Club Profile: KK Mega Basket (Mega Leks) of Serbia

Timothe Luwawu (23) was one of three draft picks from the Serbian basketball club Mega Leks that was one of the more interesting clubs to follow last year…mostly due to their uniforms.

The big story of the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday night was the record 14 foreign-born players that were selected in the first round, a NBA record in that category. Considering the lack of top-shelf talent beyond Top-2 picks Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, many teams holding a plethora of draft picks (the Celtics, Nuggets and Sixers just to name a few), and with the cap looking to go up considerably over the next two years (meaning more room to spend on potential free agents), it makes sense that many NBA teams decided to take some risks on some European talents that are not only unknown with the typical American basketball fan, but also might not dress for their team in a year or two (ala Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio). Nowadays, letting talent develop overseas for a year or two against top European competition while still keeping that player’s rights has been a more accepted route to player development in NBA front offices, as it allows teams to save money in the draft (because they are not on their active roster, they do not have to pay them), while at the same time, allowing them to be patient with players who probably are a couple of years away anyways from making impact at the NBA level. Dirk Nowitzki and Ricky Rubio are quintessential success stories of such a strategy, and the Sixers are hoping to strike gold in the same way with Dario Saric this season.

Whether American basketball fans agree with drafting “unfamiliar” European players who are a couple of years away from contributing (if they contribute at all) over well-known college stars, this much is clear: the demand for talent from Europe in the NBA is greater than ever, and it’s going to be more and more difficult as the years go by for European clubs to be able to keep their best young players from jumping to the NBA, especially after the success of Kristaps Porzingis with the New York Knicks. Yes, dumb and ignorant fans in NBA jerseys on draft night will still boo them because their team drafted a teenager from France over some player who was Honorable Mention All-SEC his senior year (Bravo!). But the boos are becoming less common (Porzingis helped silence that last year), and front offices are becoming more open about building their roster with younger European players, who offer different and in some cases more refined skill sets that mesh better in today’s more “wide-open” NBA game.

Of the players picked, there were a lot of different angles taken when it came to covering the European players drafted. Some focused on Dragan Bender, the No. 4 pick overall in the draft, who was one of the few players in European history to go in the Top-5 in the NBA Draft (Porzingis went last year, making it two years in a row). Some focused on the Kings’ surprise selection of Georgios Papagiannis, an 18-year-old Greek center from the Greek power Panathinaikos who went far above what most people expected in mock drafts. And there was some experts focusing on the Global diversity of talent represented in this latest draft, as Croatia (3), France (5) and China (2) had multiple players from their country selected in the draft (Spain, Germany, Serbia, and Greece were also represented as well).

However, one of the fascinating stories of this draft in my mind, as a newly-christened European basketball fan, was the tremendous representation from one club in Europe in this latest NBA Draft. And surprisingly, it was not a commonly-known European power that participates in the Euroleague or even Eurocup. Yes, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and FC Barcelona were all represented, as they commonly are because they tend to be able to outbid for the best young talent in the world to play for their developmental and senior club teams. That being said, there was one club that did better than those clubs by having as many players drafted in this draft as those three combined.

Who was that club? KK Mega Basket, or better known as Mega Leks, out of Serbia. Not quite the common household European club name, I know, but they are a fascinating club in Europe that is slowly rising after one of their best seasons yet.

So, let’s find out more about this Serbian club that produced THREE draft picks in the latest NBA draft.

Who were the players drafted from Mega Leks?

The three players drafted who played for Mega Leks last season were as follows: Wing Timothe Luwawu, who hails from France (he went 24th overall in the draft to the Sixers); Center Ivica Zubac from Croatia (who went 32nd overall to the Lakers); and wing Rade Zagorac from Serbia (who went 35th overall to the Celtics, but was traded later to the Grizzlies).

