All great teams have a player who has the ability to take over a game when need be. Mono e Mono, no screen, nothing. Just you and him. Whenever the Lakers were in a tight game with 10 seconds to play, everyone knew it was Mamba time. When the Bulls played the infamous game 6 in Utah, we all knew Jordan was getting the rock. Nowadays, names like Melo, Kyrie and Harden are the classic “go get me a bucket” guys. My question is, are they the best at it? Using NBA.com data from the last two years, I decided to calculate who the best ISO scorers in the league are. The 3 main stats in my algorithm are scoring frequency, turnover frequency, and effective field goal percentage. I weighed this past season more heavily than I did the current one, since some player’s stats haven’t normalized yet and regression is bound to hit. To be eligible for the list, the players must take an average of 1.5 ISO/game both years.
Tyreke Evans- The former rookie of the year has seen his career quickly deteriorate. He was merely a salary match in the Boogie Cousins trade. This year however, he has the highest ISO eFG% among players with 1.5 ISO/game. He is averaging career highs in points/36 minutes, FG% and 3PT%. His poor ISO season last year took him off the list, but if he keeps this production up, he could find himself with a revitalized career in Memphis.
Victor Oladipo- Other than Evans, Oladipo has been the best isolation player in basketball this year. He has shown flashes of being a #2 pick with the trade back to the state of his alma mater. He is shooting 45% from 3 this season and has not turned the ball over once in 32 ISO’s. Similarly to Evans, last season’s performance made him ineligible.
James Harden-Harden was outside the top 10 mainly due to a poor 2016-2017. He turned the ball over at an extremely high clip, and only shot 37% on ISO’s. This year he has been much better in all facets, but I need to see more for him to make the cut.
10. Damian Lillard
9. Harrison Barnes
8. Marcus Morris- Last year, Morris took .7 more per game ISO shots than he does in Boston, a product of Brad Stevens. Of all players last year to attempt 2 ISO shots/game, he scored more frequently than anyone.
7. Jeff Teague-Although not the best finisher, his pull up 3 pointer is boosting his EFG%, making him a viable option for this list. For a thin point guard, he drew fouls on 17.5% of his ISO’s last year, 6th best in the league.
6. Isaiah Thomas- I think we need to temper the expectations for Thomas this season. His injury is a serious red flag. Some reports out of Boston said he has a chronic hip, and with all the Kyrie trade drama I don’t think that is a blasphemous belief. Last year he was arguably the most exciting player in the league, though. Of all players to take 1.5 ISO/game, he got to the line on these attempts at the second highest clip in the league behind Dame Lillard and scored 2nd most frequently.
5. Austin Rivers- “OHHHH, OHHHH, UNBELIEVABLE!!” We have all seen the epic Austin Rivers buzzer beater against UNC where Dicky V delivered the call of the year. Turns out, he is superb at that exact kind of shot. Rivers has been sensational in isolation plays this season, not committing a turnover in 44 isolation plays with an excellent eFG% of 57. He has scored on ISO’s at higher rates than LeBron, James Harden, and Kyrie this year. His game surely has its flaws, but his isolation skills are among the game’s elites.
4. LeBron James-LeBron is no doubt one of the guys you don’t want to see in an ISO situation. His strength is overpowering for most defenders, and he can pull up from 3 if necessary. Among all players with at least 2 ISO shots/game this year, he has the highest eFG%. Nobody can guard him 1-on-1.
3. Chris Paul-This is why I am one of CP3’s biggest fans. We know about his defense, playmaking skills, and leadership. But people don’t realize how lethal of a scorer he can be. If he took as many shots as Russell Westbrook, he would average 25 points/game. Last year, he had the 2nd highest eFG% on ISO’s and turned the ball over at the smallest rate in the league (3.3%). So does D’Antoni give him, or James Harden the ball in the final possession? It is a good problem to have for the Rockets.
2. Kevin Durant-KD is the best scorer in the league. His length, combined with his jump shot makes him a Giannis-Curry hybrid. Durant is scoring on ISO’s more frequently than anyone and gets to the line with ease in such situations. He has the length to shoot a Kobe-esque fadeaway but the speed to take his defender to the hole.
1. Kyrie Irving-This should come as a surprise to nobody. With the league’s best handle (of all time?), Kyrie was by far my highest graded ISO player in the league. He never turns the ball over, and owned the highest eFG% among ISO’s last year. He also averaged 1.12 PPP on ISO’s, best in the league.
I’m going to take on a bit of a bold task here: doing a quick, first impression analysis of every move made during the 2017 NBA Draft – including both picks and trades (in chronological order) – and giving a grade to each one. I’ll be doing this as the draft progresses in real time, so these scores I assign each transaction (letter grades) will be after fairly brief amounts of research; instead of being based on my previous prospect rankings and the draftees’ fits on their selecting teams.
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
The right pick according to my prospect rankings, Fultz is a gifted all-around point guard prospect. The idea of him playing alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for the years to come is scary.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
Again sticking by my prospect rankings, Ball is another tantalizing point guard prospect due to his speed and vision. The Lakers made the right call here, and they have their point guard of the future to pair with a young, budding coach and a growing roster.
Proposed Trade #1: Chicago Bulls trade Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 Pick (Justin Patton), Minnesota Timberwolves trade Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 Pick (Lauri Markkanen).
It looks like the Timberwolves are giving up a ton here to get Jimmy Butler, but the move could push them over the hump and into playoff contention. A starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng/Justin Patton is an incredibly dangerous group. These guys are going to be really, really good, and soon.
Timberwolves’ grade: A
For the Bulls, meanwhile, this is a good way to begin the rebuild. Taking the long-term view, the Bulls added 3 young, talented pieces to a roster that was devoid of that beyond Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine. Zach Lavine has star potential if he can recover from his knee injury, Markkanen should develop into at least a decent starter due to his shooting, and Dunn didn’t have a great year but is just one season removed from being a top point guard prospect – he can still defend and distribute at a high level. In the short-term, they’ll suffer; but if those five guys can mesh and the front office can add a few more pieces, this could be a strong team in a few years.
Bulls’ grade: A-
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
I’m not a huge fan of what Boston did here. Not because Tatum lacks skill as a prospect (on the contrary, he has the potential to blossom into a great scorer), but because Josh Jackson was still on the board. Jackson is less offensively polished right now than Tatum but offers much more long-term two-way potential.
Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Great pick and great value for the Suns at fourth overall. Jackson has a lot of upside as a high-motor, athletic two-way player. Pairing him with long-term prospects Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender along with established players Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and TJ Warren gives this team the potential to be really good in the future.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
I’m not as high on Fox as some other analysts, but that doesn’t mean I think he can’t play. He’s incredibly fast and has a massive upside if he can develop a jump shot. The Kings needed a long-term point guard, so I think this pick could end up paying dividends for them. I’d rather have Ntilikina or Smith, but Fox will also be a very good player.
Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
A great pick for the Magic, Isaac was ranked 5th on my prospect rankings and offers a lot of upside at 6’11” with the skill-set of a guard. He should fit very well going forward in the Magic’s lineup, as starting him at the 3 will allow them to play Aaron Gordon at his natural power forward spot.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (due to Proposed Trade #1)
This seems like a reach to me. In my eyes, Markkanen is not a Top 10 prospect this year as he’s very one-dimensional. He’s a great shooter, which gives him a high floor, but a higher upside big man with a jumper would’ve been Zach Collins.
Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks
I’m so rarely happy as a Knicks fan, so let me have this win. Ntilikina is exactly what they need – a stable ball-handler that can distribute the ball and shoot. I had Dennis Smith ranked higher in my rankings, but Ntilikina is a better fit for a team in such disarray.
Dennis Smith, Dallas Mavericks
Great pick. By my prospect rankings (Smith is 6th) this is a steal. Smith has a massive upside due to his incredible athleticism. He should fit next to Yogi Ferrell, Wesley Matthews, or Seth Curry in the Mavs’ backcourt.
This was a good deal for the Trail Blazers, but not a great one. They possessed many picks in this year’s draft so they could afford to move up and snag a top prospect in Collins. The Gonzaga big was a fairly safe choice with a huge ceiling, so giving up picks to acquire him is understandable. However, through no fault of their own, one of the picks they gave away was used to select a player that is arguably a better prospect (health permitting) than Collins in Harry Giles. That being said, Collins should fit great next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Trail Blazers’ grade: B+
Meanwhile, the Kings pulled off an absolute winner here. They not only were able to acquire Giles, an absolute prize, at a later point in the draft (meaning they’ll be able to give him a cheaper contract), but they picked up Justin Jackson (a possible future starter) along the way to go with the already-selected De’Aaron Fox. Wow. What a haul.
Kings’ grade: A+
Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers (due to Proposed Trade #2)
A good pick for the Blazers. Collins offers a lot of upside as a rim-protecting, shooting, and post player. He’s less of a risk than Harry Giles here, which makes sense for a Portland team trying to contend for the playoffs now.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets
A great value at 11th overall, Monk is a great scorer and a spectacular athlete. He and Kemba Walker can form a special backcourt in the near future, as both can flat-out put the ball in the hoop.
Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons
A reach. I think he could thrive as a role player due to his incredible shooting, but he’s far too one-dimensional for my taste. He might do well playing behind Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope because he won’t be asked to do too much besides shoot, but Detroit could have selected other more complete prospects.
This is a great deal for the Jazz, who were able to clear out a crowded frontcourt and replace it with a top guard prospect. Mitchell is a great athlete and will more than make up for the loss of Lyles. Trading the 24th overall pick was a debatable move, but given who was taken, if I were a Jazz fan I’d be happy that I had Mitchell rather than another rotation-level forward.
Jazz’s grade: A
For the Nuggets, though, I don’t quite see how this trade made sense. They have so many young assets already and adding two more players that will barely see the court (due to such a full rotation) doesn’t seem like the desirable option as compared to selecting Donovan Mitchell.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (due to Proposed Trade #3)
Utah already has a very good team, and adding Mitchell to that equation is only going to make it even better. He’s an extremely athletic guard that should thrive as a defensive presence in their backcourt, a scary idea for a team that sports Rudy Gobert around the rim.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
I don’t like this pick for the Heat. Bam was ranked several spots lower on my prospect rankings, and he’s not a good fit next to Hassan Whiteside. There were several other big man options that wouldn’t clog Whiteside’s paint as much, such as TJ Leaf, John Collins, or even Harry Giles.
Justin Jackson, Sacramento Kings (due to Proposed Trade #2)
I like Jackson as a prospect, but this seems like a bit of a reach here. However, he’s a shooter with good athleticism, which is a good fit next to newly-picked De’Aaron Fox (a great perimeter defender who can make up for Jackson’s shortcomings).
