In today’s age of information and analytics, even the casual NBA Draft aficionado knows the Plight of the Four-Year Senior.
As the thinking goes, many of these guys are already at too advanced an age for much more development at the next level. Combined with numbers often inflated by playing as 22-year-olds against teenagers, it’s easy to see where the concerns come from.
They’re regularly legitimate too, and some will tell you that standouts like Damian Lillard are the exceptions that prove the rule. This isn’t to say that college upperclassmen entering the NBA are doomed for across-the-board failure outside a few outliers like Lillard; plenty still carve valuable roles in the league. But from a purely quantitative standpoint, there’s no denying that the chances of finding a true star with several levels of NBA success still waiting to be unlocked are simply lower for seniors than blue-chip freshman or sophomores.
Context remains king, though, and it could look benevolently upon Brooklyn Nets rookie Caris LeVert.
Firstly, the whole “four-year” element doesn’t really apply to LeVert’s University of Michigan career.
“I only played, like, really two seasons of college,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do still have a lot of development left.”
A foot injury began in his sophomore season before multiple re-injuries to the same foot cut short both his junior and senior years, plus his ability to participate in the NBA Draft Combine.
Consider fellow four-year senior Frank Kaminsky, drafted a year before LeVert in 2015. LeVert actually logged more total games than Kaminsky during their respective freshman and sophomore seasons, but his injuries saw him finish with 103 games played at the NCAA level, barely two thirds of Kaminsky’s 144 appearances over the same four-year period.
The obvious part first: The injuries are concerning, independent of any other trend they may relate to. LeVert’s eventual surgery in March of his senior year chased off some scouts – foot injuries are scary for tall people, and multiple issues with the same one signals a potentially recurrent issue that could have long term implications.
At the same time, a two-year injury history in the same location is far from a death knell. Plenty of guys have survived a couple unlucky breaks (pun partially intended), even before their NBA days. The odds are just lower, and that’s why LeVert made it all the way to pick 20 instead of the lottery, where he was projected to be selected for much of his pre-draft period. Meanwhile, maybe he never quite reached the point in his developmental trajectory that many guys his age do before hitting the NBA.
His time in college wasn’t wasted, by any means. LeVert is already well ahead of many of his rookie peers from a system standpoint, this after playing in a very pro-oriented John Beilein system for his entire collegiate career.
“My offense at Michigan was very similar to the one we run here [in Brooklyn],” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do think it prepared me. We had a lot of guys that played the wing position, played [the] guard position. We had four-out, one in, kind of like we do here, so it was real similar.”
The Nets’ offense is a Kenny Atkinson creation: Connect the dots a little, and LeVert’s presence in town seems like a bit more than a coincidence. Atkinson was hired well before the 2016 draft, and he freely admits to his interest in LeVert prior to the draft process. He even called Beilein to discuss the prospect before the draft.
The Nets were (and remain) in a really tough spot asset-wise after disastrous pick-related deals from the previous administration; finding high-ceiling guys without the proper draft avenues is really tough. It’s impossible to say what Atkinson’s involvement was in a trade that brought LeVert over from Indiana, but regardless, the Nets killed two birds with that stone – upside and fit.
LeVert’s length is where his positive projections first began. He’s part of the new breed of long guards, with a 6-foot-7 height supplemented by a long 6-foot-10 wingspan. Tweeners between positions used to be viewed negatively, but today, that kind of size at his position is an asset. That’s what Atkinson saw, too.
“Really what stood out first, before the offense, was his defensive versatility and IQ,” Atkinson said. “And that’s hard for a rookie.”
The Wolverines under Beilein are known historically for mixing up their looks between hybrid zones and man coverages, but LeVert describes it slightly differently.
“Honestly, we didn’t even play zone that much,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “It was just kind of a gimmick defense, we kind of just scouted for it game-by-game. We played a lot of man-to-man.”
It’s important not to get too caught up in his use of the word “gimmick,” and here’s why: To some degree or another, and especially in the matchup-driven intensity of a playoff series, that’s what all NBA defenses are. Individual, game-by-game scouting is the way it’s done, particularly in the games that matter most. The ability of players to adapt between approaches is vital, especially for guys like LeVert who could see multiple assignments in the same game.
It’s early, but he’s already showing an advanced knowledge of timing for jumping passing lanes, a welcome sign.