Luwawu has the most upside of the three, as he averaged 14.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 1.7 spg for Mega Leks in ABA (Adriatic Basketball Association) play through 28 games, and 13.6 and 3.6 rpg in Serbian League play, though he only played 5 of the club’s 13 games. Luwawu has tremendous potential with his 6’6 athletic frame, and has proven to have a strong ability to score, as evidenced by his solid ppg averages in his year-long tenure with the Serbian club. Furthermore, there may not be a whole lot of players from this recent draft who can match Luwawu’s speed in the open court, as he excels in transition, whether off the ball or on the dribble. However, his shooting is still in some need of work, as he only shot 41.9 percent from the field in ABA play (he shot 54.6 percent in Serbian League play, but as said before that was only 5 games, and against lesser competition).

The 19 year old Zubac from Croatia posted a solid campaign in the Serbian League, which he primarily played in (he did not make any appearances in the ABA for Mega Leks). He averaged 10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and a team-leading 1.5 bpg in 22.5 minutes per game during the 13 game season. Zubac primarily stays around the post, as he shot 50 percent for the year, and took ZERO shots from beyond the arc. Zubac displays mature footwork for a player his age, some good moves off the pivot in the post, and he as the kind of body (7’1, 265 pounds) to bang down low in the post in the mold of a Dino Radja or Zan Tabak, both centers who hailed from Croatia and played in the NBA.

And lastly, Zagorac doesn’t have Luwawu’s raw athleticism, but he is a more polished shooter and is better at creating opportunities off the dribble for himself and his teammates. As you can see from the highlights below, Zagorac plays well in the pick and roll for a combo/wing and is able to find teammates on the roll or pop either for layups or short jumpers. Zagorac was Mega Leks’ best overall player in the Serbian League as he averaged a team-high 14.7 ppg and also contributed 3.1 apg, and 6.2 rpg in 27.4 mpg. One of the most impressive aspects of his game is his ability to shoot off the dribble, especially in the mid-range. He shot an incredible 64.7 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from beyond the arc in Serbian League play. His game shows flashes of former Serbian NBA player Peja Stojakovic, which could be good news for the Grizzlies who got him in the Second Round.

How did Mega Leks Do Last Year?

Mega Leks has only been around since 2008, but last season was a historic one for them in their young history as a professional basketball club. According to Eurobasket.com’s Top-100 ratings, Mega Leks finished the season ranked 88th, a sterling accomplishment considering that they are the “new kids on the block” in the European basketball scene. They were one of four teams from Serbia to play in the ABA last season, and they actually finished as a runner-up to Crvena Zevezda in the playoffs, the top Serbian club that has played in the Euroleague the past two season. In KLS (Serbian League) play, they finished 4-2 in regular season play, and were swept in the semifinals by Crvena Zevezda. However, they beat FMP Beograd 3 games to 2 to not only win the third place consolation prize of the KLS playoffs, but also qualify again for the ABA.

The biggest achievement though for the young club was during the Serbian Cup (or also known as the Radiovaj Korac Cup), a single-elimination national tournament played in February and put on the Serbian Basketball Foundation. The upstart Mega Leks team, with only 1 player on their roster over the age of 30, won the Serbian Cup championship beating longtime Serbian power Partizan Belgrade 85-80 in the championship game. 22-year-old Macedonian Nikola Ivanovic was named the Tournament’s MVP, especially after his 24 point, 5 assist performance in the championship game. The Korac Cup victory is the first trophy acquired in Mega Leks’ eight-year club history.

What Makes Mega Leks Worth Knowing About

The club is a pretty “hip” club in a country that is as basketball-crazed as any in the world. For years, the Serbian basketball scene has been dominated by Partizan and most recently Crvena Zvezda. However, Mega Leks has come on as of late by building their team not with veteran free agents, but through young players they develop through their own 18U team (which does participate in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament). The average age of last year’s roster was 20.87 years and they only had 1 player on the roster who was over the age of 23 (34-year-old Serbian Aleksandar Rasic). This strategy of building through a young, mostly Serbian roster (11 of the team’s 16 players were from Serbia) not only endeared themselves to fans who liked young, exciting basketball, but as you can see above from the results, it also produced a squad that got better and developed more chemistry as the year went on. Head coach Dejan Milojevic has been coaching the team since he retired as a player in 2012 and has done a phenomenal job building this Mega Leks club into a stronger program each and every year.