Justin Patton, Minnesota Timberwolves (due to Proposed Trade #1)
Similarly to Jackson, this seems like a bit of a reach, especially with Harry Giles and OG Anunoby still on the board. However, he plays a different game than Gorgui Dieng (Patton is more of an athletic rim-runner that can stretch the floor) and can give the new-look Timberwolves good depth when Dieng and/or Towns sit.
D.J. Wilson, Milwaukee Bucks
He may be a slight reach given who is still available, but Wilson fits the identity of this Bucks team: long and athletic with a very high upside. Wilson’s range could also give the Bucks another way to space the floor, as stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker both aren’t known for their jumpers.
T.J. Leaf, Indiana Pacers
A good pick at 18th overall. Leaf has the potential to be an offensive superstar and can be a great fit next to Myles Turner (who can make up for Leaf’s defense). The only thing holding this back from being an even higher grade is that Harry Giles is still on the board.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
A very good pick for the Hawks, who will need Collins’ strong rebounding now that Dwight Howard has been traded. Collins also has a decent jump shot and is an impressive athlete – and of course, he put up incredible numbers last year at Wake Forest. Of course, though, Harry Giles is still available.
Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings (due to Proposed Trade #2)
A great, high-upside pick for the Kings. Giles, of course, has had a great deal of knee problems that robbed him of significant production last year. However, when healthy, there are few prospects that possess his talent. The Kings can also afford to take a risk here after already selecting Fox and Jackson. Great pick.
Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder
A very good pick for the Thunder, as Ferguson can be a great change of pace from Andre Roberson – a spectacular defender who can’t shoot. Meanwhile, Roberson can help mentor Ferguson on how to use his incredible athleticism to become a lockdown defender. Ferguson might have growing pains, but this is a great spot to take a chance on a guy with great upside.
Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
A good value pick here, Allen can go a long way toward replacing Brook Lopez. While he doesn’t have the offensive capabilities of Lopez, he can develop into a great rim protecting presence should do decently on offense as he develops with D’Angelo Russell passing him the ball.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
The only reason that Anunoby fell this far was concerns over his knee; but if that can heal properly, the Raptors have got themselves a massive steal. Anunoby is a lockdown defender with great physical tools, and he’s shown the ability to shoot from deep as well. Anunoby can develop into a top two-way player in the league – but again, that’s all dependent on his knee.
Tyler Lydon, Denver Nuggets (due to Proposed Trade #3)
This pick doesn’t really make sense to me. The Nuggets already had a crowded frontcourt with bigs and wings that can shoot before adding Trey Lyles, so adding another guy that fits such a similar mold seems repetitive. Where he’ll even fit in the rotation remains to be seen, and I had him much lower on my prospect rankings than where he was selected. I love the Nuggets’ young, talented roster, but unless they plan to trade Lydon, I don’t see how picking him here was beneficial.
Andzejs Pasecniks, Orlando Magic (Update: Now Philadelphia 76ers, due to Proposed Trade #5)
I like Pasecniks, but this seems like a little bit of reach based on my prospect rankings. That being said, there weren’t many available true bigs ahead of him left besides Ike Anigbogu, so I understand the pick if that’s the only direction the Magic wanted to go in. Pasecniks should develop into a solid rotation player or even a starter due to his height, athleticism, and ability to shoot.
Caleb Swanigan, Portland Trail Blazers
This draft spot matches exactly where I had Swanigan on my prospect rankings. The guy can flat out rebound, and he’s incredibly strong. The ability to shoot from deep, which he showed off last year, makes him an extremely valuable commodity in today’s league. He should be a good complement to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
Kyle Kuzma, Brooklyn Nets
I’m not a fan of this pick. I didn’t rank Kuzma in my Top 50, and I still believe that there are many small forward prospects that Brooklyn would have been better off taking. While I may have underestimated Kuzma, he didn’t deserve to go this high.
Proposed Trade #4: Utah Jazz trade No. 30 (Josh Hart) and No. 42 Picks (Thomas Bryant), Los Angeles Lakers trade No. 28 Pick (Tony Bradley).
The Jazz clearly like their rebounding, so for them, obtaining Tony Bradley was a priority. They have plenty of depth already as well so they could afford to give up an extra pick. In theory, this deal should make their frontcourt even more intimidating.
Jazz’s grade: B+
The Lakers, on the other hand, are looking to acquire as many young pieces as possible, and Hart and Bryant both have the potential to turn into solid role players. A smart move by the rebuilding franchise.
This seems like a good long term move for the Magic, as Pasecniks probably wouldn’t have gotten much time behind Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo.
Magic’s grade: B+
The 76ers, meanwhile, have finally started trading their picks instead of trading for others. Pasecniks will join a young, growing, and dangerous core and will have a legitimate chance to contribute. If he can use his physical tools to develop, he’ll be another talented player as part of the Philadelphia team that will take the world by storm in the next few years. Hopefully for Philly, by 2020, their picks will be toward the end of their respective rounds instead of towards the beginning.
76ers’ grade: B+
Tony Bradley, Utah Jazz (due to Proposed Trade #4)
Bradley is a decent overall prospect that can serve a role in the NBA due to his offensive rebounding skills. He might not be more than a role player, but that’s okay when you’re playing behind the Stifle Tower.
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
I have White ranked fairly low on my prospect rankings, in part due to his age (22); however, I was impressed watching his film. He has a good jump shot and can distribute the ball well. Of course, he’s now going to the Spurs – meaning he’ll probably be a great value pick and become a productive NBA player.
Josh Hart, Los Angeles Lakers (due to Proposed Trade #4)
Hart was a great college player at Villanova, and he does a lot of things very well without being elite at one particular thing. He was a little lower than this on my prospect rankings, but he’ll have a chance to develop on a young Lakers team.
Frank Jackson, Charlotte Hornets (Update: Now New Orleans Pelicans due to Proposed Trade #6)
A good value pick here, Jackson is athletic and possesses a good jumper. He’ll likely play behind Malik Monk and Kemba, but he could be a useful role player and backup point guard on a talented Hornets team.
Proposed Trade #6: Charlotte Hornets trade No. 31 Pick (Frank Jackson), New Orleans Pelicans trade No. 40 Pick (Dwayne Bacon) and Cash.
Unfortunately, the amount of cash being handed over here is unknown at this time, so it’s impossible to give a complete grade for either team. However, both players have the potential to be solid role players in the league. Jackson most likely will be the better player, but that’s to be expected due to the draft slots that are being traded. Overall, the total benefit of the cash will determine exactly who comes out ahead here, but I would give the benefit of the doubt to the Pelicans.
Davon Reed, Phoenix Suns
I didn’t rank Reed in my Top 50 Prospects or in my sleepers to watch for, so I believe there were much better options on the board for the Suns.
Wesley Iwundu, Orlando Magic
I did not have Iwundu in either of my lists either, but Iwundu does have a good jumper and a large wingspan. He could pan out, but there were better options on the board.
Frank Mason, Sacramento Kings
Possibly selected to be De’Aaron Fox’s backup, Mason is an incredibly accomplished college player with a great shot. I don’t have him ranked this high in my prospect rankings, but I agree with Jay Bilas’ sentiments; he’s too tough to fail in the league.
It remains to be seen how valuable that future pick will become, but I would swing this trade in favor of the Grizzlies because Rabb is as solid a 2nd round selection as they come; it’s unlikely that the Magic will be able to match his value with a future 2nd rounder.
Ivan Rabb, Memphis Grizzlies
A lot of people forgot about Rabb, but I like the value here. He’s a tough rebounder with a lot of talent and decent touch on his jump shot. It wasn’t long ago he was in first-round consideration – he can surprise some people.
Jonah Bolden, Philadelphia 76ers
These 76ers know how to draft. Bolden is a high-upside prospect; he’s extremely athletic and has a great jump shot. He’ll be able to grow with their young core, and could be a good contributor to a good team.
Semi Ojeleye, Boston Celtics
A great pick for the Celtics, Ojeleye is a physical specimen with a great deal of athleticism that can shoot the ball really well. He can grow on this stacked team and become a valuable contributor off the bench.
Jordan Bell, Chicago Bulls
A third great pick in a row. Bell is a defensive superstar with great athleticism and a high motor. Anyone that plays as hard as this guy has a shot to be really good, a la Draymond Green.
Jawun Evans, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers can do no wrong. Evans is a great offensive threat, as he can drive, handle, and dish at an extremely high level. He’s only 6’1” – but as a Michigan fan, I was rarely as impressed when facing an opposing point guard (because Derrick Walton Jr. would often shut them down) than I was in the Michigan/Ok. St. matchup.
Dwayne Bacon, Charlotte Hornets (due to Proposed Trade #6)
I listed Bacon under my sleepers section; the guy can put the ball in the hoop really nicely. His deep shot isn’t great, but his decent free throw shooting percentage suggests he can improve. If he can also distribute and rebound better in the future, he can stick around as a role player.
Tyler Dorsey, Atlanta Hawks
Dorsey is a great scorer who stepped up on the biggest stage in March, showing off his great 3-point stroke. He bears some similarities to Tim Hardaway Jr. as a scorer so Hardaway can function as his mentor while Dorsey backs him up.
Thomas Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (due to Proposed Trade #4)
Bryant is a very rebounder who can step out on the perimeter and make a 3 every now and then, a valuable skill for a modern big to have. He has a massive wingspan, so defensively he could have the potential to grow as a rim protector as well.
Isaiah Hartenstein, Houston Rockets
A great selection by the Rockets. Hartenstein could fit very well in the modern NBA, as a smooth, athletic big with the ability to shoot. As Fran Fraschilla stated, he has a lot of talent – if he stayed in the draft for one more year, he might have been a lottery pick. This is a good find.
Damyean Dotson, New York Knicks
Another great pick for the Knicks? What? I know, it’s unsettling, but Dotson is a great shooter and an underrated athlete. Even if Phil Jackson is insistent on running the triangle. Dotson will do very well in the system due to his ability to not only catch and shoot, but also pull up off the dribble.
Dillon Brooks, Houston Rockets
A college superstar, Brooks was long considered the best player on the Oregon Ducks before Tyler Dorsey had a superhuman March. Brooks has succeeded at every level he’s played at, and despite his relatively small height and wingspan, he could potentially develop into a good bench player.
Sterling Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Brown was another great college player; but in part due to his age, he’s not the same level prospect as Brooks. However, he has a very nice jump shot and ability to both rebound and pass. He’s got a shot to be a decent player.
Proposed Trade #8: Chicago Bulls trade No. 38 Pick (Jordan Bell), Golden State Warriors trade Financial Considerations
This is a coup for Golden State. I’m not an expert on the Bulls’ finances, but to trade a guy with Bell’s talent for what’s most likely a small amount of financial benefit seems silly. The Warriors just gained another incredible defensive threat (whose motor I compared to Draymond Green’s not 15 minutes ago). It’s just not fair.
