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Prodigies: Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid

Jake Rauchbach evaluates Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid in Part Two of the Prodigies Series.

Jake Rauchbach

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As the Prodigy series continues, we break down two of the best young big men in the NBA: Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. Both players are showing signs that they could become Hall of Famers despite going through entirely different journeys to their initial NBA success.

Towns experienced an almost seamless transition from the University of Kentucky after his freshmen year to being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2015 NBA Draft. During a stellar rookie season in which Towns captured Rookie of the Year honors, Kevin Durant told the Associated Press, “He’s going to be a Hall of Famer in this league.” In his second season in the league, Towns came back even stronger by increasing his scoring, rebounding and minutes per game, all while shooting a better percentage from the field.

Unlike Towns, Embiid’s journey to his rookie season success has been burdened with injury complications. Drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Embiid has broken the navicular bone in his right foot twice, which caused him to miss what would have been his first two seasons in the league. After battling back through these complications, he is now having a huge impact on the league; so much so, that some of his contemporaries think he has the chance to be the best big man in the NBA. After the Sacramento Kings played the Sixers on December 27th, DeMarcus Cousins told SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield, “I don’t give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a great chance at being the best big in the league… after I retire.”

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Towns and Embiid:

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

21.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 47% from the field, 31% 3 from three (37 Games)

STRENGTHS

Transition Play: Towns’ exceptional ball handling skills allow the T-Wolves big to be super dynamic in the open-court. His euro-steps, spins, and change of direction moves are on full display when Towns is in transition where he averages 1.27 point per possession, scoring 75 points on 59 possessions, according to Synergy.

Isolation: Currently, Towns ranks in the 49th percentile with .85 points per possession in isolation plays, according to Synergy. However, through the first 30 games, Towns was killing it in isolation, scoring 47 points on 48 possessions, ranking him in the 73rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He has struggled in the last few games, but his struggles as of late don’t change the fact that Towns’ dynamic skill-set makes him dangerous going one-on-one.

In the T-Wolves’ offense, Towns often finds himself isolated in the high post and wing areas where he loves to face up defenders. Towns was averaging 1.43 point per possession (through 30 games) when operating out of isolation from the left side of the floor, which ranked him the fourth most efficient player in the league, according to Synergy. Towns is adept at squaring up using either pivot foot and also does a great job using ball fakes to keep his defender off balance. Many times after squaring up, Towns will stare down defenders into his jumper, gauging whether or not a shot contest is forthcoming. This ability to create his own shot allows him to also set up his drives both right and left. Minnesota’s guards also like to set Towns up in wing pick-and-rolls by refusing ball screens that the big man sets in order to kick back for isolation opportunities. Towns has freakishly good ball handling ability for a big and will create space by driving and stepping off defenders in a variety of ways. Moving forward, expect Towns’ efficiency to rebound in this area throughout the season.

Pick and Roll Action As Screener: Towns’ ability to stretch the defense with his shooting, nimbleness and ability to finish around the rim allows him to be even more effective when rolling and slipping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls. Towns ranks in the 69th percentile, averaging .99 points per possession when popping out for jump shot opportunities. Towns combines soft touch with ferocious finishes around the rim, which has him ranked in the 78th percentile in the NBA (1.38 points per possessions, according to Synergy). On slips, he ranks in the 62nd percentile, according to Synergy.

WEAKNESSES

Spot Up Shooting/Drives: Despite his great touch and solid stroke, Towns’ shot preparation, many times, leaves a lot to be desired. He has a tendency to stand straight up and does not always step into his shot. This appears to hinder his rhythm and timing for catch-and-shoot opportunities and drives to the basket off of spot up catches. On catch-and shoot-opportunities, Towns is averaging just .831 points per possession, which ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. When spotting up and driving it to the basket, he is posting .875 points per possession, ranking him in the 39th percentile, according to Synergy.

Post Play: Post play is one area where, if Towns improved, he could take his game to a dramatically higher level. Towns has scored 145 points on 179 possessions. His .87 points per possession ranks him in the 33rd percentile in the league. 56.5 percent of his low post production is generated from the left post, where he shoots 44 percent. Towns loves turning over his left shoulder to make plays from either side of the floor.

