Every NBA Draft is an exercise in educated guesswork to one degree or another. Teams are charged with identifying strengths and weaknesses of incomplete players (the easy part), then projecting how those peaks and valleys will fluctuate over a period of years as these young men grow, mature and add skills (the hard part).
The 2016 iteration might be one of the best examples of the uncertain nature of the draft in a decade or more. A larger-than-average number of flaws and question marks dot virtually every major prospect, including the consensus top two. Mock drafts have spent the year trotting out a rotating carousel of guys at the third spot after Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, with an ever-morphing lottery behind it. League scouts have talked about a tightly bunched group from three to as far as the mid-20s for at least the last 12 months.
With such mediocre depth up and down the board, more emphasis than usual will be on the identification of guys with the most “fixable” holes in their games – which brings us to Juan Hernangomez.
The younger brother of 2015 New York Knicks draftee Guillermo, Hernangomez logged big minutes and put up elite efficiency numbers in the Spanish ACB as a 20-year-old, albeit on one of the worst teams in the league. He flashed NBA shooting range at 6’9 as well as the ability to play both forward spots in the European game (this will disappear in the NBA, where he’s clearly a four). The nature of his observed flaws, though, is what makes him so sneakily attractive.
High atop the list is the defensive side of the ball, where legitimate worries about court IQ and awareness compound a physical profile that, at 20, couldn’t stack up to more powerful men in the trenches and would do even worse in the NBA. The effort is there for Hernangomez, just as it is constantly all over the court (his motor is off the charts), but he lacks both the physique and the know-how to properly channel it. He’ll badly space out off the ball multiple times per game, and will often overplay the ball and the glass to his team’s detriment; even when his head is on straight, he lacks the raw strength to defend the post against bigger guys.
Hernangomez has a solid build, though, and scouts expect him to fill out without much challenge as he matures (a lesser known reality of European play versus the NBA: strength training is a whole new ballgame in the Association). His lateral mobility is excellent and will translate without issue, as will an estimated 7’0 wingspan. He’s already a strong on-ball defender.
That leaves the mental side, and there are positive smoke signals abound here as well. Hernangomez comes from a basketball lineage that also includes his father and sister, and this combined with an obvious passion for the game makes his willingness to learn and absorb criticism seem high on the surface. It’s impossible to predict a given prospect’s capacity for mental growth, of course, but it’s also not as if NBA defense is rocket science – plenty of non-geniuses have picked it up with solid effort and repetition over the years. Hernangomez may never be a bona fide shot-blocker who can play center (in fact, some of his best fits would be alongside exactly such a player), but smart coaching emphasis – preferably from a team that doesn’t require him to make an immediate two-way impact – could straighten out some of the issues between the ears in a hurry.
If one assumes a defensive improvement is possible and perhaps even likely, the outlines of a top-10 prospect begin to take shape. No one is drafting him expecting a star, but in a class where that theme holds true for nearly everyone, his floor could separate him.
Hernangomez has all the skills needed to be a prototypical “playmaking four” at the NBA level, several of which are NBA-ready at this moment. He’s a fluid, comfortable shooter with unquestionable NBA range and a steady, high release point – combined with excellent footwork and a moderately speedy release, he projects as a valuable pick-and-pop big man down the road. He’s shown the aggression to turn the “pop” into “roll” at times, with good numbers finishing at the rim and a willingness to absorb contact that will serve him well when his frame fills out. He has the touch to be a good passer both from the elbow and on the move in pick-and-roll and short roll situations, though like the defensive end, his court IQ will need some fine-tuning even as the willingness is there. Down the same lines, he’s a willing cutter who will hurt slower NBA bigs off the ball if his timing clicks.
He’s taken criticism for his handle, but how many 6’9 stretch forwards are breaking guys down off the dribble at any level? There’s a reason Ben Simmons is the highest-ceiling prospect in this draft, after all. Draymond Green isn’t effective offensively because he can cross guys up on the perimeter. It’s not as if Hernangomez can’t dribble at all, either – he’s perfectly capable as a pump-and-drive guy going to either hand, with the footspeed to make up for any lack of go-to shake moves he may have.