Ike Anigbogu, Indiana Pacers
Finally. Anigbogu was drafted far after where I had him in my prospect rankings. He’s extremely raw, but he possesses great athleticism and has the innate ability to block shots (in part due to his ridiculous wingspan). Apparently, his medical reports were concerning, which is why he slid in the draft – but if he’s healthy, he can be a great rim protector.
Sindarius Thornwell, Milwaukee Bucks
Thornwell was a college superstar who has the potential to be a great defender along with a decent scorer at the next level. He’s displayed that he can rebound and shoot from deep as well. Overall, he likely only went this low because of (again) his age. He has the potential to be a very good player.
Vlatko Cancar, Denver Nuggets
Cancar is mainly known as a wing shooter with decent length for the small forward position (a 6’11” wingspan). He’ll likely be a draft-and-stash player, which makes sense for a team with as crowded a rotation as the Nuggets do.
Mathias Lessort, Philadelphia 76ers
A solid athletic player with a high motor. Similarly to Cancar, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a draft-and-stash player, as the 76ers have made a great deal of picks tonight and playing overseas would give Lessort an opportunity to grow.
Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets
A fantastic pick. Morris is a spectacular distributor who never turns the ball over and also possesses a pretty good jump shot. I ranked him 35th in my prospect rankings; and while he may not get a chance in Denver (I’m a broken record – crowded rotation) to show off what he can do, he’s definitely an NBA point guard.
Edmond Sumner, New Orleans Pelicans
A solid pick for the Pelicans. Sumner is a good scorer and distributor who has been dragged down by injuries. If he can stay healthy, he has the chance to make a mark in the NBA.
Kadeem Allen, Boston Celtics
I’m not sure I love this pick. Allen is old for an NBA prospect at 24, and his numbers were solid across the board but nothing special (10-4-3). I have trouble believing that he has a lot more improvement left in him.
This seems like a wash to me. Brooks has a chance to be a decent player, but he’s pretty average as far as second round picks go. The future second rounder should more or less be a fair value for him. However, the Grizzlies do have to be a little careful here, as this is the second future second rounder that they’ve traded tonight.
Alec Peters, Phoenix Suns
A great pick. Peters is a great shooter and rebounder and should be able to thrive as a small-ball 4 at the next level. I had him higher on my top prospects rankings, and I think he has the potential to make an impact for this young Suns team.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Utah Jazz
Williams-Goss did a little bit of everything at Gonzaga – scoring, dishing, and rebounding. If he can improve his shot from deep, he could be able to crack an NBA rotation.
Jabari Bird, Boston Celtics
Bird was a solid scorer at California as well as a good rebounder for a 2-guard. I doubt he cracks the Celtics’ stacked rotation, but he has a shot to play in the league one day if he maximizes his potential.
Aleksandar Vezenkov, Brooklyn Nets
Vezenkov is known mainly for his shooting, but he’s not particularly athletic or strong. I doubt he ever plays in the league.
Ognjen Jaramaz, New York Knicks
Another tall point guard picked by the Knicks, Jaramaz will likely be a draft-and-stash player. Again, it’s unlikely he makes any impact in the league.
Jaron Blossomgame, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs do it again, my gosh. Blossomgame is a very good athlete with strong physical tools. Because they’re the Spurs, they’re probably going to fully extract his defensive potential and turn him into a productive NBA player.
I like what the Pacers did here, acquiring a guy with more talent than his draft position would suggest, but it’s unlikely that Sumner will make any true impact in the near future. That being said, I still don’t believe that the Pelicans should have traded him for what is likely light financial support. Sumner does have legitimate potential, even if he might not reach it.
Alpha Kaba, Atlanta Hawks
Kaba is physically gifted, having measured a 7’5” wingspan at Eurocamp in 2015, and he had a good season rebounding overseas. However, like most Mr. Irrelevants, it’s unlikely that he ever makes an impact in the league. But hey, you never know.
Data courtesy of ESPN, Basketball Reference, NCAA.com, and NBA.com. Thanks for reading!
As the name would suggest, March Madness is the most chaotic event in sports. Whether it be Kris Jenkins’ game-winning, buzzer-beating shot in the National Championship game or Middle Tennessee’s shocking win in the opening round over Michigan State, the month of March (for college basketball at least) is simply filled with madness. Nothing that happened during the regular season matters anymore, as the only thing that counts, is that you are in the tournament right now. Although March Madness seems like it is just a flurry of luck, momentum, and chance (which to a great extent it is), taking a structured, statistical based approach to evaluating match-ups will allow March to make much more sense. Additionally, filling out your brackets in this statistical-backed approach will dramatically increase your odds of winning your pool, so read these helpful tips to feel a little less “mad” this March when your brackets aren’t busted after Day 1.
Look for these characteristics when picking teams to go far:
Good on both ends of the court
Both offensively and defensively efficient
Have one “unstoppable” aspect
Ex: West Virginia’s press or UCLA’s shooting
Make the most out of their possessions
High Floor % (% of possessions ended with points)
Don’t turn the ball over
Low turnover %
Unexpected Teams Poised To Make Big Runs: Southern Methodist (SMU), Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa State
Southern Methodist: Winners of 15 straight and 24 of their last 25, SMU comes into the tournament as possibly the hottest team in the field. Although they pack one of the least deep rosters in the country, SMU’s athletic starting 5 more than make up for that through their ability to score and rebound. SMU has great shooting ability, especially from deep, as they shoot 40.6% from beyond the arc, which is the 5th best mark in Division I. Their shooting ability from deep, paired with big men who grab an offensive rebound on 36.8% of their shots (6th in the country), makes a combo that will be awfully hard to stop. Additionally, SMU plays at the 4th slowest pace in the country, averaging only 65.2 possessions per game, which allows for great volatility in the outcomes of their games. Pair this with their efficient play on both sides of the ball (6th in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency), and you have a team that could readily take down major contenders such as Baylor, Duke, and Villanova, Florida, or Virginia. On top of that, advanced metrics show that SMU is very underrated as a 6 seed, as they are ranked #11 by Kenpom, which is ahead of every team in their region besides Villanova, Florida, and Virginia.
Michigan: Coming off upset wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Purdue to win the Big 10 championship, Michigan is riding a huge wave of momentum that should carry over into the tournament. After a rough start to the season, Michigan has turned it around as of recently, and this version of the Michigan basketball team is a force to be reckoned with. With a defense that is just alright, even below average by advanced metrics such as defensive efficiency, Michigan’s offense is what has carried them so far. Michigan possesses a lethal combo of slow pace and efficiency, which allows them to capitalize on the few possessions that they have. Averaging just 65.5 possessions per game, Michigan has the 5th slowest pace in all of college basketball, which (just like SMU) gives greater volatility in the outcome of their games. As mentioned above, Michigan’s offense is quite effective and efficient as well, as they are 6th in offensive efficiency and 8th in effective field goal %. Michigan’s patient, efficient style of play, along with their great ability to hold onto the ball (6th lowest turnover %), is quite taxing on opposing defenses, which has led to diminished offensive production for opponents as well. If Michigan can defend the deep ball better than they have recently, don’t be surprised if you see them take down powerhouses such as Louisville, Oregon, and Kansas, Iowa State, or Purdue.
Notre Dame: Unlike SMU or Michigan, Notre Dame does not come into the tournament red-hot, as they have only won 8 of their last 12 and are fresh off a devastating loss to Duke in the ACC Championship game. Notre Dame boasts a potent offense, the 15th most efficient in the country, that is extremely hard to stop when Bonzie Colson is at his best. Unfortunately for everyone else in the tournament, Colson has been doing exactly that as of recently; in his past 10 games, he has scored at least 20 points in all but 2 of them and has posted 5 double-doubles over that span as well. On top of that, Notre Dame shoots 38.6% from behind the arc (32nd in the country), but more importantly, their 4 main players (Colson, Vasturia, Beachum, Farrell) all are legitimate 3-point shooting threats, as they all shoot at least 36.1% from deep. One of Notre Dame’s most lethal qualities is that they are not going to beat themselves up; Notre Dame shoots 79.9% from the free-throw line and commit turnovers on only 13.6% of possessions, both of which are tops in the country. On top of that, Notre Dame’s match-ups after the first round (likely West Virginia then Gonzaga) are good fits for them. West Virginia’s full-court press was rendered useless against other teams that didn’t turn the ball over (Iowa State), and that should be no different against Notre Dame. Against Gonzaga, Beachum and Vasturia should be able to handle Karnowski, and Colson will give him plenty of trouble on the defensive end. In conclusion, Notre Dame has an experienced, disciplined roster that matches up well with potential opponents and should last well into March.
Iowa State: Although they are not quite as hot as Michigan or SMU, Iowa State has also been on a tear recently, coming fresh off a win over ‘Press Virginia’ to win the Big 12 Championship. In most regards, Iowa State is a very similar team to Notre Dame; both are offensively oriented, live off of the deep ball, hardly turn the ball over, and sport experienced rosters. Iowa State thrives off of how they shoot from beyond the arc, as they shoot 24.8 of them per game, which is the 36th most in the country. Fortunately for Iowa State, they are pretty good at doing so, as they make 40.2% from beyond the arc, which is the 11th best mark in the country, and average 10 made 3-pointers per game, which comes out to 8th. Iowa State’s stay in the tournament will be completely dependent on how they shoot the 3 ball. With that being said, Iowa State does have a number of other attractive characteristics as well. Iowa State’s potent offense, which averages 80.9 points per game (24th in the country), is also among the most efficient, as they rank 25th in offensive efficiency. Iowa State can also handle the ball well, as they turn the ball over on only 13.8% of possessions, which is the 2nd lowest rate in the country. Good match-ups against Purdue (big roster is to slow to keep up with quick Iowa State guards) and Kansas (who Iowa State has beaten in Lawrence), as well as an experienced starting roster, made up of 4 seniors, give Iowa State the potential to make a huge run in the tourney this year.
