Spacing is the buzzword in the modern NBA, and for good reason. The more three-point shooters you can have on the court at one time, the more dangerous your offense becomes. Having 4’s and 5’s who can shoot the ball brings opposing big men out of the paint, opening up the lane for the shots teams really want. The priority on shooting ability is apparent everywhere you look, and the draft is no exception.
This year’s crop of power forwards is ready-made for the pace and space era. The top two prospects, Frank Kaminsky and Kristaps Porzingis, are prototypical “stretch” forwards who each already have elite shooting ability for their size. Draft Express has seven other power forwards in their top-30: Kevon Looney, Bobby Portis, Christian Wood, Trey Lyles, Montrezl Harrell, Jarell Martin, and Cliff Alexander. I’ll save my words on Montrezl, Jarell and Cliff for some other time, but suffice it to say I’m not quite as high on any of them. There isn’t really a consensus rank among Looney, Portis, Wood, and Lyles. Chad Ford has Looney at 9, Lyles 16, Portis 17, and Wood 20 while DX has Portis 16, Lyles 17, Looney 18, and Wood 23. Unsurprisingly, I don’t quite agree with these rankings.
None of Portis, Wood, Lyles, or Looney could be considered a stretch 4 yet. They all experimented with the college 3-point line this year, and shot the ball with varying degrees of success. Looking at their relevant shooting numbers, we can see four relatively similar shooting talents.
(Any numbers cited in this article are either from Basketball-Reference or Hoop-Math; here is an example of Kevon Looney’s B-Ref page: hover over metrics for explanation. Hoop-Math full data is behind a paywall, but is cheap and worth it for a bunch of great college stats.)
|Player||3PA||3PT%||2PT Jumper FGA||2PT J FG%||Combined Jumpers %||FT%|
It’s hard to conclude too much about these guys as potential shooters at the NBA-level. A higher percentage of Looney’s 2-point jumpers were unassisted, and the higher-degree-of-difficulty pull-ups he more often took may have dragged his percentage down. Still, the low FT% and low 2PTJ% are both flags that suggest he may be a bit behind the rest of the group as a shooter. Portis is probably the most solid shooter at this point. He doesn’t have confidence in his three-point stroke, but he can hit the 15-18 footer with consistency.
To me, Wood offers the most potential as a shooter due to his combination of accuracy from the midrange and confidence (foolishness?) from beyond the arc. He’s got a high release that he manages to get off pretty quickly, which can be a scary combination to deal with. Lyles’ 3P% looks scary by itself, but his 2-point accuracy means the low number of attempts from three should be seen more as bad variance than indicative of any lack of ability.
As a group, they are pretty tightly packed. I would rank them Portis, Wood, Lyles, Looney (also their rankings in total jumper %), but I don’t feel like there’s a big gap between any two of them. All have the ability to develop into legitimate threats from the NBA arc, but none of them have the combination of volume and accuracy to suggest they’re there yet.
Each of these guys played very different roles on their teams so apples-to-apples comparisons among the rest of their offensive numbers aren’t as fruitful (intended). When it comes to evaluating offense for big men in the modern NBA, pick-and-roll/pop ability strikes me as the most important. With few rare exceptions, most big men in today’s NBA don’t get many chances to isolate or post-up, but instead get their offensive opportunities from catching dump-offs, getting to the offensive glass, and mostly, from playing in roll/fade actions.
Unfortunately, college teams generally run a lot less pick-and-roll so we have to infer these players’ abilities based on a small sample, and what they do in other aspects of their offensive games. There are four aspects of the screen/dribble handoff game for bigs: screen setting, fading for jumpers, diving for lobs, and attacking the basket off the catch. Ability to pop and hit shots can be judged through the same lens as shooting ability, so we don’t need to go over that again.
Another aspect is the screen setting itself. It’s often overlooked when talking about players, but guys like Glen Davis, Pero Antic, and Nick Collison are better players than the public gives them credit for because they set such killer screens.
Portis has the best body for a screen setter; he’s got a naturally wide and strong frame, and he does a good job opening it up to make himself wide and hard to get around. He does struggle at times to make contact with the defender, and seems more worried about not getting called for a moving screen than actually setting a good one.