In addition, one of the other major reasons to like Mega Leks is their uniforms and club color scheme. Saying the scheme is bold is putting it lightly: nobody in the world from my knowledge can match their hot pink and neon green ensemble. At first, it was a little weird, as no other basketball, or sports team in general, has ever sported such a scheme with so much bravado. But after repeated viewings, I have begun to dig their uniform duds. It’s bright, it’s bold and it definitely shouts “future” in a uniform fashion world that is in dire need of some change at times. There pink and green combination might not be for everyone, especially traditionalists that still pine for the days of the “short shorts.” That being said, considering Partizan’s all-black look (blah), and all-white scheme that mirrors Real Madrid somewhat, and Crvena Zvezda’s nearly identical look to Olympiacos, it is refreshing to see Mega Leks go against the grain of what it is to be expected from a basketball uniform not only in Europe, but worldwide as well.

Take a look at a few shots below and simply digest and enjoy. (Or at the very least digest…)

What does the future look like for Mega Leks?

As stated, this is a very young club with a very bright future, even with the possible departure of their 3 young stars to the NBA. Mega Leks also lost Macedonian and Serbian Cup MVP Ivanovic to AEK Athens this off-season, so it wasn’t just the NBA that hurt Mega Leks’ roster this offseason. That being said, that is the reality for ALL clubs in the Serbian League, as even Crvena Zvezda was hurt this offseason by other bigger and much wealthier clubs poaching their talent (Red Star lost Maik Zerbes and Quincy Miller to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv).

Despite this massive loss, it is possible that Zagorac and Zubac may stay in Serbia (Luwawu is good as gone to the NBA as a first round pick to the Sixers, a team that could use his talents immediately), as they probably are a year or two away from really having an impact at the NBA level, and their status as second round draft picks could further heighten that possibility. The return of those two will make them a dark-horse favorite in the KSL and ABA, especially if Partizan and Crvena Zvezda cannot adequately replace the talent they just lost this offseason. Whatever happens with those two is yet to be determined, but considering Milojevic’s track record of success, I think he’ll be able to succeed with this Mega Leks club next season with or without the NBA Draftee pair.

Another major development for Mega Leks is they will participate in the inaugural FIBA Champions League, which is supposed to compete with the Eurocup as a second-tier competition to the Euroleague. FIBA is hoping the Champions League will develop eventually as an alternative to the Euroleague, but with it in its early stages, and considering the failures of FIBA’s past “European Club” efforts after they lost the Euroleague-brand in 2001, that is still a long ways away from being realized. However, Mega Leks seems to be the most premiere club to join FIBA’s league and could be the favorite to win it. A championship in the new FIBA league and perhaps some strong performances in the KSL and ABA, and it is totally possible that Mega Leks could jump their 88th Eurobasket.com club rating and then some by the summer of 2017.

And hopefully, basketball fans will know them for more than just producing three NBA Draft picks in one year and the wild and funky uniforms by then.

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Grading the International Talent in the NBA Draft Over the Past 15 Years

How will Dragan Bender and the rest of his international 2016 NBA Draft classmates fare in the NBA? Let’s take a look at previous ones to get some perspective.

With the 2016 NBA Draft coming up tomorrow, there has already been a lot of discussion about some of the European and International talent that can be taken in the draft. With Kristaps Porzingis having a sterling year with the New York Knicks last season, and the precedent set by European-born NBA superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, demand for foreign basketball talent is higher than ever. And for good reason, as basketball development in Europe has garnered high praises for focusing on “developing” skills in their youth academies rather than trying to win games (as is the issue with the current AAU landscape), and competition both at the youth and senior levels has significantly raised internationally, especially in Europe, over the past decade or so as well. Players coming from Europe are more prepared than ever in making the adjustment across the pond and in the NBA.