Characteristics of teams that pull off upsets:
Forces lots of turnovers
High opponent turnover %
Strong offensive rebounding
High offensive rebounding %
Good all-around shooting
High effective shooting %
Low number of possessions per game
Very strong offensively or defensively
Either offensively of defensively efficient
Sleepers: St. Mary’s, UNC Wilmington, Princeton, Vermont
St. Mary’s: After losing to Gonzaga for the 3rd time in the West Coast Conference championship, St. Mary’s dropped off of almost everyone’s radar, but advanced metrics show us that is not a wise move. St. Mary’s is ranked #14 on Kenpom and are actually 6 spots ahead of Arizona (#20), meaning that advanced metrics favor St. Mary’s over Arizona in a potential Round of 32 match-up. St. Mary’s only averages 62 possessions per game, which is the slowest pace in the country, and as we talked about earlier, this low number of possessions allows for greater volatility, thus dramatically increasing the chances of an upset. St. Mary’s also has one of the most potent, efficient offenses in the country, as they rank 3rd in offensive efficiency and rebound 31.8% of their own shots (51st in the country). St. Mary’s also is a very good shooting team, as they have an effective field goal percentage of 57.9%, which ranks 5th in the country, and shoot 39.9% from beyond the arc, which ranks 14th. On top of that, St. Mary’s has a very stingy defense that only gives up 56.5 points per game and ranks 10th in defensive efficiency, and commits the 3rd least fouls per game in the country. This lethal combo of an slow, efficient offense that has elite shooting paired with a stingy and efficient defense has upset spelled all over it.
UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks return a number of their starters that gave Duke quite the scare last year where they took them down to the very end last year, nearly pulling off a highly improbable upset. This alone justifies UNC Wilmington as a very legitimate upset contender, they also have a number of other credentials that make them a quality upset pick for this year’s tournament. Although their defense can at best be described as average, their offense more than makes up for this lack of star power on the defensive end. UNC Wilmington has one of the most potent offenses in the country that exhibits lots of variety, which makes them particularly hard to stop. The Seahawks’ offense is quite efficient, as the rank 5th in offensive efficiency, just behind the likes of UCLA, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and Villanova, all of whom are considered quite legitimate threats in the tournament. UNC Wilmington’s ability to shoot from deep (they make 9.5 from beyond the arc per game, which is 20th in the country) makes them a serious threat to dethrone higher seeds. Their offense also has an effective field goal percentage of 55.2% (25th in the country), which showcases their elite shooting talent as well. UNC Wilmington’s high-powered, potent offense has the ability to potentially take them deep into March.
Princeton: The Tigers, fresh off an Ivy League championship, come into the tournament as possibly the hottest team, as they have won their past 19 straight and haven’t lost in almost 3 full calendar months. Princeton is quite talented on both sides of the ball, and their unique credentials give them a legitimate chance of pulling off an upset in the Round of 64 (Bonzie Colson and the Irish might think otherwise). Princeton runs one of the slowest offenses in the country, as they only average 66.2 possessions per game, which is the 11th slowest pace in Division I. As we talked about earlier, this slower pace allows for greater volatility in the outcome of their games, which essentially increases their chances of pulling off an upset. Princeton’s offense also has a number of other dynamic elements, as they can shoot quite well (46th in effective shooting %), especially from beyond the arc, where they average 9.9 3-pointers made per game (15th in country). On top of that, Princeton’s offense hardly ever turns the ball over on 14.9% of their possessions, which is the 11th lowest rate in the country. Princeton also has quite a solid defense that has given their opponents trouble so far this season. The Tigers’ defense is quite efficient (29th in defensive efficiency), which is especially important given their slow pace (meaning that they need to capitalize on all possessions since there are so few). They also force a turnover on 20.2% of opponent possessions (50th in country) and don’t foul very much either (29th least fouls per game in country), which makes them a formidable opponent. Their combination of slow pace and efficient play will make them hard to stop this March.
Vermont: If the Tigers are hot, then the Vermont Catamounts are on fire, as they are fresh off of an American East Championship and hold the longest current win streak in the country at 21 games. While Vermont is nowhere near a household team, their name might be coming up a lot more in conversation over the next couple of days if they pull off some upsets that they are potentially capable of doing (over Purdue and Iowa State). Vermont thrives off of an efficient, yet slow offense, which is a lethal combo that we have already discussed earlier (with Princeton, St. Mary’s, and Michigan) that makes their opponents susceptible to upsets. Vermont plays at a very slow pace, averaging only 66.6 possessions per game (15th slowest pace in the country) and boasts the 24th most efficient offense in Division I. Vermont is also a very talented shooting team, as they have an effective field goal percentage of 55.4%, which is 16th in the country. Additionally, Vermont ranks very high in floor percentage (which measures the percentage of possessions that end in points) as Vermont scores on 52.8%, which is 14th in the country. On top of that, Vermont has a stellar defense that is very capable of shutting down higher octane offenses they might face in potential opponents. Vermont has the 38th most efficient defense in the country, which is quite lethal when paired with their slow pace. In addition, Vermont is not gonna do the opposing team any favors, as they commit only 16.1 fouls per game, which is the 21st lowest rate in the country. Vermont’s combination of slow pace and efficient play both on offense and defense make them a legitimate upset threat.
Why the Top 8 Seeds won’t win the tournament:
Villanova: On top of not even being the favorite in their own region (Duke), Nova faces stiff potential competition against SMU, Duke, Virginia, Florida, and Wisconsin, all of whom rank well by advanced metrics. Also, Nova plays at an extremely slow pace (23rd slowest in the country at 67.2 possessions per game), which makes them vulnerable to an upset.
Kansas: Advanced metrics show that Kansas is highly overrated, coming in at 10th on the Kenpom scale, despite being a 1 seed, which highlights potential weakness. Kansas has not performed well in the tournament in year’s past, and face stiff potential competition from red-hot opponents, such as Iowa State (who beat Kansas in Lawrence), Michigan, Purdue, and Louisville.
North Carolina: Lacking backcourt depth, North Carolina lives or dies off the success of Joel Berry II, which is awfully risky for a long tournament. North Carolina has been somewhat inconsistent at times and is easily the least hot team coming into the tournament as a top seed. The potent talent on the other side of the bracket (UCLA, Kentucky, Wichita State) might also prevent North Carolina from returning to the Final 4.
Gonzaga: Despite being the top dog on the Kenpom scale, the ‘Zags have yet to play enough serious competition for them to be considered legitimate. They have played underwhelmingly bad in the tournament in years past. Elite talent and unique playing styles from West Virginia (full court press) and Notre Dame (Bonzie Colson and ability to guard Karnowski) might force the ‘Zags to change up their style and be overmatched.
Arizona: While stats don’t mean everything, advanced metrics such as Kenpom are not too high on Arizona, who sits at #20 in their rankings, even though they are a #2 seed. Additionally, they face legitimate competition from pretty early on, facing St. Mary’s (who is wildly underrated according to Kenpom), Florida State (who’s big men might be too much to handle), and Gonzaga, West Virginia, or Notre Dame.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are one of, if not the most inexperienced team in the country, which is something that will largely work to their detriment in the tourney. Additionally, Kentucky got by far the worst draw of any 2 seed, as they are lined up to play the #10 seed Wichita State (who is ranked #8 on Kenpom!) and UCLA, who easily has the most potent offense in the country.
Louisville: The Cards received one of the toughest draws in the tournament, facing either Michigan or Oklahoma State in the second round, both of whom are red-hot. Their fantastic reward for beating Michigan or Oklahoma State: playing Oregon next and then either Kansas, Iowa State, or Purdue. Also, although it hasn’t been an issue yet, Louisville is atrocious at shooting free throws (236th in the country), which might catch up to them.
Duke: Although Duke has a number of skilled big men, they lack an interior presence on the defensive end, which could come back to haunt them later in the tournament, where they might play bigger teams such as Baylor. Duke is either going to play South Carolina (stingy defense) or Marquette (best 3-point % in the country) in the second round, which is much harder than the average 7 or 10 seed they could have drawn.
Data courtesy of ESPN, CBS Sports, TeamRankings, Kenpom, and Basketball Reference. Thanks for reading!
It’s that time of year again – March Madness is beginning. For three weeks, we get the opportunity to forget about our “real world” problems and just focus on a different kind of pain: getting our brackets busted. Even though I’ll be lucky if this article makes it even a day into the tournament without being blown up into 10,000 shards of sadness, I’ll share my predictions anyway. Get ready for upset city, everyone. This is going to be a fun 63 games.
(1)Villanova vs. (16)Mt St. Mary’s/New Orleans
Sorry guys, but it’s a 1 seed against a 16 seed. Nova cruises against whoever wins the play-in.
(8)Wisconsin vs. (9)Virginia Tech
The selection committee owes a written apology to this Wisconsin team, as nobody was as grossly underseeded as they were. Virginia Tech has had a good year, but the Badgers simply overmatch them on both ends of the court. Wisconsin has a 91.3 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) rating – good for eighth in the country – which should be able to slow down the Hokies’ potent offense (79.3 ppg), along with a plethora of offensive weapons such as Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, and Nigel Hayes. These guys are really, really good. Badgers take the win.
(5)Virginia vs. (12)UNC Wilmington
UNC Wilmington is a very strong offensive team, as evidenced by their 117.8 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO) – yet unfortunately for them, they’ve been matched off against the top defensive team the country per AdjD in Virginia, who have only allowed a miniscule 55.6 ppg. Despite the 5-vs.-12 curse that seems to haunt five seeds every year, I’m a strong believer that strong defense in the tournament is a consistent winner. This could go either way, but my guess is that Virginia gets it in a close one.
(4)Florida vs. (13)East Tennessee St.
Call it a hunch. There’s no hard data to back me up here, as Florida outranks East Tennessee St. in nearly every statistical category. But a deeper look shows that even though Florida is a four seed, they lack any true quality wins except for the one against Kentucky at home (they later lost to them on the road), with their next best being home wins against Seton Hall and South Carolina. I think neutral court, with the fans able to get behind an underdog, East Tennessee St. pulls it out against an overrated Gators squad.
(6)SMU vs. (11)Providence/USC
SMU all day. I’m buying in. These guys haven’t lost since a two-point game on the road in Cincinnati (16 games ago), and before that, you have to go all the way back to November 30th for their last defeat. They are hot, to put it lightly. I know that the AAC isn’t the most competitive conference, but these guys are riding a wave of confidence at the right time.
(3)Baylor vs. (14)New Mexico St.
Sorry Baylor, but I’m taking the Aggies here. I know how good Johnathan Motley and the Bears are, but I just don’t trust them. They’re 5-6 in their last 11, and I have trouble believing in a team peaking at the wrong time. Meanwhile, this is NM State’s fifth appearance in the big dance in the last six years. Still seeking their first win in that time frame, the Aggies are hungry. Plus, there’s no way that ETSU over Florida is the only upset in this quarter. Sometimes you gotta guess and hope for the best. They don’t call it Madness for nothing.
(7)South Carolina vs. (10)Marquette
South Carolina has a really good defense (3rd in the country in AdjD) while Marquette has a really good offense (7th in AdjO). I feel like I might regret this because the Gamecocks have been cold, but I think they win. Again, my good-defense-trumps-good-offense-in-the-tourney bias is coming into play, but even more than that, as a diehard Michigan fan (I promise to only keep a little bit of bias), I witnessed South Carolina suck the life out of the Wolverines – a team fresh off beating Marquette and SMU. South Carolina is the better team here.
