A new offense and a new MVP headlined the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018-19, one that resulted in 60 wins and their first conference finals appearance since 2001.
But a season that may look successful from the outside is deeply disappointing from the inside.
The Bucks were on top of the mountain, up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors and appearing poised to represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage.
They proceeded to drop four in a row and watched from home as the eventual champion took advantage of a dynasty that became ravaged by injury. Now, back with virtually the same roster (save Malcolm Brogdon), the winningest team from a year ago looks to learn from last season’s mistakes and get to The Finals in the most wide-open NBA season of the past decade.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Many things this writer predicted last season were wrong, but picking Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year was spot on. He unlocked even more out of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker, using player perimeter gravity as a formula to let the Greek Freak drive down the lane and take it from there. It’s either a pass to the corner, ferocious finish at the rim or a drawn foul nearly every time. While keeping Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez was absolutely necessary, it came at the price of losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers. Jon Horst brought in Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dragan Bender, as well as Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as his offseason acquisitions. George Hill agreed to return in addition. The Bucks are still in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Let’s see if they take the next step to the NBA Finals in Year 2 under Coach Bud.
1st Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Bucks were two games away from reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they proceeded to lose four straight games to the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard now in the West, the Bucks presumably should be the favorites to come out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only getting better, which is a scary thought considering how good he already is. The front office has done a solid job surrounding him with players that can all stretch the floor and shoot from distance. Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were big pickups. They’re going to miss some of the defensive edge that Malcolm Brogdon brought to the team, but they’re hoping Matthews can replicate some of that. A lot really hinges though on Antetokounmpo’s development. He’s the best player in the Eastern Conference and the one who Milwaukee’s Finals hopes depend on. With Kevin Durant injured, the Bucks are the clear cut favorite in the East, with only the Philadelphia 76ers coming close as a potential challenger. The Finals is the goal this season and anything less, barring any major injuries, would be a failure.
1st Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
Even though the Bucks didn’t win the Eastern Conference last season, they will still have a huge target on their collective backs in 2019-20. They will be graded harshly this season if they don’t win the Eastern Conference – and I’m not sure they have the requisite depth to do so. But with Kawhi Leonard moving West, the Bucks are at least expected to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While they mostly flew under the radar, the Bucks offseason was more detrimental than most assume – namely because they lost their clear third option from 2018-19 – Malcolm Brogdon – to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. Signing Wesley Matthews is a low-risk move that could partially mitigate the hurt from losing Brogdon, but he’s a different player than he once was and you can’t expect too much from him (at least he only costs $2.56 million). The Bucks also signed Robin Lopez to back up his brother, Brook. It’s not a home run move, but it adds much needed depth up front. However, that isn’t the only pair of siblings on the roster. They also continued to try to appease Giannis by signing his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo – and as far as appeasements go, this isn’t a bad start toward resigning Antetokounmpo to a long-term contact. But ultimately the Bucks will have to prove they can win at a high level.
1st Place – Central Division
Lump me in with the group of people who think the Bucks are going to miss Malcolm Brogdon more than the Bucks will publicly admit. I might feel differently if Eric Bledsoe didn’t struggle so mightily in the playoffs, but that has been an ongoing issue and it’s hard to say with any confidence that will change this upcoming season. While losing Brogdon will be an adjustment for the Bucks, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still just 24 years old and improving seemingly every day. Milwaukee also did well in bringing back Brook Lopez and adding on his twin brother, Robin. The Bucks will need as much size and physicality as they can get with the Philadelphia 76ers adding Al Horford and now featuring a massive overall roster. I have been a believer in the Bucks for a long time and think the sky is the limit for this team this upcoming season. But I just think Milwaukee should have valued Brogdon more and done whatever was necessary to bring him back.
1st Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Stop me if you have heard this before – “He is wired differently, he’d never leave,” or, “He’s too loyal, he loves this market.” These have to be the phrases that strike fear into the hearts of the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. Pick a superstar in the NBA that is no longer with the team that drafted him, and those phrases were said about them at this point in their careers too. While it is true Giannis Antetokounmpo has operated differently than almost anyone not named Tim Duncan, there is a reality that Giannis has just scratched the surface of how good he could be, and he was the runaway MVP a season ago. Imagine what he’ll be when he reaches his prime? That’s why the Bucks had to go all-in on their free agents this summer and why they can’t allow the season to get off the rails this year. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a franchise, especially a franchise that doesn’t have extremely bright lights and glamor appeal. The Bucks have an impressive win-now roster, which should make them one of the favorites in the East, but it also means there won’t be a big margin for error either.