Some see his strength concerns as a red flag for rebounding at the NBA level as well, but the evidence here is limited and potentially spurious. It’s true that most of his gaudy ACB volume on the boards came on the defensive end, some portion of which were no-effort affairs, but citing that as proof that he’ll struggle here at the next level is a nice, fat straw man. His nose for the ball is elite, and nowhere is his motor and effort level more visible than in rebounding pursuit, where he displays his usual brand of quick reflexes and strong, claw-like hands that prevent him from losing 50-50 balls other guys might. Hernangomez wasn’t much of an offensive rebounder in the ACB due to the amount of time he spent on the perimeter, but you aren’t drafting him to be anything different in the NBA.
Folks view intangibles in many different ways, but Hernangomez comes in with top marks however you weight them. He has no behavioral issues or diva-like tendencies to speak of, and a common theme from those close to him is his competitive fire. His application of this intensity sometimes goes awry on the court, as noted above, but has yet to manifest itself in any sort of worrying off-court dimension. He comes across as genuine and eager in interviews, more than a rote face guys try to put on for pre-draft stuff.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike many other overseas prospects, Hernangomez has a flexible movement situation. Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler reported recently that he does not have a buyout clause in his Estudiantes contract, a boon to a potential team both for monetary and timing purposes. Hernangomez has indicated he’s open to whatever route his incoming team chooses for him, be it an immediate move to the NBA or another year or two in Europe. It’s not an end-all factor, but this sort of flexibility is a breath of fresh air for NBA general managers accustomed to haggling over these sorts of details with foreign draftees and their teams.
No one is a sure thing in this draft class, but with a potentially flat player pool after a couple blue chip guys, there’s real value to be found moving down the board for teams best able to identify the easiest holes to fill. Juan Hernangomez could represent the best of them.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.
NBA Daily: Mo Harkless Proving His Value
The LA Clippers have thrived despite their two biggest stars missing a combined 18 games this season. The reason for this may be linked to the problems in Portland. Chad Smith details why Mo Harkless has been a key factor in both.
The Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Understandably, much of the credit goes to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. Though he may be overlooked and underappreciated, Maurice Harkless is a significant piece of the tenacious defense that has fueled the Clippers to an 18-7 record.
More affectionately known as Mo Harkless, the versatile wing has delivered when the team needed him most. Between Kawhi’s load management and George missing the first 11 games of the season, Doc Rivers had to rely on the services of one of their other new players. Harkless’ role in LA isn’t much different from his role in Portland, where he spent the last three seasons.
After being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harkless patiently waited for the right opportunity. Oddly enough, that came in the form of a trade during the summer of 2015, when he was dealt to Portland for a 2020 2nd round pick, which is top-55 protected. After three years in Orlando, it all came together in the Pacific Northwest.
Harkless was an afterthought by some in the four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Injuries have devastated Portland, but losing a talented role player like him has hurt them just as bad.
In LA’s first seven games this season, Harkless recorded 11 total steals and was top five in the league in deflections. One of the most valuable assets that he possesses is the ability to guard four positions on the floor. This was something that surprised Doc early on, not fully grasping his depth of talent.
Scoring has never been Harkless’ calling card, but he is very capable of averaging double figures. His points are slightly down this year, but that is not why the Clippers put him on the floor. When he does score, he takes high percentage shots at the rim, as his 55 percent effective field goal percentage indicates. He shoots above 50 percent for his career and is connecting on 37 percent of his shots from downtown.
The rebounding numbers won’t blow you away either, but Harkless can hit the glass when needed. He actually led the team with 14 rebounds in their last game in Indiana on Monday. Harkless isn’t going to lead the team in any significant category over the course of a season, but he is able to produce in various ways on any given night. That is a lethal weapon for any coach to have coming off of his bench.
The versatility that Harkless possesses was on display against Toronto when he split time defending Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. He held Kemba Walker in check and forced him into three consecutive turnovers. He locked down Luka Doncic to the tune of 4-for-11 shooting and even spent time guarding Anthony Davis in the season opener. His lethal combination of length and quickness allows him to become a pest to all different types of players.