(2)Duke vs. (15)Troy
My only worry here is that Duke looks past the Trojans and struggles in their opening game, making it closer than it has to be. But, I mean, the Blue Devils are really, really good (shocker). I don’t foresee a massive upset.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (16)South Dakota St.
1 vs. 16. Next please.
(8)Northwestern vs. (9)Vanderbilt
I would have Northwestern winning this round regardless of the opponent. The entire school is absolutely psyched after making their first NCAA tournament appearance ever, and often the outcome of these March Madness games is decided by things beyond what numbers can see. I like the Wildcats to maintain their endless positive energy.
(5)Notre Dame vs. (12)Princeton
On one hand, I want to pick Notre Dame so badly. They have so many weapons. They can hurt you from anywhere. They have experience. But on the other hand, this is a 5 vs. 12 game and Princeton is as hot as hot gets after not losing a single game in league play. Yes, they were playing against inferior competition to what Notre Dame is, but wins are wins and confidence is confidence. Princeton is another balanced, strong sleeper pick that could bust some brackets come Thursday.
(4)West Virginia vs. (13)Bucknell
Sorry to Bucknell, but I have trouble seeing it. WVU lost last year in a heartbreaking upset at the hands of SF Austin, and I think that they’re motivated to do better this year. Plus, they’re a numbers darling per Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM). No crazy pick from me here.
(6)Maryland vs. (11)Xavier
I really, really don’t like this Maryland team for reasons I can’t explain. I think they were overseeded and I think that Melo Trimble is overrated after an outstanding freshman season. But I hate Xavier even more. No Edmund Sumner on a cold team. Yikes. Have to give Maryland the W.
(3)Florida St. vs. (14)Florida Gulf Coast
Hey, why not. I like Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon, but their late season losses are hard to ignore (4-4 in their last 8). Confidence is key in these games, and FGCU is on a hot streak with nothing to lose. No, it’s not the same team as in 2013, but these guys are legit, with four players averaging over 10 ppg. Can they recapture their magic? I think so.
(7)Saint Mary’s vs. (10)VCU
Three of Saint Mary’s four losses on the season are to Gonzaga. Take the star-studded Bulldogs out of the equation, and this is a team with one loss and a true star in Jock Landale. They take the win here against a VCU team still trying to live up to its past.
(2)Arizona vs. (15)North Dakota
I don’t think Arizona is as terrific as they are seeded (their AdjEM is only good for 20th in the country), but I also don’t think that North Dakota is a match for them. Arizona rolls in their first round game.
(1)Kansas vs. (16)NC Central/UC Davis
Kansas is not losing this game.
(8)Miami (FL) vs. (9)Michigan St.
I could easily be wrong here, as many advanced metrics, a higher seeding, and a better record would all point to the Hurricanes winning here. But you can’t put the impact of Tom Izzo into numbers. I can’t see them losing in the first round.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (12)Nevada
Iowa State has earned this win after years of tournament futility. Nevada has been a trendy upset pick for some, but the Cyclones will be able to get at least one victory off of the back of the always-trustworthy Monte Morris.Such a stabilizing force (he never turns the ball over as the primary ball-handler) is extremely valuable when trying to fend off an upset-hungry team.
(4)Purdue vs. (13)Vermont
I feel guilty picking an entire eighth of the bracket without any first round upsets, but I don’t think that Vermont has what it takes to get past twin beasts Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Similarly to the Monte Morris situation, put the ball in the hands of either one and watch them go to work – they can act as stabilizing forces against a Cinderella.
(6)Creighton vs. (11)Rhode Island
Alright let’s get to the upsets. E.C. Matthews is a stud who can lead this team past almost anybody, as the Rams currently boast wins over Cincinnati, VCU, and a close loss to Duke. They’ve won their last 8 games and can take on any challenge. Creighton, on the other hand… eh. They only boast two quality wins on the season (both against Butler), and after starting the season very strong, they are only 5-6 in their last 11. Hot vs. not; I’ll always take hot. Rhode Island gets the upset.
(3)Oregon vs. (14)Iona
The analytics don’t love Iona (118th in AdjEM), and I can’t say I have much of a reason to disagree. That being said, it’s really hard for me to pick Oregon to win this game. They haven’t beaten a top team away from home this year, and they just lost Chris Boucher to a torn ACL. That’s not a recipe for success. But, I don’t think they lose… yet. They deke out a win here, but barely.
(7)Michigan vs. (10)Oklahoma St.
This seems like a trap game for Michigan, a very trendy pick to make a run at this tournament (a trend I will be likely to follow. Beware of bias), as Oklahoma State ranks first in the country in AdjO. They’re a sneaky good team who have been prone to cold streaks (six game losing streak in the middle of the year, three games to end their season) but has some good wins, such as beating WVU on the road. Regardless, I think Michigan is simply too hot right now. Fresh off of a Big Ten championship in which Derrick Walton Jr. looked like one of the best players in the country, Michigan takes the win and continues their momentum.
(2)Louisville vs. (15)Jacksonville St.
Fun Fact: Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Jacksonville, Florida. Another Fun Fact: Louisville is almost certainly going to beat them on Friday/
(1)North Carolina vs. (16)Texas Southern
It’s another 1 vs. 16. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
(8)Arkansas vs. (9)Seton Hall
The analytics slightly lean toward Arkansas, as they rank better in AdjEM and far better in AdjO. But, on the other hand, Seton Hall ranks better in that all-important defense (38th in the country as opposed to 96th) and are on a hot streak, capping off five straight wins with only a two-point loss to number one overall Villanova. My guy tells me to go with the Pirates.
(5)Minnesota vs. (12)Middle Tennessee
Another trendy 5-12 upset pick has one of last year’s Cinderellas, the Blue Raiders, defeating the much-improved Golden Gophers. As much as I enjoy rooting for a turnaround from Rich Pitino’s squad, an upset here seems like a decent possibility. Middle Tennessee doesn’t rank far behind Minnesota in terms of AdjEM, suggesting that the supposed gap between the teams really isn’t that big. Beyond that, it’s a confidence game. Middle Tennessee has lost once in their last 21 games and are riding high right now, while Minnesota is coming off of a rough loss to Michigan on a neutral court. Middle Tennessee has got the looks of a Cinderella to me – they have my pick here.
(4)Butler vs. (13)Winthrop
Butler might be the most bipolar team in the country this year, with quality wins over Arizona, Cincinnati, and Villanova (twice), yet also losses to Indiana State, Saint John’s, and Georgetown. Could this be one of those games? I don’t think so. The Bulldogs will be too prepared to lose this one, and they have a nice history of success in March. However, next round could offer an intriguing matchup….
(6)Cincinnati vs. (11)Kansas St./Wake Forest
This one is a little complicated because of the play-in game, but in the end, I don’t think will really matter. Wake Forest is too inconsistent in my book to defeat Kansas State, so my best guess of what will happen is that Kansas St. will advance and then defeat Cincinnati, as the Wildcats have proven that they can beat top opponents and don’t rank far behind the Bearcats in the analytics department. On the other hand, if Wake Forest beats Kansas State, I think they fall to Cincy in the next round. But, no matter what, my real prediction is that it all ends up being for naught because (spoiler alert) UCLA beats whoever survives in the round of 32.
(3)UCLA vs. (14)Kent St.
Every time I see a three seed that “know” can’t lose, I whisper to myself, “Mercer, Duke. Mercer, Duke. Mercer, Duke”. But, I mean, Lonzo Ball and UCLA can’t lose this game. Right? Right?
(7)Dayton vs. (10)Wichita St.
Boy, do the analytics love Wichita State (8th in the country in AdjEM), and boy do I agree. These guys are one of the most balanced teams in the country, with not even a single player averaging 12 PPG along with a stifling defense. They can hurt you in so many different ways and with so many different players that Archie Miller will have a lot of trouble game-planning this one. I think Wichita, on a 15 game winning streak, overwhelms the Flyers and becomes a very rough matchup for Kentucky.
(2)Kentucky vs. (15)Northern Kentucky
Sorry guys, but no 15 seeds over 2 seeds or 16 seeds over 1 seeds this year. I’ve called all those games with so much confidence that you just know they’re all going to be wrong.
Round of 32:
(1)Villanova vs. (8)Wisconsin
Yikes, tough matchup for the defending champs. All the pressure is on the Wildcats, but I think they pull through here. Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and company are really, really good, and while I’m sure Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes make this very interesting in one final go-around along with sophomore Ethan Happ, Nova overwhelms the Badgers with their all-around ridiculous-ness.
(5)Virginia vs. (13)East Tennessee St.
Sorry East Tennessee, but the Cavaliers put an end to the magic with their top-ranked stifling defense. Have fun with that one Nova.
(6)SMU vs. (14)New Mexico St.
Like the last game, the supreme underdog had their fun, but it’s time for the ultra-versatile-grossly-underseeded Mustangs to make a run. SMU is ranked 11th in AdjEM and they don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They’re dangerous.
(7)South Carolina vs. (2)Duke
I really am inclined to call upset here, I really am. South Carolina looked spectacular at the start of the season, but they’ve gone cold, going 3-6 in their last 9. Duke gets the win, and if I have to guess, it probably won’t be close either.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (8)Northwestern
I want the magic to continue but the dream dies here. Gonzaga is a great basketball team with a little bit of extra motivation to prove that they’re not chokers. Northwestern obviously also has an extra push of school spirit going for them, but Gonzaga is simply fantastic all-around, ranking tops in AdjEM due to a tenth overall ranking in AdjO and a second overall ranking in AdjD. It’s going to be really tough to stop them.
(12)Princeton vs. (4)West Virginia
I feel guilty putting a 1 vs. 4 in the Sweet 16 because that literally never, ever happens but I don’t feel I have a choice. WVU is spectacular by the numbers, with their 5th-ranked AdjEM resulting in part from their 5th-ranked AdjD (and you know how I love my defense). I don’t think Princeton, despite their recent success, has the firepower to overcome such stinginess.
(6)Maryland vs. (14)Florida Gulf Coast
I hate Maryland. So I’m picking Florida Gulf Coast. Dunk City has returned. Don’t like it? Maryland is 4-6 in their last 10. FGCU is 9-1. Yes, those are crude statistics. But Maryland is too cold and not talented enough to make a run here. And more importantly, how could you root against Dunk City?