1st Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Bucks made a significant sacrifice this summer, choosing to sign and trade Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, instead of forcing the guard to play the restricted free agent game with an offer sheet. Instead, the team dropped under the salary cap to re-sign Brook Lopez. Milwaukee also made a sizable investment in paying Khris Middleton $177.5 million over five seasons.
Now the franchise is right under the luxury tax line of $132.6 million. They have no additional spending tools, outside of minimum contracts, but could venture over mid-season trade. Before November, the team needs to decide on options for D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo. Looming over the horizon is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract which ends after the 2020-21 season. The clear goal will be locking him down to a Supermax extension when eligible next summer.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The reigning league MVP also continues his reign as Milwaukee’s best offensive player as we move into 2019-20. Antetokounmpo won the MVP on the back of a season that saw his traditional counting stat averages finish at 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Antetokounmpo’s effective field goal percentage was a ridiculous 60.2 percent, his on/off difference was in the 92nd percentile at plus-8.7, and he was in the 98th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts at 129.9.
Giannis also led the NBA in player efficiency rating, and with a roster built exclusively around him, the Bucks were fourth in offensive rating and second in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage, trailing only Golden State in the latter two.
He did all of this despite still shooting 25.6 percent from three, which remains his only glaring weakness. However, last season Giannis took and made more threes than he ever has. He appeared to find a certain level of comfort stepping into them from the extended elbows during the back-half of the season; if he can get to league average on three or four attempts per game, it will really be over for the rest of the NBA.
Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Surprise, surprise: Antetokounmpo is also Milwaukee’s best defensive player. He was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, leading the Bucks to an NBA-best 104.9 defensive rating and finishing second in individual defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus.
He was also second in total rebounds and sixth in rebounds per game, the only non-Russell Westbrook perimeter player to finish in the top 15 in that category.
Antetokounmpo is the most physically gifted player in the league and uses his strength and size to switch across all five positions. You won’t find a more versatile defender, and this writer would bet on him beating out Rudy Gobert for a DPOY over the next few years.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This may be getting repetitive, but with a player this good, it’s hard to look anywhere else.
As mentioned, Milwaukee filled out their roster specifically to enhance Antetokounmpo’s strengths. Head coach Mike Budenholzer spaced the floor around Giannis (a la the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’s first stint with the team) and gave him all the room to drive and kick out to shooters. This resulted in Antetokounmpo leading his team in total assists and assists per game, and assisting on 29.3 percent of his teammates made field goals – in the 98th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Empowering Giannis to play as the de facto point guard for long stretches allowed him to become one of the better playmakers in the league. Entering year two of Coach Bud’s offense, it’s fair to expect him to be even better.
Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This isn’t a referendum on the rest of the team, but a testament to just how good Giannis was as a 24-year-old MVP. According to NBA.com, during clutch time Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring and shot 62.5 percent from the field while doing so. When the game is on the line, Milwaukee’s spread offense becomes even more pronounced, and they live and die by Giannis’s penetration and playmaking.
Their reliance on Giannis late in games was as evident as ever during Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Giannis scored 17 in the fourth quarter on his way to 39 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was everywhere in the fourth – scoring isolation on the block, driving and kicking to shooter, and attacking the offensive glass. He’s the Bucks’ best player, and their best clutch one, too.
The Unheralded Player: Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez was a revelation last season. After Los Angeles inexplicably let him walk, Lopez came to Milwaukee and fully transformed from post-up specialist to seven-foot spot-up shooter. Lopez hit from three at a 36.5 percent clip on 6.3 attempts per game, often the beneficiary of Giannis drives. Lopez even extended his range and regularly hitting from far beyond the line and thus giving Antetokounmpo even more room with which to work.
Lopez’s ability to shoot as a big was invaluable in Milwaukee’s offense, but he was effective when he posted up as well. He may well be the second most useful offensive player on the Bucks’ roster, and he too should see a bump in production and efficiency in his second year in the offense.