On the left block area is where Towns really struggles. On 84 possessions this season, Towns has scored just 62 points. This ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league. The only move Towns consistently employs effectively from the left post is his right hand hook, where he is averaging 1.15 points per possession (79th percentile). That being said, the big man rarely attempts drop-steps, up-and-unders, drives, or turnaround jumpers from this side of the floor.

On the right block, Towns is much better and ranks in the 53rd percentile in the league in regards to his scoring efficiency. He wants to turn over his left shoulder and likes to get to his drop step when doing so, scoring 28 points on 23 possessions, good enough for the 86th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. Despite his effectiveness off the drop-step, and the left block, Towns rarely attempts jump shots, face-ups, hooks, or drives to the basket. Diversifying his repertoire of moves down low could help generate substantial improvement moving forward.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

19.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 46% FG, 37% 3PT (25 Games)

STRENGTHS

Isolation: Embiid is a superb isolation player. This season he has scored 45 points on 43 possessions, ranking him in the 83rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He likes to work from both the right side and from the top of the key. On the right side, he is boasting a 1.2 points per possession average, putting him in the 86th percentile in the league and from the top of the key he has scored 17 points on 14 possessions (1.4 points per possession), placing him in the 99th percentile, according to Synergy. Around the perimeter, Embiid will face up and use a jab step to set up his drives to the basket. He possesses great poise off the dribble for a big and uses his extremely long, fluid steps and superior size to get by opposing bigs.  He also does a great job rocking his defender to sleep off the dribble in order to create space for his jumper. He likes to do this from the top of the key.

Pick & Roll Play: Pick-and-roll man opportunities make up 16 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types. As the screener out of pick-and-rolls, Embiid has recorded 94 points on 83 possessions, placing him in the 72nd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He is especially adept at screening and popping out, converting 65 points on 59 possessions. However, he has been deadly when he catches and shoots without a dribble, hitting 42 points on 29 possessions, good for 1.45 points per possession. This puts him in the 98th percentile of the league on these play types.

Jump Shot Opportunities: Embiid is a very good jump shooter. In the half court this season, Embiid has scored 106 points on 96 possessions (87th percentile), according to Synergy. Most of these jumpers are generated in the flow of the Sixers’ offense, others in pick-and-roll play and a smaller portion coming from isolation play. In any case, this is one area where Embiid really excels.

WEAKNESSES

Injury History: Embiid missed a large portion of his freshmen season at Kansas because of back issues. A screw was inserted into his right foot after twice breaking the navicular bone. From complications regarding his foot, Embiid ended up missing his first two seasons in the NBA. However, due in part to an extensive rehabilitation process employed by the Sixers’ medical and sports science teams, and a strict minute per game restriction this season, Embiid has looked great. Assuming he stays healthy, the sky is the limit for Embiid.

Post Ups: Post ups make up 34 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types, according to Synergy. However, for such a talented player, Embiid, like Towns, by the statistics, is only an average post up player at this point in the season. He has recorded 150 points on 173 possessions, placing him in the 45th percentile for all players in the league, according to Synergy. Additionally, 21 percent of his possessions in the post result in turnovers, with 45 percent resulting in scores. Obviously, reducing turnovers and increasing scoring efficiency will help Embiid become even more dominant than he already is.

Transition: Another area where Embiid could improve is his transition play. At times, Embiid will get out of control or try to do too much off of the dribble. He ranks in the 8th percentile in the NBA for transition efficiency, scoring just 34 points on 47 possessions, according to Synergy. Luckily for the Sixers, these plays make up only 9 percent of Embiid’s total offensive play types.

Rebounding / Attacking The Offensive Glass: Considering how athletic and long Embiid is, you might expect him to gobble up offensive rebounds. However, this season the Sixers’ big man is only averaging two offensive rebounds per game and has recorded just 33 points on 32 put back opportunities, ranking him in the league’s 39th percentile. This may be due in part to the Sixers’ limiting Embiid’s minutes to protect him from further injury.

******

In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker and the Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins.

 

All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of January 12, 2017

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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