The Clippers currently boast a 104.6 defensive rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Kawhi has missed seven games, and George missed the first 11 which makes that rating look even better. With Harkless’ defensive skill set and offensive weapons like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, it makes it even tougher for opposing teams to generate enough offense to keep pace.
On top of the games that their two star players have missed, the Clippers have also only had the services of Landry Shamet for 10 games. JaMychal Green has also missed a few games due to injury, which has tested their depth even more. Harkless has played in all 25 games so far for the Clippers. Considering how this team has performed amid all of the injuries, it is scary to imagine what they could become by season’s end if they are healthy and have their chemistry figured out.
Portland experienced a lot of roster turnover from a year ago, and it has crippled them so far this season. At first glance, people may point to the departure of guys like Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are now playing for the two teams in Florida. Ed Davis and Evan Turner have both left the west coast, but it may be safe to say their biggest loss was that of Harkless.
He set the tone on defense for them and was the guy that would do whatever the team needed in order to win. He never cared about his statistics or how he was used in the rotation. Sure, having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be nice, but Portland would sure love having Harkless back in their lineup.
This is a tough stretch for the Clippers, who have begun an 11-game gauntlet that began with a brutal loss in Milwaukee, and ends with a “road” game against their LA rivals on Christmas Day. Only 2 of those 11 games will come on their home floor when they face a surprising Phoenix team and an angry Houston squad. They will be thoroughly tested between now and the holidays, but they are up for the challenge.
Tonight’s matchup in Toronto is obviously all about Kawhi’s return. Two elite teams will square off with All-Star caliber players all over the court. Mo Harkless may not be one of them. He doesn’t rank inside the top 150 players in points, rebounds or assists. His Hall-of-Fame probability is 0.0 percent.
Still, much of LA’s success this season can be attributed to his stellar and unselfish play.
NBA Daily: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Still Working Out Kinks
The Philadelphia 76ers are still looking for the best ways to combine Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons offensively. Quinn Davis looks at what the team has done so far and what it could do going to forward to maximize their talents.
Late in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Toronto Raptors, Ben Simmons brought the ball up the court and called a play.
After directing some traffic, Joel Embiid came up to the three-point line and ran a simple pick-and-roll with Simmons. Simmons slashed past Marc Gasol to the rim and threw down a left-handed dunk.
For most teams, this simple high pick-and-roll would go unnoticed, a faint memory from a normal December win. For these Sixers, though, that play is symbolic of the team’s championship aspirations.
There has been much hand-wringing and alarm-sounding over the fit of Embiid and Simmons offensively. The concerns are justified, as Simmons and Embiid both do their best work around the basket. They are yin and bigger yin at times.
As of their win over the Raptors, the Sixers’ best offensive units have been the ones featuring Simmons, but not Embiid. The lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris,and Al Horford has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That same lineup with exception of Furkan Korkmaz in for Thybulle has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Sixers score 107.8 points per 100 possessions when the two young stars share the court.
The key to those Simmons-led lineups has been their pace. At their fastest, they have zoomed up and down the hardwood at a pace of 111.6 possessions per game, per NBA.com. That lineup, which is the Simmons-Thybulle-Ennis-Harris-Horford grouping, would rank first in the NBA by a mile in that category.
With Embiid on the court, playing at that pace is impossible. Lineups with Embiid have hovered around a pace of 98 or 99 possessions per game so far this season.
That is not knock on the star center; any player at his size would be a better fit for a slower game. This is just one example of the tricky fit between the two leaders of the franchise.
This wide gap was not present last season. The starting lineup used at the end of the 2018-19 run, which featured both Embiid and Simmons, ran at a pace of about 106 possessions per game, a number that would rank first in the NBA this season. Also, the offense stagnated when Embiid left the court last season. With Simmons on and Embiid off, the Sixers only could muster 108 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
The change this year can largely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford. Horford, who is now the starting power forward and backup center, has had a profound effect on the team’s offense and pace.