Best New Addition: Kyle Korver
We’ve talked a lot about Milwaukee’s offense, both stylistically and as a vehicle to augment Giannis’s gifts. Not many players fit this bill better than all-time great shooter Kyle Korver. Korver enters his 19th season fourth on the all-time three-pointers-made list and with a career three-point percentage of 42.9 percent. He will provide another floor spacer on the perimeter and will likely be a factor down the stretch of tight games.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Khris Middleton
After averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2017-18, Middleton regressed a tad last season. But, he still put up a line of 18.3/6.0/4.3 and was named to his first All-Star game. Middleton is the clear-cut second option to Giannis and operates as the Bucks’ secondary playmaker. Expect Middleton to bounce back and push for another All-Star bid this year.
2. Ersan Ilyasova
In his second stint with Milwaukee, Ilyasova had a quiet 2018-19. He averaged just 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but continued to be reliable from three, shooting 36.3 percent. He’s been a dependable role player and has deep ties not only with the Bucks organization, but with Mike Budenholzer, and will remain a steady and trustworthy stretch big.
3. George Hill
Hill is another player who had a down 2018-19, playing his fewest minutes since he entered the league in 2008. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50 percent to 49.3, and he shot 28 percent from three. So why is he a guy we like? Because Hill flipped a switch in the playoffs and became one of Milwaukee’s best players during their run.
In 15 games, Hill put up 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 61.9 percent and stepped in as a ball-handler when Eric Bledsoe performed his disappearing act.
Hill, like Ilyasova, is a seasoned veteran that can be counted on when the games matter. Last year was likely an aberration, and his play will level out again in 2019-20.
4. Sterling Brown
The full effect of Malcolm Brogdon’s departure has yet to be seen, but one place it will inevitably show up is in the form of opportunity for Sterling Brown. Brown played 58 games last season, starting seven and playing just under 18 minutes per game. He has a similar physical profile to Brogdon, and they have somewhat comparable per-36-minute averages. While Brown is certainly less efficient than Brogdon – who is sneakily one of the most efficient in the league – he should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind with his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball.
– Drew Mays
Milwaukee’s strengths from last season will be the same this season. They will lean heavily on Antetokounmpo and, to a much lesser extent, Middleton. They should hold their ground as a top-five team in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage offensively and defensively. Even in a stronger Eastern Conference, they will likely again push for 60 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs.
– Drew Mays
What were the Bucks’ strengths during the regular season became their weaknesses in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the four straight losses to Toronto, Giannis struggled (under his standards), and as a result, Milwaukee struggled mightily. The supporting cast was unable to pick up the slack. In a league where stars are doubling and tripling off for, the Bucks have only a fringe All-Star behind their MVP. When playoff defenses tighten up and force Giannis to shoot, can the role players do enough to get over the hump?
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Milwaukee get to The Finals after last year’s disappointing Eastern Conference Finals exit?
The 2018-19 season was filled with stretches that showed us how good Milwaukee could be. They won 60 games, had a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and looked sure to move on to face the Warriors in the championship. And then, they collapsed. No matter how well they space the floor and shoot threes, no matter how much better Giannis is, the same issues will arise.
Even with Kawhi Leonard’s departure and Kevin Durant’s redshirt year in the East, the lack of star power outside the MVP probably hurt them again. Philadelphia looks more Finals-ready than the Bucks.
Unless, of course, Giannis starts hitting threes. If he does that, all bets are off; Milwaukee could be back in The Finals for the first time since 1974.
– Drew Mays
Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?
With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.
After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off.
Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine.
This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.
Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.
Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past.
Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.
The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self.
There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.
Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.
Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan.
“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.”
Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating.
The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.
Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense
The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.
This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.
What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.
Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.
Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.
In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.
When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.
When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.
Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.
Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.
Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.
Myles Turner: Swat team captain 🚫 pic.twitter.com/As9SFTUP3g
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 17, 2021
Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”
“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”
Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.
Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.
The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.
With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.
Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.
And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.
2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?
With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?
There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.
But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like. In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.
THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME
The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.
Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school. Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.
The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight. The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.
Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.
THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON
College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.
The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses. Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game. Does he warm up hard? What is his intensity like as the game approaches? While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person. Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.
Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.
POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS
It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like. Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled – and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.
Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.
There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.
Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.