Wood manages to keep a wide base while doing a decent job at moving into defenders, but his skinny frame and poor lower body strength don’t deter defenders as much as Portis does. Looney is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Portis as he displays good ability to move his body to create contact, but mostly stands upright which accentuates his already skinny self. I don’t really have an opinion on Lyles’ screen setting ability. He played a lot of his minutes at small forward in Kentucky’s jumbo lineups, and even when he was at the four, he was almost never part of pick-and-roll action.
The next element to playing in the screen game is what some have called “vertical” spacing. DeAndre Jordan’s rolling down the paint creates its own type of spacing for his team because it forces a weak side defender to rotate over and short his pick-and-roll so he doesn’t receive a lob. Wood is the only one who offers much upside in this respect. Lyles, Looney, and Portis are all a combination of slightly too small and slightly too un-athletic to really be a vertical threat. Wood doesn’t have ideal size or athleticism to be really dangerous, but he’s got enough bounce and length to give him a little extra edge in this area.
The most important area for most screen-and-roll bigs might be the in-between, catching it on the move and either creating a shot for yourself or a teammate. The Hawks’ offense this year was mostly known for its pristine spacing, but Millsap and Horford are equally dangerous catching the ball on the move and making plays as they are simply popping and shooting the ball. Quickness, ball handling, body control, and decision-making are all important factors here.
Portis has nice soft hands and does a great job using his frame to create space for him to finish on the move. He’s also a solid decision maker with a career A/TO ratio of almost exactly 1/1, which is good for a high-usage big. Portis isn’t quite the ball handler that the rest of this group is, and he is less fluid attacking off the bounce towards the rim.
Wood might be the most effective isolation player of the group; he’s got a good first step and is a solid ball handler so he can attack from either the pop or the roll off the bounce. Once he gets there, he has great body control for a big and can use his length to finish with a variety of floaters that he converts surprisingly well, though he sometimes settles for bad ones.
Shot selection was a problem for him all year. He settled for tough contested floaters and off-the-bounce midrange shots, but he played on a notoriously dysfunctional team that probably contributed to his chucking. Wood does have problems with his decision-making though; he has poor vision, and he also turned the ball over at a high rate (14.2% TOV%) as he often tried to do too much with his passing or dribble moves in a crowded lane.
Looney possesses advanced timing as a roll man for a freshman. He does a great job ducking into space when it is available around the basket to finish dump-offs or off the roll. He also is a pretty good decision maker, and at times showed impressive vision hitting teammates around the basket from the middle of the floor. Unfortunately, when he does catch the ball in space to make a play, he isn’t very smooth going to the basket to finish. He doesn’t explode to the rim, and his lack of strength and body control prevents him from re-adjusting in air to create angles to finish at.
Lyles again is tougher to evaluate because he didn’t play much as a roll man, but the perimeter skill set he flashed suggests he can be very effective. He’s got great straight-line speed for a power forward, good handles, and fantastic body control around the rim that should make him really effective attacking with space. He might struggle catching it in tight areas because he doesn’t explode well without horizontal momentum, but he’s a decent passer so he should be able to find shooters in those situations.
All of these guys have promising skill sets in the pick-and-roll and should be able to succeed as dive-men at the NBA level. Wood has the most intriguing and diverse overall skill set to me, but his poor decision making is a sizable knock against him. I would rank them Lyles, Wood, Portis, Looney as pick-and-roll bigs, but there isn’t much separation between any of them.
One other way in which bigs can impact the game on offense is via the offensive glass. Tristan Thompson is an example of someone whose offensive value mostly comes from his ability to create second chances. Despite offensive rebounding itself not being a make-or-break skill for a big, draft models place high value on it because it explains more of NBA success than one would anticipate. The somewhat unexpectedly high correlation between college offensive rebounding and NBA all-in-one metrics like RPM suggest that players who are good offensive rebounders possess superior instincts of some sort that help them in other parts of the game.
