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Does Noah Vonleh Actually Have Star Potential?

Nate Duncan breaks down Noah Vonleh’s game, and explains why the league needs to stop body fat testing at the combine.

Nate Duncan

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Noah Vonleh has recently gained momentum as a possible top-five pick, presumably on the strength of his strong pre-draft “performance.” He was a star of the NBA’s combine measurements, measuring 6’9.5 in shoes with a 7’4 wingspan and 9’0 standing reach. More surprisingly, he recorded a 37-inch approach vertical with a 31-inch standing leap, both outstanding numbers for a big man of his size and length. Vonleh is also a cut 247 lbs. and was measured at 7.3 percent body fat.*

*These body fat measurements mean very little (as will be explained below) but are quoted because it may affect Vonleh’s “momentum” if someone makes the mistake of thinking it is important.

The Indiana product is not just a paper tiger either. He was a great rebounder his freshman year and most importantly can shoot the ball from outside. Although he averaged only 1.1 attempts per game, he drained 48.5 percent of his threes on the year. He also has a nice stroke from the line, shooting at a solid 71.6 percent clip. And Vonleh is not hesitant to put the ball on the floor, while exhibiting solid jump hooks with either hand in the post. Many have compared Vonleh to Chris Bosh, and on the surface those comparisons are reasonable. A long, athletic, three-point shooting power forward who is a great rebounder sounds like a great pick for the top-five, right? Au contraire.

The problem with taking Vonleh in that lofty strata is his limited star potential. Let’s start with the physical tools first. He may indeed have jumped 37 inches at the combine, but let this be the annual reminder that watching a prospect is a much better way to judge basketball leaping ability than measuring maximum vertical.* Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo were measured with the same vertical leap before the 2008 draft. Cody Zeller had a higher vertical than Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. It just isn’t a reliable measure of how well a player jumps on the court compared to simply watching him play.

*That said, if I were running a workout, I would test standing, maximum approach one-foot, maximum approach two-foot, and second jump verticals. The way it is done now, players have the choice of approach vertical off one or two feet. Those really are totally different things especially for big guys who do most of their jumping off two feet to rebound, block shots and finish dumpoffs and post plays.

After watching almost all of Vonleh’s interior finishes this year, he clearly does not have any more than average applied leaping ability. He didn’t really dunk on anyone all year, and his interior finishing was actually pretty bad. At the rim* he shot only 59.3 percent, slightly below the 60.9 percent average for all college players. He just got stopped at the rim time and again, far more than a player of his stature should. It seems clear that he has below-average feel for finishing inside unless it is a hook shot.

*This metric is determined by shooting percentage on shots marked as dunks or layups by play-by-play, per Hoop-Math.com. This data should be taken with a grain of salt since it is likely that there are not universal standards from scorer to scorer across Division I of what constitutes a “lay-up.” Indiana as a whole did not have great interior finishers, but it is worth nothing that they shot only 56.2 percent in Hoop-Math’s “at the rim” metric, so there is at least some small amount of evidence that their official scorers might have been more expansive in classifying certain shots as layups. Nevertheless, Vonleh did not rate well.

Vonleh’s post game is seductive due to his pretty hook shots, but ultimately not particularly efficient. He struggled to create both horizontal and vertical separation, and does not really have any moves aside from those hooks. The same lack of separation was evident on his drives. Despite his shooting ability he almost never is able to beat his man on a straight line drive, usually having to resort to a spin move after he has been cut off. He does not project to be able to get to the basket off the bounce against most NBA power forwards.

Another concern big concern for Vonleh is his awful hands. While he admirably runs the floor hard, he ranked in only the 15th percentile among college players in transition points per possession because he reliably fumbled passes going to the rim. Even those low numbers were goosed by transition threes, it really was shocking how bad he was catching the ball on the move going to the basket. The same issue afflicts his pick and roll finishing, as does the fact that it takes him forever to load up to jump. Unless he can really improve in this area, his usefulness in the pick and roll will be largely limited to popping for jumpers.

The problems with his feel for the game are also borne out by his poor passing numbers. He had only 18 assists all season against 64 turnovers. When he received the ball he was largely a black hole, and his over reliance on spin moves resulted in frequent turnovers.