Most of the talk this draft is centering on Croatian Dragan Bender, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season, and potentially could be a Top-5 pick. However, other international players of note who could be drafted include Jakob Poeltl (who played in college at Utah but is from Austria), Domantas Sabonis (who played at Gonzaga, but is from Lithuania and played in juniors with Unicaja Malaga), Timothe Luwawu (Mega Leks), Ivica Zubac (Mega Leks), Juan Hernangomez (Estudiantes) and Zhou Qi (Xinjiang in China), just to name a few. To put it quite frankly, it should be expected that at 3-5 international players could go in the first round, and perhaps 10 or more could be drafted overall in this upcoming NBA Draft.

But, I’ll take a look at who was drafted and what the outlook will be for them in the NBA on Friday, after the Draft. Today, I wanted to take a look at former international picks in the NBA Draft over the past 15 years, and whether or not they panned out. So, I’m going to break down each draft year-by-year, rating the NBA success of international players from this draft on an A-F scale. Here are a couple of key notes to keep in mind before you start reading the analysis:

  1. Usually, my ratings are based on how many “successful” international players came from this draft. Success varies, but what I am looking for is that they played a decent amount of time in the NBA and that they had some kind of regular playing role as well. A guy who plays one year on the bench does NOT have a successful year, but if you played 3-4 years and had a regular role, then I would consider that somewhat successful. It gets a little trickier with recent draft picks, as you can’t have more than 1 year if last year was your rookie year. In that case, I project based on that year if they will qualify under those parameters.
  2. I do not count “international guys” who played in college in the United States. The reason I disqualify them is that “international” guys who play in college can have a bit “murky” backgrounds: are they really International? Have they lived in America most of their life or just for college? There is a lot of background work that needs to be done, so in the case of this analysis, I kept it to just players who came from international club teams (though there are some exceptions, which I will explain when I get to them).
  3. I only count players who had successful careers in the NBA, not in Europe or the Euroleague. Just to put this out there: I do not think the NBA is the only way of determining whether or not you had a successful professional basketball career. I think that success in the Euroleague is worthwhile on its own, and some players, especially European-born ones, are simply better fits in the European game than the NBA. That being said, this analysis focuses on NBA success, not professional success in general. So, I do not list players who were drafted that had good European club success, but not NBA success. If that was the case, I would have to find American talent who did the same, and that is a post for another day.
  4. Grades go as follows in number of players successful from each class, though pluses/minuses are given out in discretion depending on how successful the talent was: F (0-1), D (2-3), C (3-4), B (4-6), A (5-7).

Okay, with those parameters being set, let’s take a look at each draft.

 

2001 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tony Parker, Mehmet Okur.

Notable ones drafted: Raul Lopez.

Grade: B

Reasoning: It technically falls in C category in number, but the quality of these four guys push it up to a B. Gasol and Parker have Hall of Fame cases, and Mehmet Okur was an All-Star with the Jazz and won a title with Detroit Pistons. Vladimir Radmanovic also had a long career that involved stints with the Seattle Supersonics, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Even Raul Lopez, who didn’t make the cut in the “successful” criteria, played a couple of years in Utah and ended up having a good career in Europe in the ACB. Solid class, but the low number prevents it from being better than a 85 percent class.

2002 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Yao Ming, Nene, Nenad Krstic, Luis Scola.

Notable players drafted: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Carlos Navarro.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Same amount of players as 2001, but the busts color this class unfortunately. Tskitishvili is the poster child for any ignorant NBA fan when it comes to not drafting European players. (“Rabble…Rabble…they could be that Tskitish-vil-guy again! Europeans players can’t play in the NBA! AMURICA!! VOTE TRUMP! DURRR!) Nachbar and Welsch were first round picks who didn’t pan out, and Navarro left after only one season in Memphis. It’s sad that this class is known for the busts because Yao was on pace to be a hall of fame player until injuries derailed his career, Krstic had some good moments with the Thunder and Nets, and Scola and Nene are still playing key roles with the Raptors and Wizards, respectively. But like I said, you can’t mention international players in the draft without someone mentioning Nikoloz and that’s what keeps this class in the C-range.