Firstly, he has proven to be an ideal partner for Simmons. Horford is a master at trailing the fastbreak for top the arc threes and also can be weaponized as a pick-and-pop partner against defenses who collapse on Simmons, like in this play against the Raptors.
Secondly, Horford as a power forward contributes to the snail’s pace that the team plays with their starters. The sheer size of that five-man unit makes running up and down the court counter to the advantages that they pose.
With Horford in tow, the differences between Simmons and Embiid are now amplified on the offensive end.
With Embiid and Simmons on the court together, the spacing predictably tightens. The cramped paint leads to turnover problems, as the Sixers’ turnover percentage jumps to nearly 18 percent when those two share the court, per Cleaning the Glass.
Minimizing those turnovers and piecing together a strong half-court offense will be key in the Sixers’ title hopes as the year goes on. They may need to get creative in order to do that considering the unique skillset.
Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is aware of this. He is sure to use the regular season as a laboratory to experiment with the best possible sets when the two share the court.
One of those ways is to have Simmons space to the corner in half-court offensive sets. Brown didn’t mince words over the weekend when asked about Simmons’ second made three of the season, saying he wanted to see “one three-point shot a game,” from his star point guard.
Brown noted that the attempt itself is not only important, but it is the way it would open things up for the rest of Simmons’ game. Brown continued that the ability to attack the paint from that position would lead to dunks and free throws.
As of now, there are a lot of possessions like the one below. The ball gets entered to Embiid while Simmons lurks in the dunker spot on the opposite side of the basket. Most defenses simply collapse into the paint and force the kick out with ease, as the Indiana Pacers do here. The Sixers’ three shooters are located around the top of the arc, so defenders have a short distance to close out.
Simmons spacing to the corner on plays like this would make the Sixers much more difficult to defend. A few passes around the perimeter could lead to an open three or a drive to the rim when a defender closes out wildly.
There is also the step of involving Embiid and Simmons in more two-man actions. The most common two-man action in the NBA is, of course, the pick-and-roll.
Going back to the pick-and-roll at the beginning of this piece, the one thing that stands out immediately is the way Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is guarding Simmons. He is tight on Simmons all the way out five feet above the three-point line. That defense allows Simmons to get free with a head of steam to the basket.
Simmons will rarely see a player guard him that way all season. Most will sag to the foul line or deeper and be content drifting under ever pick. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this specific play and what they could do going forward to get more actions like this, his response was detailed.
“It’s always been a wish to grow those two in pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “It sounds good, in this room. But when you watch how the league is defending him, there’s nobody to screen. You have to go to different angles, like deep pick-and-rolls and I think they have had success out of that.”
The Sixers have dabbled in those deep pick-and-rolls this season. The play usually involves Simmons getting the ball on the mid-block, where Embiid sets the screen and Simmons moves toward the basket. The play usually results in a decent look for Simmons, as it does on the play here.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Simmons has had a bit more trouble with those short hooks this season. His percentage in that area is down from 38 percent last season to 34 percent in this campaign, per Cleaning the Glass. This could be variance, as the season is still young.
Still, there are other ways to maximize their combined skills. Perhaps the Sixers try more actions with Simmons as a screener while Embiid plays the role of the dunker. There is also the possibility of more high-low action, weaponizing Simmons’ ability as a passer from the high post.
It is also important to mention the benefit of having two distinct styles. Having a team that can play multiple ways depending on personnel is an inherently good thing.
While the two make for an odd couple offensively, the situation is not as dire as it may seem. The pair operates at a plus-11.4 net rating when sharing the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the net rating sits at plus-9.7, while that number is a plus-5.7 in the reverse scenario. When you further specify to view lineups with Simmons and Horford sans Embiid, that number jumps to plus-12.7.
These numbers can be attributed to the defensive side of the ball, where the two make for a destructive duo. Embiid has provided his usual rim-protection while Simmons has taken a leap on that end, locking down guards and wings alike while leading the league in steals.
If a few things are tightened up offensively, the Sixers could go from contender to favorite in the championship race.