Many have commented that Vonleh was criminally underutilized at Indiana, and indeed he only had a below-average 18.9 percent usage rate in conference play. But while he was the victim of some gunning by the guards, he deserves at least some of the blame for his inability to find shots. This is another indicator that his feel is not the greatest.

Of perhaps the greatest importance for his future, his defensive instincts are poor. Vonleh does move well laterally and is solid on ball against the pick and roll and postups. In the latter situation he uses his chest to bump the offensive player without fouling and does well to avoid getting backed down. But you would expect a player with his wingspan, vertical and lateral quickness to be a terror protecting the rim. Vonleh is not. He often gets caught out of position to help, especially when his man drifts to the perimeter. Seeing his man and the ball is not his strong suit, and drivers can reach the rim before Vonleh is even aware of them if he is weakside. And when he is in position, he lacks the timing and bounce to block many shots. To these eyes, he does not project as a good rim-protector.

Ultimately, Vonleh has many basketball skills, but he is not a great basketball player. Those skills do make him worth drafting starting in the late lottery, and there is a chance as one of the younger players in the draft (he only turns 19 in August) that he develops the necessary feel to be a star. But right now, his likely outcome seems closer to a three-point shooting version of Jason Thompson. That could be a valuable player, but to me he lacks the high-probability upside to merit a pick in the top-half of the lottery.

Body Fat Testing Is Wildly Inaccurate

It is time for the NBA to stop doing body fat testing at the combine. The league uses the skinfold method to measure body fat, which involves a human physically pinching skin with calipers and measuring how thick it is at a number of points around the body. While there is a specific method to doing this that is supposed to be accurate, as you might imagine the pinching of skin is not particularly precise. Then a formula is supposed to estimate body fat based on how much skin is in the fold. Consider the potential variance of different people doing the testing, and you get a margin of error of five percent. That means plus or minus five percent, meaning a player could have as much as 10 percent variance between two tests. Nik Stauskas got dinged on the testing this year, measuring a relatively high 12.1 percent, spawning “concerns” about how fat he was. Stauskas looks plenty cut and athletic—the concerns should be with the testing itself.

In reality, body fat testing to differentiate between the low body fat percentages of elite athletes is fairly worthless because almost every feasible testing method lacks the necessary precision. Even ostensibly more accurate measure have a very high variance. The Bod Pod (air displacement) and hydrostatic weighing (water displacement) purport to measure body fat by determining how much matter is displaced by the body to determine its volume, then determining the body’s density by dividing that volume by the subject’s weight. The calculated density can vary quite a bit based on how much air is in the lungs, the person’s level of hydration and just simple measurement error by the machine.

After the density is determined, an equation is used to estimate body fat based on the density of the average person’s fat and non-fat mass.* Even by these methods, readings taken back to back on the same person can vary by five percent or more.

*Sometimes a different equation is used for African-Americans, on the basis that they typically have lower body fat percentages than other races and the result should be adjusted downward simply on the basis of race. This too seems another possible source of inaccuracy. I do not know whether such an adjustment is used with the skinfold method the NBA uses at the combine.

Labeling certain players as more in shape than others based solely on this testing is rather asinine unless a guy has an absolutely astronomical number in the mid-to-high teens. Just subjectively looking at how cut a player is does a much better job determining whether he could improve his performance by losing fat. Hopefully GMs do not put any stock in this testing, but if I were an agent I would not let my player be tested just to avoid potentially getting Stauskased. Responsible journalists should stop quoting these figures like they actually mean anything.

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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The Best of the Undrafted Players

David Yapkowitz breaks down the best players who weren’t drafted in Thursday night’s NBA Draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Ben Wallace, Raja Bell, Avery Johnson, David Wesley, John Starks; those are just a few former NBA players who didn’t hear their name called on draft night, yet went on to have pretty impressive careers.

Each year there are a few undrafted players who end up making a team’s roster and turn out to be solid contributors. This past season, players like Ron Baker of the New York Knicks, Yogi Ferrell of the Dallas Mavericks, and Derrick Jones Jr. of the Phoenix Suns went undrafted in 2016 yet ended up as regular rotation guys for their teams. In Ferrell’s case, he became a starter.

With the 2017 NBA Draft come and gone, here’s a look at some of the top undrafted players who might be able to strengthen a team’s roster.

Johnathan Motley

Johnathan Motley was the best player on a Baylor team that was a No.3 seed and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 17.3 points per game on 52.2 percent shooting and pulled down 9.9 rebounds per game.