(7)Saint Mary’s vs. (2)Arizona
Time for the biggest upset pick so far. Yup, that’s right – Jock and the Gaels over the Wildcats. Arizona has lost games so far this season to Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, and UCLA. To me, that’s evidence that they are a very strong team, but when faced with a challenge they can fold. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, has lost games to UT Arlington and Gonzaga (three times). To me, that looks like a dominant team with a slip-up and an Achilles’ heel. I could be very far from right here, but hey, in March you have to make some tough calls (based on educated guesses) that seem to make little sense. This, to me, is as good a bet for an early upset of a top seed as we can get this year.
(1)Kansas vs. (9)Michigan St.
Although I believe in Izzo as a great coach who can will his team to places few others can, at some point, the reality that must be accepted is that this Spartans team simply is not that good. Sure, Miles Bridges is a star, but they have little else as a consistent supporting cast. Kansas takes this one, although I’m sure Izzo gives Bill Self a scare.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (4)Purdue
While Purdue’s twin towers have wreaked havoc all season, one of the weaknesses of the team has been defending strong guard play (see: losses to Nova, Louisville, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan twice – that’s almost every loss for Purdue on the season coming against a top guard), and Monte Morris and Naz Long are as good as guards come. Purdue bows out early this year.
(11)Rhode Island vs. (3)Oregon
And another one bites the dust. While Oregon will still be good without Boucher, his loss is going to hurt big time. Meanwhile, URI has got a star that can light it up. Rhode Island establishes itself as a Cinderella by beating a (possibly overrated?) three seed and reaching the Sweet 16.
(7)Michigan vs. (2)Louisville
While, yes, I have a lot of Michigan bias, I honestly feel that even if I was not a Michigan fan I would still pick them to win this game. Derrick Walton has been stellar not only on offense as of late but also in terms of shutting down opposing guards, and Donovan Mitchell fits the bill. If Walton continues his hot streak, Michigan simply has too many weapons playing at too high a level for Louisville, and they take the win in a rematch of the 2013 National Championship game.
(1)UNC vs. (9)Seton Hall
Yikes… this is bad… all of my 1 seeds are going to be in for the Sweet 16… this will never happen…. As reluctant as I am to move my fourth 1 seed forward, I don’t think Seton Hall can win this game. UNC is spectacular by the numbers (3rd in AdjEM) and can hurt teams with nearly any of their players. I don’t like it but the Pirates don’t have the firepower in my eyes to take these guys down.
(12)Middle Tennessee vs. (4)Butler
I actually believe that if Butler were to win this game, they could take down UNC. But hey, remember that whole bipolar basketball issue? It works both ways. While Butler may be able to take down the Tar Heels, I think that the Blue Raiders, hot as they are, pull off the upset to become the only 12 seed to make the Sweet 16 this year. Butler has been shown to be very beatable by non-elite teams, and I think that Middle Tennessee is going to be better than the typical mid-major winner.
(3)UCLA vs. (6)Cincinnati/(11)Kansas St.
Remember that whole confusion with the Cincy/Kansas St./Wake Forest mess? Yeah, it won’t matter now. UCLA is too much of an offensive powerhouse (their 3rd overall ranking in AdjO doesn’t even do them justice) to lose to any of them.
(10)Wichita St. vs. (2)Kentucky
Welcome to the best game of the round of 32: a rematch between the tightly contested, instant classic 2014 round of 32 matchup with so many storylines that it was hard to count. Sound familiar? Well, this year, Wichita State sans Baker/Van Vleet, has reinvented itself as the underdog in this edition, yet one who plays a tough, balanced brand of basketball that has been tough for any team to beat in the last several months. Meanwhile, this year Kentucky is playing up to expectations with its most recent crop of superstar freshman. In this exciting role reversal from not-too-long-ago, I’m going with the underdog once again: Wichita State. The Shockers haven’t forgotten how their perfect season was destroyed in memorable fashion, and they want revenge. Gregg Marshall’s teams can never be counted out, and his defensive attack will give the shockers a Sweet 16 berth.
(1)Villanova vs. (5)Virginia
Get ready for a shock to your system. I’m calling it here. I don’t believe in repeat champions – not in a tournament like this – and if there’s anyone that has a chance to stop the onslaught that the Nova stars put on, it’s Tony Bennett’s Cavs and their incredible defense. If you have Nova winning this game along with the next three, I wouldn’t argue – but I just don’t have that feeling that they’re special enough to finish on top again.
(6)SMU vs. (2)Duke
This is going to be a close one, but I got to go with the reliable Coach K to bring his guys to another Elite 8. SMU is actually slightly better by advanced analytics, ranking one spot ahead of Duke in AdjEM. But I just don’t feel the magic. This Duke team has so many ways to hurt you: Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen – the list goes on and on. Their talent will win out over the Mustangs.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (4)West Virginia
I’ve been talking up WVU for a while now, but Gonzaga gets the win here. The Bulldogs are just a solid, complete basketball team with no weaknesses. I can’t see a way for WVU to pull off an upset here.
(14)Florida Gulf Coast vs. (7)Saint Mary’s
As all good things do, the best Cinderellas must die off. I hope Dunk City gets another crack at the Elite 8, but similarly to the WVU/Gonzaga game, I don’t see a way for them to beat a prepared Saint Mary’s team who has lost to only two teams this year – one of them a one seed and the other a blip on the radar. FGCU definitely stands a chance, but Landale and the Gaels (they should trademark that) come through in a close one.
(1)Kansas vs. (5)Iowa St.
I feel like I’m going to regret this because of Iowa State’s past suffering in the tournament, but… Cyclone on. When Kansas and Iowa State faced off this year, both games were decided by under four points and the season series was split. These teams are about as even when they face off as even gets, and something tells me the Monte Morris will be just as great as ever once the lights get brighter. The crowd should get behind the underdog, and that could be the difference maker here. Iowa State gets it in what could be one of the best games in the tournament.
(11)Rhode Island vs. (7)Michigan
Derrick Walton keeps doing Derrick Walton things and Michigan takes this one on the back of their defense of E.C. Matthews and their multitude of ways to attack on offense. Michigan will be building even more momentum at this point, and if their shots are falling, they will be nearly impossible to stop.
(1)UNC vs. (12)Middle Tennessee
It was fun while it lasted. Sorry to the Blue Raiders, but UNC is balanced and looking to make a statement with this game while trying to build confidence with a tough matchup coming up (regardless of who makes the Elite 8 of that bottom eighth of the draw, the last team standing there will be a very good one – that section is stacked). These guys are pros who have been here before. They won’t fall into a trap game.
(3)UCLA vs. (10)Wichita St.
It pains me to pick offense over defense here, but UCLA takes this one. Wichita State had a great run against two very tough teams, but playing such good games take their toll, and UCLA will be better rested and ready to play their up-tempo, shoot-at-will style of offense that few this year have been able to stop. While, once again, this should be one of the best games of the tournament, Lonzo, TJ, and Bryce are simply too much for the Shockers to handle. They’ll be back though. Don’t you worry.
(5)Virginia vs. (2)Duke
And this is where UVA’s run comes to an end. While I’m being forced to pick against defense for the second game, Duke has proven that they can beat the Cavs before, defeating them by 10 on the road. While yes, that’s not necessarily indicative of how things will go this time around, Duke simply has so many weapons that it will be difficult for a defensive-minded team to contain all of them. The Blue Devils and Coach K make another Final Four.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (7)Saint Mary’s
It’s the Achilles’ heel! Saint Mary’s couldn’t beat these guys three times during the regular season, and they won’t be able to do it here either. Gonzaga advances.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (7)Michigan
Hail to the victors! One thing that Derrick Walton has been able to do over the last month is to consistently outplay his matchup, and in this game, the same thing happens. Monte vs. Derrick will be outstanding, pure basketball to watch, but it’s hard to bet against Walton after the several weeks he’s had. Walton also has an impressive supporting cast surrounding him, with every type of weapon imaginable at his disposal. Once again, Michigan hits their shots and moves on.
(1)UNC vs. (3)UCLA
This will be a fun one, but Lonzo and the Bruins head to the Final Four. They just have it – it’s not describable, but it’s fun to watch. UCLA is high-flying, fast-shooting, deep, and a joy to witness on every level. UNC will put up quite the fight, but they won’t be able to keep pace with the reckless abandonment that the Bruins play with. Lonzo carries the team to the Final Four while LaVar looks on proudly talking trash (in a friendly way).
(2)Duke vs. (1)Gonzaga
This is the year. I can feel it. After being criticized for as a mid-major power who can’t beat top programs, Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski get their squad over the hump and carry their team to a National Championship appearance. This game will certainly be a close one, but at this point in the tournament, there’s games within the game. There’s the fatigue game – Gonzaga will have had the easier road to get to the Final Four, so they will have an edge there. There’s the numbers game – but at this point, the slight edge in advanced analytics that Gonzaga holds isn’t important; both of these teams can play, big time. But most importantly, there’s the media and fans game – Gonzaga will have the public support because, despite being a 1 seed, they’re a perennial underdog who have never gotten proper respect; while Duke, well, to put it kindly, the general public typically doesn’t like them. This will be as even as even gets, but Gonzaga pulls through and gets the W.
(7)Michigan vs. (3)UCLA
I’ll be sorry to see my Wolverines go, but UCLA will get this one. Both teams play a very similar style, and this game should be a joy to watch – fast-paced, lots of threes, lots of fast-breaks, lots of smart offense. But Michigan simply can’t hang with the Bruins for a full 40 minutes. When the two teams played earlier this season, the first half was one of the best displays of college basketball I’ve ever seen. But, after halftime, Michigan couldn’t maintain the same pace and shooting that the Bruins have kept up all season. It should be impossible for the Bruins to have played as well offensively as they have – college kids shouldn’t be this skilled already. But after months of consistent production, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, and as a result, common logic would suggest that they defeat Michigan in a terrific game.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (3)UCLA
After months of grueling workouts, spectacular finishes, and relative parity (resulting in some great games) across college basketball, I’ve selected this year’s national champions to be… the UCLA Bruins. While this should be another closely contested game, all of what I have already stated about UCLA holds true here. They are an offensive juggernaut with just too many weapons to contain – and while Gonzaga will certainly put up a great fight, the Bruins are simply too good to fail.
Of course, come Thursday everything I have predicted will be proven wrong with a dazzling array of upsets no logical person would ever have seen coming. Oh well. Hey, at least that’s the fun of it, right?
In responding to the question of who the biggest Eastern Conference All-Star snub was, ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan said, “Nobody. In order for someone to be snubbed, there has to be someone undeserving occupying their spot.”
I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments. In general, the right players were selected for the game this year. However, that’s not to say the rosters are perfect. Take a look at my picks for the game, based on the numbers and the eye test.
Disclaimer: I’m somewhat traditional in my picks. I want to see something at least resembling two guards, two forwards, and a big man as my starters. Meaning, no, I will not start Antetokounmpo, Lebron, and Jimmy Butler in one lineup.