Portis had an ORB% of 13.6, Looney’s was 12.2%, Wood was at a 10.4% clip, and Lyles settled in at 9.9%. Yet again, Lyles’ numbers are hard to take much away from because of his unique role on Kentucky’s team. He has good quickness for a forward, but he lacks strength, length, and explosiveness so he probably falls somewhere in the middle as an offensive rebounder. Looney is the most impressive of the group because both Portis and Wood were considerably worse their freshman year. I don’t love Looney when I watch him, but his good A/TO, good feel for making contact as a screener, and great ORB% show that he has really good instincts/feel for the game and make him intriguing.
Power forward is the weirdest defensive position to evaluate because it’s unclear what exactly you want from a power forward. As a center it is clear that rim protection and pick-and-roll coverage are the skills to look for. All three perimeter spots are mostly about quickness, guarding on the outside and navigating screens. Power forward is unique because there can be so many different molds of defender you want at the 4-spot.
Draymond Green and Serge Ibaka might be the two best defenders in the NBA amongst all power forwards, but they go about it in very different ways. Draymond’s versatility switching onto guards/wings while still being a great post defender makes him unique. Ibaka’s combination of speed and rim protection is unmatched by any other power forward in the league. Defensive numbers rarely capture the whole story, but here’s a starting overview on each player’s defensive metrics.
|Player||STL%||BLK%||DRB%||DBPM RK on Team||DRTG RK on Team|
Here again, Lyles is the least impressive of the group, and his poor numbers can certainly be explained by his role on Kentucky’s talented team, but there are still major defensive questions about him. He was forced to guard opposing small forwards for the majority of his minutes, a role he wasn’t suited to. He has good lateral quickness for a big man, but doesn’t really possess wing-level lateral quickness.
Lyles also doesn’t have great defensive ability for a big man. He’s got poor lower body strength that results in his being movable in the post, and he’s a slow leaper with average length so he doesn’t offer any rim protection. Lyles only has average quicks as a pick-and-roll defender, and his low STL% is indicative of mediocre instincts. A combination of poor instincts and average quickness makes for a subpar pick-and-roll defender. He’s not awful in any one area, but he’s below average across the board. Defense is a real concern for him ever being more than an off-the-bench guy in the NBA.
Looney spent a decent amount of his minutes this season playing at the top of a 3-2 zone for the Bruins. He spent the majority in man-to-man, but enough at the top of the zone that it might have altered his “true” numbers. Playing at the top of the zone almost definitely inflated his steal rate, but it very well could have suppressed his block rate as well.
Overall, Looney is a pretty bland defensive prospect. He has great length, solid instincts, and good enough mobility that he should be effective in pick-and-roll and switching onto wings. Poor explosiveness and a lack of strength at this stage really hurt him in the post. If he’s able to add strength, his mobility and instincts can make him an above-average defender, yet either way, I don’t think he is going to be particularly negative or positive on D.
Portis is solid across the board here, as he is in seemingly every area of his game. He has enough size and leaping ability to be an average rim protector for a forward. Rim protection plus his good strength in the post might let him play some minutes as a small center.
Having the strength to play inside combined with high energy level and an impressive defensive stance that allows him to slide with perimeter players in the pick-and-roll should make him a reliable defender in the NBA. It’s almost hard for me to come up with new things to say about Portis. Like the rest of his game, there aren’t any glaring weaknesses on the defensive end, or anything about it that really excites me.
Wood again stands out from the group as the most unique prospect, and the one with the most potential to make an impact. His BLK% separates him from the pack, and is an elite number for a power forward. Wood combines good length with good leaping ability and timing to be one of the more impressive rim-protecting 4 prospects in recent years. Not only does he protect the rim, but he also has smooth feet on the perimeter. His length and athleticism allow him to contest shots well even if the guard manages to beat him in pick-and-roll.
Wood also has some scary holes in his defensive game. His minuscule steal rate is indicative of his poor instincts on the court. He oftentimes misses rotations or gets himself out of position on defense and easily falls for opponent pump fakes. His athleticism and length overcame it at the college level, but his very skinny frame will become a problem when it comes to defending the post in the NBA.