At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Motley is definitely in the mold of a versatile wing player who can play multiple positions and thrive and in today’s NBA. What he needs to do, however, is improve his outside shot. He shot only 28.1 percent from three-point range. One crucial aspect for hybrid forwards is to be able to step out and hit long range jumpers.

His stock often fluctuated in various mock drafts; some had him going in the first round, others in the second. Per The Vertical’s Shams Charania, Motley signed a two-way contract with the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

P.J. Dozier

P.J. Dozier was one-half of South Carolina’s star duo that helped propel them to a Cinderella run to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament. The other half, Sindarius Thornwell, had his name called, but at the end of the night, Dozier was still waiting.

Only a sophomore, Dozier was the second leading scorer for the Gamecocks with 13.9 points per game. He was always projected to go in the second round on most mocks and perhaps he came out a bit too early. The talent is there though.

He can have success as a team’s combo guard off the bench. He will need to work on his shooting though. He shot only 40.7 percent from the field, 29.8 percent from three. He’ll be in summer league with the Los Angeles Lakers, and from there will hope to entice a team to bring him to training camp.

Melo Trimble

Melo Trimble might have been one of those players that needed to strike while the iron’s hot. Two years ago, he was talked about as a probable first-round pick had he declared for the draft after his freshman year at Maryland. Instead, he stayed until his junior year and his stock fell.

He actually turned in an impressive junior campaign with 16.8 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. He shot a respectable 44.4 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range.

Trimble will play summer league with the Philadelphia 76ers, and like most undrafted free agents, will look to turn his performance into a training camp invitation. He probably projects to be a backup point guard should he find a place in the league. He had first round and possible lottery talent before, however, so maybe all he needs is an opportunity.

Devin Robinson

In today’s game, where teams put a premium on versatile, do it all type players who can play multiple positions, Devin Robinson certainly fits that description. Robinson is a long, athletic forward who can step out and hit outside jumpers while locking up his opponent’s best wing scorer.

Florida had a surprisingly solid run in the NCAA Tournament and Robinson was a big part of that. His junior year, his best year yet, saw him average 11.1 points per game on 47.5 percent from the field and 6.1 rebounds. He showed a much improved outside shot, connecting on 39.1 percent of his looks from downtown. In the tournament, he upped his averages to 28.3 points on similar shooting percentages.

Robinson will be in summer league with the Washington Wizards, a team that often times lacked production off their bench last season. Depending on how he performs in summer league, don’t be surprised to see him on the Wizards roster come opening night.

Nigel Hayes

Playing in the shadow of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in years past, Nigel Hayes was given an opportunity as a senior at Wisconsin to show what he could do as the focal point of an offense. His numbers didn’t jump off the page, but he did play well enough to be given a shot at making a team’s roster.

His 14 points per game were good enough to tie teammate Ethan Happ for the second leading scorer on the team. As a power forward, he was actually the second leading assist man with 2.7. One area he’ll need to improve on to make an impact in the NBA is his outside jumper. He shot 39.6 percent from three his sophomore season. This year it was down to 31.4 despite taking a similar number of attempts (2.5 and 1.9 respectively).

Hayes looks to be one of those players in between positions. He lacks the quickness and range to thrive at small forward but is a bit undersized at the NBA level for power forward. He is an incredible energy player, though, and players like that have been able to carve out nice careers. He’ll be in summer league with the Knicks, and given their current state of affairs, they need all the help they can get.

L.J. Peak

In the mock drafts that projected him to be drafted, L.J. Peak was most likely going to be a second round pick. That’s not to say he doesn’t have first round talent. He’s a big guard that can play both guard positions.

Despite Georgetown’s futile record this season, Peak was a standout. He was the team’s second-leading scorer at 16.2 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field. He was also their top playmaker, dishing out 3.5 assists. In the NBA, he most likely can find a role for some team as a combo guard off the bench. He only shot 32.7 percent from the beyond the arc, however, so if he wants to make an impact in the league that’s one area he’ll need some work.

He’s set to go to summer league with the Houston Rockets. Depending on what roster moves the Rockets make, it will be tough for Peak to make the final team. They already have two guards capable of playing both guard spots off the bench in Lou Williams and Isaiah Taylor. Taylor’s contract isn’t guaranteed, but he probably has the inside track due to his familiarity with the team. In any case, a strong summer showing should lead Peak to a training camp invite with another team, if not the Rockets.