Isaiah Thomas, G, Boston Celtics
Thomas not being voted a starter this year is criminal, and would have gotten more headlines if not for another, uh, “bad starting decision” in the other conference. His PER is a ridiculous 27.39, and he has 29.1 PPG (second only to the “bad decision”) and 6.3 APG to boot. Watching him knife through the lane is thing of beauty, and he’s molded himself into the superstar that the Celtics have craved for years – especially during the 4th quarter, in which he averages 42.3% 3P shooting, 90.1% FT shooting, and a league leading 10.0 points.
John Wall, G, Washington Wizards
Wall has quietly put together a great season, averaging a double-double with 23.0 PPG and 10.1 APG to the tune of a 23.57 PER, along with his usual great perimeter defense (2.2 SPG). He hasn’t gotten a lot of press because his team is nothing special (26-20 overall) but his numbers speak for themselves. He deserves to be a starter.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Milwaukee Bucks
Most NBA fans predicted that he would take a leap this season, but come on now. “The Greek Freak” has taken the league by storm over the first half of this year, averaging a statline that has literally never been matched before: 23.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 BPG, and 1.8 SPG. He’s leading the Bucks in each of those categories while playing whatever position they need him to – usually some combination of shooting guard/small forward who also runs the offense like the point guard. He’s in the thick of the MVP conversation and arguably already one of the game’s top 5 players at the age of 22 – two years younger than rookie teammate Malcolm Brogdon.
Lebron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers
Yup, he’s still really good. 25.7 PPG, 8.5 APG, 7.9 RPG, and a 25.82 PER. An MVP candidate and the best player on one of the favorites to win the title. Still possibly the best basketball player in the world. Nothing new.
Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
I know, I know. I know he’s only played 31 games. I know he’s on a minutes restriction. I know he’s not even on the actual All-Star roster. Yet, I still have him here as a starter. Why? Well, honestly, there’s not many deserving F/C candidates for a starting spot in the East. And, when he’s actually on the floor, Embiid has been one of the best at his position in the league, averaging 20.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, and 2.5 BPG (despite his limited minutes) and a 24.53 PER, along with almost singlehandedly breathing life back into the 76ers franchise. Plus, “The Process” is just so fun – off the court and on. How could you not want to see him play in the game?
Kyrie Irving, G, Cleveland Cavaliers
Another year, another elite season from Kyrie. He’s still only 24 years old, yet he’s already a four time All-Star who hit the biggest shot of the NBA Finals, leading his team to victory. This year, he’s averaging career highs in points and field goal percentage, while taking the highest volume of shots in his career. He’s really good. He’s an All-Star.
DeMar DeRozan, G/F, Toronto Raptors
DeRozan is a high-volume shooter who’s going to get his numbers. He’s not always the most efficient, but his mid-range jumper is deadly, he’s an elite athlete, and he’s one of the top players on one of the top teams in the East. I don’t believe he deserves the starting nod over Wall and Thomas, but 27.9 PPG and a 25.02 PER speak for themselves; he’s a very worthy All-Star.
Jimmy Butler, G/F, Chicago Bulls
Butler took another step forward this year as a member of the new-look Bulls, averaging a career-high 24.4 PPG and 25.40 PER. He’s still an elite perimeter defender, and he just keeps improving. He’s not a starter over the Greek Freak and Lebron, but he’s a borderline star and the clear leader of a should-be playoff team.
Kevin Love, F, Cleveland Cavaliers
We’re seeing a resurgent Kevin Love this year, and it’s a pleasure to watch. He’s back over the 20 PPG and 10 RPG threshold for the first time since joining with Lebron and Kyrie, hitting threes at his highest rate since the 2010-11 season, and helping the Cavs reach their potential when he’s on the floor – they have a +10.4 Offensive Rating when he’s playing, but a -3.9 when he’s not.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
Not getting much love this year because the Heat are not a good team by any means, Whiteside’s actually topped most of his numbers from last year, and is currently tied for the league lead in rebounds. His PER has taken a dip and he’s no longer averaging the ridiculous 3.7 BPG he posted last year, but he’s still one of the top centers in the East – leading them with 7.4 Estimated Wins Added on the year so far.
Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto Raptors
Lowry isn’t flashy, but his numbers speak for themselves. He’s averaging career-highs 22.7 PPG and 4.8 RPG, along with 6.9 APG, leading to a fantastic 23.67 PER. He’s also the team leader and floor general on one of the best squads in the conference. Nothing suggests anything other than a third All-Star appearance for the point guard.
Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte Hornets
I struggle here taking a fifth point guard, but there’s nobody left more deserving than Kemba. Averaging 23.3 PPG, 5.5 APG, and 4.2 RPG, he’s a balanced offensive superstar willing a team with few other weapons to a possible playoff spot.
Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ah, the previously mentioned “bad decision”. How Westbrook is not starting this game is an atrocity. He’s averaging a triple double. It would take an injury or a catastrophic collapse for him not to win MVP. He gets this spot.
James Harden, G, Houston Rockets
Again, who else could possibly start this game. If not for Westbrook’s superhuman season, Harden would be the surefire MVP, averaging 29.1 PPG, 11.6 APG, and 8.2 RPG – all career highs. His PER is a ridiculous 28.16, and he’s accomplished all he has this season while learning the intricacies of playing point guard. His defense still isn’t great, but his spectacular offense makes up for it a hundred times over.
Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi just seems to get better each year. After becoming a borderline MVP candidate last year, he’s upped the ante even further by combining his stifling perimeter defense with a scoring punch of 25.4 PPG, and as a result he’s averaging a 28.16 PER. No Tim Duncan, no problem.
Kevin Durant, F, Golden State Warriors
Yawn. So what he’s on a new team. KD is still going to be KD. 26.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 28.20 PER. All-Star starter. Next please.
Anthony Davis, F/C, New Orleans Pelicans
27.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 2.3 BPG, and a 27.74 PER. Not much debate on this one either. Western starters seem pretty straightforward.
Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors
Curry is still fantastic, even though he’s not getting nearly the same amount of coverage in the media. He’s had to cede some looks to Durant, obviously, so his numbers have dipped from last year. A “dip” for Steph though is another player’s dream season: 25.0 PPG, 6.1 APG, and 4.3 RPG to go with a 23.89 PER. Oh, and the Warriors are 40-7. Yup, he deserves a spot here.
Chris Paul, G, Los Angeles Clippers; replaced by Damian Lillard, G, Portland Trail Blazers
Paul was leading the Clippers to another great regular season, (nearly averaging a double-double) but didn’t get an All-Star nod due to a recent injury. I believe he should have been selected, then replaced by Dame in order to give one more deserving player the nod (picking 13 All-Stars rather than 12). Lillard’s also had a more than deserving season (despite the Blazers not being great), averaging 26.3 PPG, 5.8 APG and 4.8 RPG along with a 23.03 PER.
Gordon Hayward, F, Utah Jazz
Hayward’s flown under the radar for a while, as the Jazz are a small market team who have had little success as of late. However, Hayward has been posting borderline All-Star numbers for years and finally broke out this season, averaging 21.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 3.5 APG, along with improving his skills of getting and converting at the line (career highs in free throws attempted and free throw percentage), resulting in a 22.04 PER. He, Kawhi and KD are the only small forwards in the West with a PER above 18.5 – it’s no mistake that they are the three playing in New Orleans.
Draymond Green, F/C, Golden State Warriors
Not everyone is his biggest fan, but it’s hard to argue with how good he’s been. He can defend all five positions at a DPOY level, as well as play what is basically a point center role on offense. His numbers aren’t outstanding (10.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 7.5 APG), but they’re extraordinarily balanced; he’s the engine that makes the Warriors go, as he does whatever is necessary for his team to win. And, well, when his team is winning (40-7 as of this writing), it’s hard to argue with considering him deserving of this spot.
Demarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings
Boogie, long touted as an offensive superstar, is having possibly his best season yet, averaging a career high 28.1 PPG, 4.4 APG and 36.7% three point shooting, as well as 10.5 RPG, 1.4 SPG, and 1.4 BPG. As long as his off-court behaviors don’t hold him back, his talent has rarely been in question; this year will be a well-deserved third selection.
Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
Similarly to Gordon Hayward, Gasol has long been a borderline All-Star flying under the radar. And, like Hayward, Gasol took a step forward this year, averaging a career high 4.2 APG and over 20 PPG for the first time in his eight-year career – thanks to the addition of a deadly three-point shot (over a 40% three point shooting percentage on 3.7 attempts per game). Combined with his always-strong defense and the success of the Grizzlies (28-21), Gasol has earned his spot here for the third time.
Nikola Jokic, C/F, Denver Nuggets
This might not be the most popular choice, but it’s the best one by the numbers and the eye test. Jokic started off the season poorly, splitting time with Jusuf Nurkic and playing at power forward rather than his natural center spot. Yet, for months now, Jokic has been showing off his incredible blend of passing, shooting, hustle, and general basketball IQ far beyond his years. He has a 26.46 PER, and is averaging 15.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, and 4.0 APG in only 26.1 MPG; yet per 36 minutes, those increase to 21.4, 11.7, and 5.5 respectively. Those are All-Star numbers. Plus, like Embiid, Jokic is so fun to watch (look up Nikola Jokic passing highlights. You won’t be sorry). Could you imagine him tossing up a lob to Russell Westbrook? Did I leave anyone out? Anyone here that you don’t think is deserving? Feel free to contact us or comment with any questions or thoughts.
Photo Credits: AP Photo, Getty Images, Bleacher Report
Hayward has consistently improved his statistical outputs year after year since entering the league in 2010 out of Butler with the 9th pick. He now finds himself as the offensive centerpiece of a constantly-on-the-cusp Jazz team – where it’s clear that if they finally just put it all together, they can be special. While draft analysts once wondered about Hayward’s lack of top-notch athleticism or ability to develop a consistent jump shot, he has proven that he can shoulder the load for his team during a long and grueling season and shoot from the outside as well, as last year he knocked down threes at a nearly 35% clip while taking a high volume of about 5 per game. Overall, he’s proven that he is an all-around offensive threat, and there is still much more to come in writing his legacy with the Jazz.
Damian Lillard, (54.45)
Lillard has become a legitimate offensive superstar since being taken with the 6th pick in 2012. Despite his usage rate continuing to climb, his PER has improved right along with it as he has taken his Portland team from irrelevance to a consistent playoff power. He’s a deadly 3-point shooter who also happens to be such a great athlete that he was able to participate in a dunk contest despite being a 6’3” point guard. His scoring outputs have increased year after year, and he also set a new career mark in APG last season with 6.8. Even better yet, he’s proven that he can come up big in clutch situations, especially in playoff time (just ask James Harden). The perennial All-Star should continue to improve as he nears his prime and the Blazers become better and better.