I remain optimistic about his NBA defense because despite seemingly poor defensive feel and what most agree was awful coaching, he still managed to be an immensely positive defender at the college level (as evidenced by his DBPM/DRTG ranks within his team). If an NBA coach can get him to rotate around the court well, and he adds weight to his frame, he could honestly be an elite defender. Even if he never picks up the high-level stuff, his athleticism and length should prevent him from being a liability.
As rebounders, no one stands out from the pack. Lyles’ numbers can again be explained by his role on Kentucky’s team. They are all very solid, albeit not elite rebounders. Factoring in rebounding and defense, I would rank them: Wood, Portis, Looney, Lyles, with Wood being the only guy who has a chance to make a real positive impact.
One important thing that I haven’t really mentioned so far is age. This evaluation has been largely based on where these guys are now as prospects. Knowing how far along each player is in his development is crucial, and a sometimes too easily overlooked aspect of draft evaluation when it comes to players only one year apart in college. Statistical models have shown that age is a more significant factor in predicting future success than college experience; this is a conclusion with which I agree.
|Kevon Looney||Trey Lyles||Christian Wood||Bobby Portis|
There are two main things to take away from this. Wood may be a sophomore, but he’s very young for one, and his main flaws (strength/mental stuff) are both weaknesses that tend to naturally get better with time. Secondly, Looney is slightly behind Portis in most areas of his game right now, but they’re close enough skill-wise that Looney is probably further along for his age.
One way to account for the effects of age on numbers is draft models. Many of my thoughts on these players’ statistics are influenced by what draft models tend to view as important for NBA prospects, but boiling things down to one exact number is much easier than trying to mentally balance and weight the importance of all the numbers that have significance for players’ futures.
In order to best approximate what analytic models generally think of each guy, I averaged each player’s rank across six different draft models; Kevin Pelton’s WARP, Layne Vashro’s EWP, Vashro’s HUM, Steve Shea’s CPR, Nick Restifo’s draft model, and Andrew Johnson’s P-AWS. I double-weighted EWP scores because it strikes me as the best model that has the most work put into it, but all of these guys do great work and deserve more recognition for what they do. There are some discrepancies in player rankings due to not every model having rated all of the same players, but by averaging across the six models, a pretty clear picture is painted.
Looney comes out as the clear winner. He ranks first of this group and 5th out of all draft prospects in my average model ranking. Portis and Wood are neck-and-neck after that, Wood with a composite rank of 12th, and Portis right behind him at 13th. Lyles is underwhelming with an average rank of 29th, but the usual caveats of his unique role at Kentucky apply here more than anywhere else.
Looney, Wood, and Portis are all impressive from a modeling perspective; they all score as lottery picks despite none of them being consensus lottery picks by ESPN/DX. It’s important to remember that Looney’s STL% might have been inflated by playing at the top of UCLA’s 3-2 zone. Since steal rate is so important to models, I think it’s fair to dock him to more like ~10th from a model perspective.
This is an interesting group of guys, and I honestly don’t think there is a lot to separate them. They all have skill sets as pseudo-stretch 4s, but each has his own questions. My biggest conclusion is that Christian Wood is significantly underrated as things currently stand. He’s got similarly high skill level as the rest of this group to go along with by far the most athleticism. Mental flaws are not something to be scoffed at. There are countless examples of highly skilled and highly athletic bigs who couldn’t make it in the league because they couldn’t keep up with the mental side of the game (Anthony Randolph, anyone?). However, his solid performance in draft models helps to alleviate those concerns for me, and the fact that he dealt with such a dysfunctional team situation at UNLV gives me more hope that he can improve.
Ultimately, Wood has high-level upside on both ends that the rest of this group lacks, and I actually have him the highest of these four. Next I slot in Looney, whose uniquely good feel and solid tools give him a bit of intrigue Lyles and Portis lack. Portis comes next; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s better than both Looney and Wood, but he really lacks any sort of upside above “average starter” which makes it hard for me to get too excited about him. Last among the four I have Lyles, but playing in such a weird role at Kentucky gives me less confidence in my evaluation of him than the rest of the group. I have a lot of questions about his defense at the next level, but he’s got decent size and athleticism along with really impressive offensive skills so the path to success is there for him. I’ll post a full big board eventually, but I have Wood at 13, Looney at 15, Portis at 18, and Lyles at 20.