2003 NBA Draft

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Successful players drafted: Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Leandro Barbosa, Zaza Pachulia.

Notable players drafted: Darko Milicic, Zarko Cabarkapa, Zoran Planinic, Maciej Lampe, Sofoklis Schortsanitis.

Grade: B+

Reasoning: Unlike the previous two drafts, there are no superstars here like Pau or Yao. However, six players ended up having pretty good careers as role players, with three (Diaw, Barbosa and Pachulia) having major roles with their NBA squads. There is something to that, and that should not go unnoticed. Much like 2002 though, this international class is forever tainted by Darko, who failed to live up to expectations in a draft class that also included Lebron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade. So, you can’t rate a class an A with Darko in it, but I think this class gets less love than it deserves because of the amount of good role players it produced. Another notable pick was Big Sofos in the second round, though he never did arrive to the States.

2004 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andris Biedrins, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Anderson Varejao.

Notable players drafted: Pavel Podkolzin, Victor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, PJ Ramos, Ha Seung-Jin, Vassilis Spanoulis, Sergei Karaulov

Grade: C-

Reasoning: Not a great class, with Varejao probably the best of the bunch. A lot of weird draft picks who didn’t turn out. There were four Russian players picked in this draft and with the exception of a cup of coffee from Khryapa in Portland, they didn’t have much impact in the NBA at all. Also, Ramos from Puerto Rico and Seung-Jin from Korea, represented countries in the draft for the first time in the modern era in 2004, though they hardly had any impact in the NBA.  And lastly, Spanoulis is represented here, but like Big Sofos, he never made it to the States.

2005 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ian Mahinmi, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcin Gortat

Notable players drafted: Fran Vazquez, Yaroslev Korolev, Johan Petro, Roko Ukic, Martynas Andriuskevicius, Mickael Gelabale

Grade: C-

Reasoning: I like the players in this class a little better than 2004, but only 3 came out with really successful careers. Much to their credit, they are still continuing their careers, but neither of these guys have had real major impact, though Ilyasova and Gortat have flirted with being breakout players. Notable ones include Vazquez and Korolev who teased teams for years in terms of “when” they were coming over, only to stay in Europe on an annual basis. Petro and Gelabale are French nationals who played together briefly with the Sonics, and Petro had the honor of a fantastic Kevin Calabro “Sacre Bleu!” call whenever Petro dunked.

2006 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andrea Bargnani, Thabo Sefolosha, Sergio Rodriguez

Notable players drafted: Mouhamed Sene, Oleksiy Pecherov, Joel Freeland, Kosta Perovic.

Grade: D+

Reasoning: Bragnani has had an okay NBA career, but he was the No. 1 pick and hasn’t lived up to that expectation in the slightest. If he went 3 or 4, he probably would rate a bit higher with me, not to mention general NBA fans. Sergio had some flashes of a good NBA career, but it was hardly complete, and it was a real challenge for me to put him in the “successful” NBA career category. Sefolosha is the only the carries much salt for this class, but he is a defensive-oriented player, not exactly one you want representing you as the “poster child” of this NBA class. Even the notable players drafted fail the enthuse, with Pecherov and Freeland both having mediocre NBA careers before heading back to Europe.

2007 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Marco Belinelli, Rudy Fernandez, Tiago Splitter, Marc Gasol

Notable players drafted: Yi Jianlian, Petteri Koponen, Kyrylo Fesenko, Stanko Barac, Georgios Printezis

Grade: B-

Reasoning: Yi was a bust sure, but it’s not as bad as the 2002 busts, which helps it get the B- rating. Gasol is an All-Star and Franchise player which helps carry this class, and Belinelli and Splitter have been excellent role players in the NBA. Fernandez plays in Spain currently, but I think he had a good NBA career, and probably could still be playing in the NBA if he truly wanted to (better pay and more glory in the ACB). Even Fesenko had some good moments with the Utah Jazz as a backup center to Carlos Boozer. Not an awesome class, but not bad either.