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NBA PM: Losers Of The 2017 NBA Draft

Who were the two parties who came out of draft night worse off than they went in? Spencer Davies explores.

Spencer Davies

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As the book closes on the 2017 NBA Draft, the league takes a bit of a break before going full throttle into the free agency portion of the off-season.

Before we get there, though, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the winners and losers of Thursday’s draft to get you caught up. Our own Benny Nadeau already took care of the former, so this piece will focus on the two parties who came out of the night worse off than they did going into it.

Early Entrants Going Undrafted

The amount of talent in this year’s draft class was undeniable, so those that decided to come out of college too soon instead of returning to school for another year suffered tremendously.

Let’s take a look at some notable undrafted players that entered as underclassmen:

Kobi Simmons

Simmons was an interesting story this past season with the Arizona Wildcats. It was a difficult one-and-done season for Simmons, as he had trouble converting on the perimeter (33 percent) and contributing anything other than scoring.

In the first couple of months as a freshman, he was basically an every game starter and played at least 28 minutes per game for the team. As the year wound down, though, the 6-5, 175-pound shooting guard barely saw the court, and the time he was given came during blowouts.

His decision to enter the draft was questionable and a gamble, and most teams saw it the same way. Luckily for Simmons, he was reportedly able to come to an agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies on a free agent contract.

P.J. Dozier

A player that surprisingly didn’t get selected was P.J. Dozier from South Carolina. In his sophomore season, the 20-year-old swingman took on a much heavier workload and dramatically improved his game on both ends of the floor.

Dozier was one of the best defenders in the SEC and in the entire NCAA, as well as an aggressor on offense. He was not bashful and took his new role in stride. Over the course of one year, he attempted six more field goals per game and upped his three-point success by 8.5 percentage points.

He also snatched almost two more rebounds per game and averaged nearly two steals for the Gamecocks. Dozier going undrafted was a head scratcher, but the Los Angeles Lakers made sure he landed on his feet with a deal.

Isaiah Briscoe

Briscoe is more of a hybrid type with a bulky build for a backcourt player. In two seasons under John Calipari at Kentucky, he was pretty consistent with his game as somebody who will give you a little bit of everything.

He’s not particularly a good shooter, but he can get some rebounds and dish it out to make the right plays. You’ll see that with when he’s playing for the Philadelphia 76ers in Summer League.

Antonio Blakeney

Blakeney—a sophomore guard from LSU—proved that he can shoot the basketball and be a pure scorer (17.2 points per game) when given the opportunity, but what about the defensive end of the floor? He’ll need to work on that, as well as his all-around game that won’t make him a one-dimensional threat.

He hasn’t received an offer from a team yet, but he’ll likely get a chance to showcase his talents in either Orlando or Las Vegas.

The trend here seems obvious—if you’re a shooting guard and haven’t gotten at least three years of college experience, it may not be wise to declare. Executives understand that they need players with the “do-it-all” quality and not just pure scorers that can’t bring more than one or two skills to the table.

Chicago Bulls

Over the past week, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Jimmy Butler and his future with the Bulls. There were rumors all over linking him mainly to the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the dark horse candidate to land the All-Star was the one to pull the trigger.

After the first selection in the draft was made, the Minnesota Timberwolves came to an agreement with Chicago that reunited Butler with his former coach of four years, Tom Thibodeau. The deal came a few weeks after an exit interview regarding the team’s direction that reportedly went well.

The 27-year-old’s trainer didn’t hide his displeasure about the move, but it’s understandable from the perspective of VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, who strived to “set a direction” for the franchise.

However, what they received in return for Butler was not nearly enough for a man that is just now entering his prime as one of the best two-way players in the game today. In exchange for Butler, the Wolves sent Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine to Chicago. Furthermore, the Bulls were able to move up nine spots in the draft, but it cost them their 16th pick to do so.

LaVine is as exciting as a player as any young talent in the NBA, but he’ll enter the season coming off a brutal ACL tear that ended his year prematurely. It will probably be a little while before the 22-year-old sees the floor, and, as the centerpiece of this trade, it’s definitely risky not knowing how he’ll respond to the injury.