LeVert moves in smooth, long strides, but with quicker reflexes than offensive players expect. His hands are quick and active, a big part of solid steal numbers at Michigan that have translated instantly to the NBA (his per-minute NBA steals actually exceed his NCAA totals, though on a smaller sample).
LeVert leads the Nets in per-minute deflections, per NBA.com, and is in the league’s top 25 among guys logging at least 500 minutes on the year.
The team impact isn’t there yet, with LeVert grading out badly in the limited defensive metrics we have available. The noise created by playing for the worst team in the league plays some role, though, and his potential is unquestionable: With a little more work on his body, something both LeVert and teammates emphasize for him, he could be just the sort of switch-heavy perimeter defender the entire league covets today.
Long term, his offensive upside is at least as great. LeVert’s size allows him advantages on this end as well, and they’re supercharged when combined with his advanced eye for the game.
“What I’m really impressed with is his pick-and-roll ability,” Atkinson said. “He can pass the ball.”
LeVert averaged nearly 10 assists per-100-possessions in his senior year at Michigan, and his figures in the NBA so far have been good despite limited usage. The percentage of his passes that result in assists or positive results for his team trails only Jeremy Lin among Nets players, per SportVU data. He uses that height to make passes smaller guys probably aren’t trying.
That size is likely the reason he was so effective in college at finding the roll man – easily his greatest strength in pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports data provided to Basketball Insiders. He’s carried that through to the NBA, with even greater passing efficiency figures (on an admittedly small sample): His roll men are finishing plays in the 88th efficiency percentile for the year, and he hasn’t turned the ball over a single time while finding his rim-runners this season. The spot-up shooters he’s found with pass-outs from the pick-and-roll are posting a gaudy effective field-goal percentage of 74.
A couple inches of height means more than you’d think, especially for a high-level thinker. His indicators here could improve even more when more of his teammates are NBA-level shot-makers.
Through the glare of his immense potential, though, we haven’t even gotten to LeVert’s most bankable current skill, one that’s never been more valuable in the NBA: Shooting.
Guys in high school used to call him “Baby Durant,” a nickname that’s lived on and made its way to his basketball-reference.com player page. LeVert was in the NCAA’s 99th percentile for spot-up shooting as a senior, per Synergy data, and crossed the 40 percent barrier from the college three-point line from his sophomore season onward. There’s a sample of 300-plus shots strongly suggesting he’s a knockdown shooter, and that combined with great form makes shaky early returns as a spot-up man in the NBA less concerning.
“Getting more comfortable with the NBA line,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders, when asked what his next step was as a shooter. “I think this summer will be big for me.”
In the meantime, he’s been flashing some other positives as well. He was one of the NCAA’s most efficient transition scorers, per Synergy data, a skill that’s immediately translated to Atkinson’s run-and-gun style. He’s showing strong initial returns as an isolation player, a role he wasn’t expected to play much coming out of Michigan. His stunningly deceptive jab-fake first step is a major asset both there and in pick-and-roll, and will mean even more when his spot-ups start falling and guys start closing out harder on him.
All this potential looks tantalizing for the 20th pick, regardless of his age, but it could come crashing down in a hurry if the injury bug rears its head again. An injury and subsequent re-injury to one area can be overcome; a third major issue anytime in the next few years will be a lot tougher, whether or not it’s anywhere near his foot. LeVert is focused on putting himself in the best position to avoid that, and it all starts with body work and strength.
“That’s an everyday thing,” LeVert said. “I think we lift, like, every day here.”
With little pressure elsewhere in Brooklyn, that’s the name of the game now. LeVert is one of the few true young rays of hope for the Nets, and keeping him on the court is vital.
He’s still going “a million miles an hour right now,” as Atkinson puts it, and that’s more than okay – Atkinson appreciates the hustle on nights when that sort of thing is tough to find for an 11-win cellar dweller.
“He tends to rush, like a lot of young players do,” Atkinson said. “I think when the game slows down and he gets more experience, he’s going to be a heck of a player in this league.”
Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA
David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.
Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.
But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.
“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”
Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.
He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.
VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.
Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.
“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”
VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.
Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.
“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”
The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.
Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.
“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”
NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard
On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.
Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.
In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.
Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.
Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.
Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.
Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.
For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.
“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”
Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.
Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.
Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.
“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”
After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.
During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.
Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.
For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.
“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”
New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.
On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.
After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.
Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.
“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game, more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.
“I know it’s coming,” he said.
When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.
“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.