Jae Crowder, (56.12)
In the years following being picked with the 34th pick in 2012, Crowder has developed a reputation as being an incredibly scrappy, underrated forward. He can do a little bit of everything, including the ability to shoot, rebound, pass, and defend. His numbers have improved as well, as his PER and points/40 minutes have increased each year he’s been in the league. His hard-nosed playing style has him poised to be a key contributing member to a Celtics team that should contend for a top 3 seed.
Paul George, (57.92)
George has become an all-around superstar since being taken 10th in 2010, and is arguably one of the top players of the draft class (John Wall and Demarcus Cousins the others) despite being taken later than both other stars. George has carved out a role as a dominant player by becoming possibly the second best two-way star in the NBA (behind Kawhi Leonard), as he has the ability to defend the 2, 3, and 4 with lockdown precision and additionally can put up 20+ points per game. As added bonuses, George has even developed a consistent 3-point shot and shown the ability to rebound and pass at high levels.
Kemba Walker, (60.15)
After showing nice progress over several years, Walker finally broke out in a big way last season, becoming the true offensive centerpiece of the Hornets. The former 9th overall pick in 2011 posted the highest PER and points per game totals of his career, while at the same time improving his True Shooting percentage despite taking on an elevated Usage Rate. Already a great shot creator and driver, Walker showed improved shooting last season and has a lot to build upon for next year.
Jimmy Butler, (68.47)
Despite being taken with the last pick of the first round in 2011, Butler has emerged as one of the biggest defensive stars in the league. His perimeter defense skills are rivaled by few, and he is generally viewed as the premier example of what effort and hustle can do for a player’s defensive ability. However, Butler has truly become a borderline all-around star with the continued development of his offensive game, as his scoring and assist numbers have greatly improved over the past two seasons. It remains to be seen how Butler will fit in with these new-look Chicago Bulls, but if history tends to repeat itself, Butler is in line for another strong season.
Hassan Whiteside, (76.28)
Whiteside is a wildly talented – yet also untrustworthy – star who was taken with the 33rd pick of the 2010 draft. After off-court issues and immaturity kept him off the NBA courts for several years, Whiteside had a coming out party after signing with the Miami Heat in 2014-15. He basically had the role of being a big, long enforcer around the rim on both ends, staying in the paint for either putback dunks or rim protection. Since re-entering the NBA for good, Whiteside’s become an absolute force in the paint; but on the other hand, he can’t do much else, with an inability to defend on the perimeter or shoot from anything resembling distance, and as a result can slow down an offense trying to feed him the ball inside; all problems in a league trending toward small ball. Regardless of his deficiencies, when he’s on the court, Whiteside is an incredible talent and will be an All-Star candidate for the foreseeable future.
Isaiah Thomas, (79.97)
Since being dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2011 draft (the last overall pick), Thomas has made every team that passed on him regret it. An undersized (5’9”), quick, and crafty point guard coming out of Washington, Thomas was overlooked years ago due mostly to his height; yet since then, he has morphed his game into that of an offensive superstar. Thrust into a prominent role his rookie year, Thomas impressed by averaging 11.5 points per game and 4.1 assists per game. However, as his usage rate and minutes have climbed, his stats have only improved, as he now averages 22.2 ppg and 6.2 apg. Thomas’ shooting and driving offensive capabilities have made him one of the top guards in the league, and subsequently one of the biggest steals in the history of the draft.
Draymond Green, (82.3)
Green has transformed himself into many things since being taken with the 35th pick in 2012. He’s become one of the most versatile players (if not the most versatile player) in basketball through his ability to both play five positions on offense and guard five positions on defense – and not only in bits and pieces, but consistently throughout a game. His ability to run the point yet also guard an opposing center – as well as his DPOY caliber defense – has made him one of the most valuable players in the NBA and the engine that makes the best team in the league run. However, he’s also become possibly the most polarizing figure in the sport; you either love his grit, effort, and hustle or you hate him because you think he plays dirty. Regardless of individual opinions, the stats speak for themselves, as he averaged 14 ppg, 7.4 apg, 9.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg, and 1.5 spg last season; numbers that nobody else in the league was able to match.
Kawhi Leonard, (89.57)
Leonard has steadily improved each season since being taken with the 15th pick in 2011. He now finds himself as a perennial All-NBA first-teamer and MVP candidate, built on the strength of his consistently unbeatable defense. Last year’s DPOY, the Spurs know that they can give Leonard any assignment in the league at the 2, 3, or 4 and have their centerpiece shut them down for 48 minutes. However, Leonard had always been a strong defensive player, but the growth of his offensive game transformed him from a borderline all-star into one of the best players in the world, as his 3-point shooting percentage took a near 10% jump last season, and his scoring per game topped 20 for the first time in his career. Through hard work and dedication to his craft, Leonard has become the best two-way player in basketball – and has most certainly made the 14 teams that passed up on him look back on the draft with regret.
Data courtesy of ESPN, NBA.com, Basketball-Reference, and CBS Sports. Thanks for reading!
Harris has been a bit of a mixed bag ever since entering into the league as the 19th pick in 2011. He’s been consistently above replacement level, but yet hasn’t shown the improvement that the league would’ve liked to have seen out of him considering his massive potential. He has a great mix of shooting ability, ball-handling skills, and size; yet defensively has been a different story. As is a problem with some tweener players, Harris is too slow to guard fast small forwards, yet not strong enough for bigger power forwards. Additionally, on offense, he’s been unreliable when asked to be a first option, rather playing better when the defense isn’t keyed in on him. At some point, you have to respect what Harris has done so far, averaging around 15 ppg for the last several years – yet at the same time, it’s easy to wish for so much more.
Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks (44.1)
Monroe has consistently been an above-average PF/C since coming into the league as the 7th pick in 2010. He provides a great blend of size, strength, and rebounding that still holds value in the NBA. However, his faults often stick out more than his strengths, especially on his new team. He’s only an okay defender, and he has never been able to spread the floor on offense. This is a huge problem for a Bucks team that had trouble shooting before their knock-down specialist Khris Middleton went down. However, even though at times he seems like he might not fit in with the Bucks, he still puts up big offensive numbers, keeping his rating here high.
Mason Plumlee, (44.25)
Plumlee made an unexpected splash in his rookie year after becoming the 22nd pick of the 2013 draft, making the All-Rookie First Team. Even though he’s gone fairly under the radar since then, his numbers have actually improved each season. His scoring and rebounding have both increased year after year, while just this past season his assist totals took a big jump as he learned how to harness his surprisingly impressive ball-handling skills. As he learns to become a facilitator, Plumlee’s can carve out a unique role as a big man with athleticism who can score, rebound, and pass.
Tristan Thompson, (44.3)
Thompson, taken with the fourth pick in 2011, makes a living off of doing the dirty work: rebounding the hell out of the basketball. No matter where he is when a shot is released, he’s always a good bet to end up with the ball due to sheer hustle. However, you can’t quantify hustle in numbers, which is why I was surprised to see him this high in the rankings. His basic stats (despite his obvious game-changing rebounding skill, he’s never averaged more than 9.4 rpg in a season) have never been quite impressive, and there aren’t a lot of advanced metrics that show glorify his strength. However, he shined in the Win Shares metric – finishing 22nd in the league – which fueled his ranking here. No matter; his spot is well-deserved.
Klay Thompson, (46.44)
Thompson, taken with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, has become a perennial all-star, arguably one of the best shooters of all time, and an NBA champion since entering the league five years ago. He and Steph Curry have formed one of the most formidable duos in the league, dubbed by the media the “Splash brothers”. Thompson has developed a reputation as being one of the best shooters in the league right now, possibly of all time. He’s also a lockdown defender, often guarding the best wing or guard available. Oh, yeah, and on top of that, the team he’s part of the backbone of happens to be the modern dynasty tearing apart the basketball world.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, (46.91)
“The Greek Freak” is unlike anything the league has ever seen. He’s seven feet tall, moves like a track star, handles like a point guard, and defends the best of the best. Since being taken with the 15th pick in 2013, Giannis has made every team that passed on him regret it. He’s improved at an incredible rate year after year, and adds more to his game seemingly every time you see him play. Currently, he’s projected to do several things once the season begins: Play point guard and come closest in the league to averaging a triple double. Think I’m crazy? Last year, after being moved to the role of primary ball-handler, Antetokounmpo’s numbers immediately jumped as he put up triple-double after triple-double, transforming himself into a dishing-driving-boarding-scoring monster. This year, coach Jason Kidd has said that he wants Giannis to play a lot more point guard – which will, coupled with another year of development, will only improve his stats further. Oh, and best of all? He’s a year younger than Buddy Hield. Antetokounmpo seems sure to climb atop these rankings in the upcoming years as he cements his status as one of the best guard-wing-forward hybrids basketball has ever witnessed.
Rudy Gobert, (49.55)
Gobert, since being taken with the 27th pick in 2013, has blossomed into one of the best interior defenders in the league. Affectionately called the “Steiffel Tower” due to his French heritage and rim protecting skills, Gobert represents the epitome of an all-defensive center. However, that comes with its drawbacks, as his offense is extremely raw and has made little progress since he entered the bigs. That being said, his advanced metrics are still very strong due to his incredible defensive play, and when he’s on the floor, the Jazz are overall a better basketball team.
Khris Middleton, (50.78)
Middleton, the 39th pick in the 2012 draft, has become the centerpiece of the Bucks in his short time in the league by becoming one of the best 3-and-D specialists in the league. He and The Greek Freak form the most formidable wing defensive team using their incredible length and athleticism. He’s also a deadly spot on shooter who became more of a playmaker last year, having his assist ratio jump from 14.8 to 18.5. However, he tore his hamstring in the preseason and is out for about 6 months, meaning that the Bucks will have to go the majority of the season without him – a daunting thought for a team with basically no other top-notch shooters.
Reggie Jackson, (51.56)
It took Jackson some time to develop on the Thunder after being taken in 2011 with the 24th pick, but year after year, he has continued to improve – with his PER rising from a lowly 9.22 his rookie season to a well above average 19.62 this past year. The biggest jump in Jackson’s game however, came when he was traded to the Pistons and finally broke out as a go-to threat, averaging 17.6 ppg upon being moved and 18.8 all of last season. Even though he hasn’t been particularly efficient reaching those numbers, taking a high volume of shots, his jump shot is on the rise and defensively he’s no slouch. For a Pistons team hoping to compete for a playoff spot though, Jackson will need to continue his improvement and hopefully emerge as a fringe all-star next to the likes of Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, and even Kyle Lowry.
Data courtesy of ESPN, Basketball Reference, and CBS Sports. Thanks for reading the article and please join us again next week for #1 to #9!