While Dunn could have plenty of promise as the starting point guard of the future, his rookie season in Minnesota left a lot to be desired. The only defense of his inclusion as one of the key pieces in this transaction is being a top five pick in last year’s draft with untapped potential.

With the seventh overall selection, Chicago drafted Lauri Markkanen out of Arizona. In his lone season under Sean Miller, the seven-footer was a key cog in the Wildcats’ run in the PAC-12 and NCAA tournaments.

The talent is clearly there as a sharpshooting stretch four or five, but with Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic already in the mix at power forward, the fit may be a problem. He could see some time at center, but remember, Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio, and Joffrey Lauvergne are holding down the fort there, too.

Markkanen’s situation will all depend on if qualifying offers are made to Mirotic, Felicio, and Lauvergne.

To add the cherry on top of the Bulls’ rough night, they excited some fans of the organization when they took Jordan Bell out of Oregon early in the second round. That hope quickly diminished when the Golden State Warriors paid $3.5 million for the pick, and Chicago agreed to send him to the Bay.

Bell was one of the sexier names in the draft for a good reason, but the money was more important to the Bulls, who will have some more decisions to make this summer with their veterans on the roster likely not wanting to be a part of the rebuild.

Without their superstar of the last three years, and still with an inexperienced head coach like Fred Hoiberg to develop the young talent brought into the organization, it’s going to be a little while before basketball is king again in the Windy City.

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NBA

Hawks Didn’t Expect John Collins To Fall To 19

Newly-minted Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk had a relatively easy decision drafting John Collins at 19.

Buddy Grizzard

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During Travis Schlenk’s first NBA Draft as Atlanta GM, fortune smiled as center John Collins of Wake Forest, a player rated highly on Atlanta’s draft board, fell to the 19th pick.

“Through the whole week, we had guys ranked, and he was the highest guy there,” said Schlenk to assembled media at the Omni Hotel, adjacent to Philips Arena. “We thought he’d go a little higher. We had a couple options on the board to move back, but once we saw that John was going to be there, we didn’t entertain any of those.”

Schlenk added that Atlanta also tried to move up but was unable to execute a trade.

“We did have some conversations about trying to move up,” said Schlenk. “We had one player that we targeted that we really wanted to move up for but were unable to do so.”

The process of building the team’s draft depth chart was collaborative, Schlenk added, which meant Collins’ selection was by consensus rather than by decree. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was among those whose input factored into the selection.

“I have a lot of faith in the group that was here before I got here,” said Schlenk. “They’ve been a huge asset to me coming in here in the middle of this process. As I’ve stated all along, I view Coach Bud and I’s relationship as a partnership. It doesn’t do us any good to take a guy that he doesn’t like, so he’s got a voice in it for sure.”

Schlenk was asked about areas where Collins needs to improve and didn’t shy away from questions about his defense.

“That was kind of the knock on him at Wake Forest,” said Schlenk. “But a lot of times, especially in college — when you’re the main focal point — you’ll see the best offensive player doesn’t want to get in foul trouble so he can stay on the floor. We interviewed him in Chicago. That’s what he said: “Coach Manning said, ‘Don’t get in foul trouble, I can’t afford to have you off the court.'”

The Hawks GM also talked about Collins’ shortcomings as a shooter.

“One of the first things we’re going to work on with him is a jump shot,” said Schlenk. “In college, all his scoring came in the post. And he’s got a good post game. We just need to extend his range out, especially the way we play and the way the league’s going.”

But overall, Schlenk was extremely positive about the opportunity to add a player with the upside of Collins, a player who is far from a finished product.

“Last year you saw his athleticism, and then the big jump that he’s made from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Schlenk said. “Obviously, being the most improved player in the ACC, you see the growth he’s made. And he’s still a 19-year-old kid, so there’s still a lot of room to grow.”

In the second round, Atlanta selected shooting guard Tyler Dorsey, who shot 56 percent from three and averaged 23 points during Oregon’s run to the Final Four. The Hawks also selected 6-10 French center Alpha Kaba of Mega Leks, a likely draft-and-stash candidate. With Collins’ youth and lack of polish, it may take some time to judge Schlenk’s first draft. But fortunately for him, the decision was a relatively easy one since the team didn’t expect Collins to fall all the way to 19 where Atlanta could grab him.

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