2008 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, Alexis Ajinca, Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, Goran Dragic

Notable players drafted: Nathan Jawai, Ante Tomic, Semih Erden

Grade: A

Reasoning: Great combination of quantity and quality here. Ibaka, Dragic and Batum are high level players who will start on any NBA roster, and could be anywhere from the 2nd to 3rd best player depending on where they go. Gallinari is in the same boat, and has carried the Nuggets at times throughout his career, and Asik is one of the most valued post players in the game due to his physicality and skills around the basket. Ajinca has come back strong in the NBA after a brief stint in France midway through his career, and Pekovic, though probably near the end of his ropes in the NBA, put up some solid seasons with the Timberwolves. Very good depth, very good class, probably the best in the past 15.

2009 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ricky Rubio, Omri Casspi, Jonas Jerebko.

Notable players drafted: Victor Claver, Rodrigue Beabouis, Christian Eyenga, Sergio Llull, Nando de Colo, Emir Preldzic, Nick Calathes

Grade: C

Reasoning: Rubio is a NBA starting point guard and continually getting better and Casspi and Jerebko have revitalized themselves in the NBA as streaky off-the-bench gunners. But not a lot of depth here keeps them dead set at a C rating. That being said, amazing how many current Euroleague studs came from this class. Former Euroleague MVPs Llull and de Colo stand out the most from this draft as major Euroleague success stories with Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow, respectively.

2010 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Kevin Seraphin

Notable players drafted: Tibor Pleiss, Ryan Richards, Pape Sy, Nemanja Bjelica

Grade: F

Reasoning: Kevin Seraphin is your class’ most successful draft pick. Yikes (nothing against Seraphin of course). To be frank though, not a lot of international players were drafted though, as John Calipari’s Kentucky squad (John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson) seemed to flood the draft along with a lot of one and done college talents this year. Tibor Pleiss and Nemanja Bjelica saw some time in Utah and Minnesota respectively, but I do not see them being in the NBA much longer.

2011 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Motiejunas, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic

Notable players drafted: Jan Vesely, Davis Bertans, Tanguy Ngombo, Ater Majok, Adam Hanga

Grade: A

Reasoning: Some very, very good big international men came from this draft. Every successful player listed above plays a major role for their team, and is one of the better paid post players in the league (with Biyombo due for a bigger paycheck after his sterling performance in the playoffs). I counted Kanter in this category because he never played a game for Kentucky, and I think his time with Fenerbahce helped him more than his time with Calipari. Bogdanovic is a nice stretch big who is coming off his best season in New Jersey after averaging 11.2 ppg, and he could be primed for a big season as he enters the last year of his three-year deal with Brooklyn. Another aspect that puts this class in the A range is the fact that Bertans and Hanga, both of Baskonia, could be making their way to San Antonio this year, and thus enhance this class even more. Even Vesely, considered a NBA bust, has rebounded his professional career with Fenerbahce, as he led them to two straight Final Fours and a second place finish in the Euroleague last year, and also made the All Euroleague First Team as well.

2012 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Evan Fournier

Notable players drafted: Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Taylor, Ognjen Kuzmic, Furkan Aldemir, Tornike Shengelia, Tomislav Zubcic, Ilkan Karaman

Grade: F

Reasoning: I like Fournier, but that was it. He didn’t go until 20 and no other international player went in the first round. Some interesting talent taken in this draft, especially Satoranasky who is carving out a good career with Barcelona in Spain. But yeah, not a lot to really get excited about internationally from this class.

