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)
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.
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)
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.
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
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.