaced the field when it comes to streaming is almost shocking.

(For those only looking for the nitty-gritty details of what will change with NBA League Pass Broadband moving forward, skip to that section by clicking here.)

In the year 2000, while most of us were still worried about Y2K bugs and voting machines in Florida, Major League Baseball was getting to work pioneering online streaming sports. That was the year that the league’s owners centralized all digital rights into a new, independent tech startup called MLB Advanced Media, per sources. The “independent” part was important: MLB was purposefully building a distinct, separate entity that operated in a different facility than league HQ, hired tech-savvy folks and was, truly, its own company.

On August 26, 2002, MLB Advanced Media broadcasted their first live Major League game. Roughly 30,000 people (!!) tuned in to watch a Yankees-Rangers tilt on a date nearly three years earlier than famed video site YouTube would even launch on the web.

Over the next several years, MLBAM (pronounced em-el-BAM by insiders – it’s fun to say!) paved the way for streaming sports technology. They sold a nine-game pennant race package later that season, then a full-season package in March of 2003. By 2005, they had installed a private fiber network dedicated to streaming in all 30 MLB ballparks.

By 2008, two representatives from MLB were on stage and demonstrating the product as Steve Jobs introduced the Apple App Store for the very first time – MLB’s At Bat App was the first sports app in the history of the store, and one of the first 500 ever created of any kind. By 2010, they were pioneering connected devices like PlayStation and Xbox.

All the while, MLB made a concerted effort to keep all these efforts completely in-house. No outsourcing, no reliance on a third party.

Their success quickly started drawing attention. As other similar entities looked to enter the streaming space, they were faced with their own decision: To outsource, or to attempt to build a ground-up technology sector like MLB had.

Some went the outsource route, and their first call was to MLB. Few outside the industry knew it at the time, but MLB was behind the first-ever streaming of March Madness games on CBS Sports back in 2006, per sources. They’d later help ESPN in their switch from ESPN360 to ESPN3 in 2010, and assist with the advent of HBO Now in 2014.

Also in 2014, they helped create a groundbreaking new sector of the streaming world – a full OTT (over-the-top of subscription) network dedicated to WWE wrestling. This wasn’t just live matches, it was a full network complete with archives and on-demand programming. This kind of service is now called direct-to-consumer programming.

By this point, outsourcing demands had grown so much that MLB took some new steps. In 2016, MLBAM was spun off into a new entity called BAMTECH, which was in charge of all outsourced efforts (MLBAM remained on the baseball-only side). One third of BAMTECH was sold to Disney for $1 billion – a $3 billion valuation for what was at one time nothing but a tech startup. In August 2017, Disney acquired additional shares to reach a 75 percent controlling stake in the company at an even larger total valuation, per sources familiar with the finances.

Today, MLBAM continues to manage baseball-related streaming services while BAMTECH, now primarily owned by Disney, works with several other large entities. These include ESPN, the NHL and Riot Games, a big player in the rapidly rising eSports sphere. They also stream their own MLB client to over 400 different devices.

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This is a high standard for any other sports or streaming entity to hold itself to, even one as successful as the NBA. Interestingly, though, MLB could end up serving as a perfect template for the path the NBA is now taking – just on a different timeline.

Just as the MLB decided years ago to prioritize their own in-house development of this technology, the NBA has recently done the same. About three years ago, Turner – which handles nearly all of the NBA’s entertainment assets – purchased a majority of a company called iStreamPlanet, a leader in the streaming technology sphere.

Founded in 2000, iStreamPlanet is perhaps best known in the industry for their recent work on the Olympic Games, which began in 2010 at the Vancouver Winter Games. Their coverage of Sochi in 2014 had over 9.1 million users in just 18 days of competition. They’ve also broadcast all the recent Super Bowls, starting in 2011.

Before the beginning of last season, the NBA and Turner migrated all of their League Pass technology over to iStreamPlanet, per sources familiar with the technology. This was in place of a previous internal solution that had managed League Pass streaming.

As one can imagine, the very first year under this new migration came with a few bumps in the road. The migration included a complete change of the infrastructure that processed video, from the way it’s taken to the way it’s encoded. New software was instituted, and then tech experts with Turner and iStreamPlanet meticulously went through each individual platform to diagnose issues and test functionality. Every platform has its own individual player and its own individual quirks, so this was no small project across a wide variety of platforms.

In essence, this was a test run for a product built from scratch. There’s really no other way to do this – for the NBA to truly build its own infrastructure here, they had to start from the ground up.

If last year’s inaugural season under the new technology was all about finding bugs and ensuring functionality across all platforms, the offseason has been all about fine-tuning the execution. The teams at Turner and iStreamPlanet analyzed every step of the video process, from when it left a given NBA arena to when it made its way to your device screen. They hardened the path of video from the venue to the fan, allowing it to arrive more quickly and in better quality.

A few specific changes, possible future changes, and notably similar areas to be aware of here:

  • Per sources, changes to video encoding and pathways have resulted in roughly a 50 percent reduction in lag time compared to a television broadcast across a majority of NBA League Pass platforms. No platform experienced worse than a 33 percent reduction in lag time, with most up around this 50 percent figure. Lag time versus standard TV broadcasts has long been a prominent issue among broadband users.
  • Down similar lines, extra steps have been taken to protect clients who want to watch games spoiler-free. A new “Hide Scores” button has been introduced at the top of users’ game menu – when clicked, it will remove the live scores from both completed and live games, allowing viewers to start watching a game late without having the score ruined for them in advance (though it appears users still have to manually rewind to the start of the game, so spoilers are still possible).
  • With Adobe preparing to soon begin phasing out the Flash player from their content offerings, sources say Turner and iStreamPlanet are working on an eventual transition of NBA League Pass from Flash technology over to HTML5. This transition is expected this season for both live and on-demand content.
  • While it won’t please some customers, blackout rules across all areas of League Pass appear to remain the same. These are issues of media rights, and unfortunately that’s just how things work.
  • Customers have access to numerous platforms, with up to five connected devices per customer.
  • Standard log time for games to enter the on-demand section of League Pass streaming is between 48 and 72 hours – once again, some of this is related to business rules with the NBA and regional television networks. For condensed games, the turnaround time is closer to an average of 24 hours.
  • The NBA is offering a free trial preview of League Pass services from now through October 24.

Once again, things won’t be perfect overnight. Lag issues still exist, and media rights considerations make certain bits of timing sub-optimal. Like any platform still in its earlier stages in a relative sense, there will be glitches here and there.

When you experience these issues, speak up. Turner has a full support team in place, with logging capabilities that allow them to identify issues that frequently come up among customers – this process is how some of their biggest changes have taken place over the last year.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for any updates or changes to NBA League Pass in the future.

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