2013 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dennis Schroder, Rudy Gobert, Raul Neto

Notable players drafted: Lucas Nogueira, Sergey Karasev, Livio Jean-Charles, Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Abrines, Marko Todorovic, Bojan Dubljevic, Jannis Timma

Grade: A-

Reasoning: It is looking more and more that two best players from this draft will be the “Greek Freak” and “Stifle Tower”, who have long-term All-Star potential. Schroder probably is in the Top-10 currently of players from this draft, with potential to be a Top-5 players from this draft if he inherits the starting position from Jeff Teague (whom the Atlanta Hawks seem to be shopping around this off-season) next year. And Raul Neto started more than half the games this year for the Jazz and at the very least looks to be a serviceable back up point guard if his shooting doesn’t come around. What helps boost this class too is the potential of Nogueira who could be better next year with another year of experience and more opportunity (he has mostly played in the D-League). I also like Alex Abrines, a Euroleague Rising Star this season, who is coming off his best season for Barcelona this season. At 22 years old, I would not be shocked to see him explore a NBA opportunity within the next few years.

2014 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Dante Exum, Jusuf Nurkic, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic

Notable players drafted: Dario Saric, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Damien Inglis, Walter Tavares, Alessandro Gentile, Nemanja Dangubic

Grade: B-

Reasoning: A whole lot of potential here, but still relatively unproven. Capela and Jokic had good seasons last year, but they have to display that they can do it on an annual basis. Nurkic and Exum had injuries derail their seasons last year after promising rookie campaigns, but they seem young and early enough in in their careers to recover. Saric will be making his much anticipated debut in Philadelphia this year for the Sixers, and Inglis and Taveras might see more time in the NBA next year after mostly languishing in the D-League over the past couple of seasons. Thus, this class could either be pretty good or pretty bad, it’s too early to tell at this point. Nonetheless, I like its potential, and give it a B- rating for that, as well as for solid Euroleague stars like Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce, Gentile of EA7 Milan and Dangubic of Crvena Zvezda.

2015 NBA Draft

Successful draft picks: Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja

Notable draft picks: Nikola Milutinov, Willy Hernangomez, Juan Pablo Vaulet, Arturas Gudaitis, Dimitrios Agravanis, Luka Mitrovic.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Porzingis obviously captured the basketball world by storm, and was the second-best rookie of this latest draft class behind Karl Anthony Towns. Hezonja struggled to find minutes in his rookie year, but with Frank Vogel now in charge, he will have a better shot to see time on the court (Scott Skiles notoriously did not like playing rookies or young guys). I think Mitrovic and Hernangomez have potential to make it to the NBA, but they still are 2-3 years away, and need to get stronger if they want to make that adjustment.

 

NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.

Jayhawk Jump? Can Kelly Oubre Follow Andrew Wiggins’ Lead in the NBA?

Kelly Oubre (left) maybe didn’t capture Jayhawk fans in 2014-2015 like expected, but it was the right decision for him to leave after 1 year.

Being in Kansas City, Kansas Jayhawk basketball dominates college (and just general) basketball talk. People either love or loathe KU hoops, and their opinions of certain players can be quite intense. No two players have been as polarizing the last couple of years than Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 recruit out of high school, No. 1 draft pick and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Kelly Oubre, a top-10 prospect out of high school who followed Wiggins’ lead and declared for the draft out of high school.

For starters, if you understand the KU landscape, the easiest explanation of why these two players generate so much discussion is they have been the antithesis of what KU fans “expect” from their players. Jayhawk players stay for multiple years. Jayhawk player develop in Bill Self’s system and get better by year 2 or 3. Jayhawk players win Big 12 titles and go to Final Fours. Jayhawk players represent the name on the front and not on the back.

I know…it’s hard not to laugh at this crap, especially considering all the issues going on with the NCAA and College Basketball in general. But in all reality, this is how 90 percent of KU fans view their players and teams on a year-to-year basis. They really believe all those characteristics are associated with the Jayhawks like “The Cardinal Way” is with St. Louis Cardinals fans. And in the minds of Jayhawk fans, Wiggins and Oubre represented the opposite of that. They didn’t stay for more than 1 year. They didn’t “fit” in Self’s system offensively. They both exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And they were “perceived” as players who cared more about their individual goals rather than team goals (i.e. they declared for the draft even though they didn’t achieve much success in the postseason).

First off, Wiggins was a projected No. 1 pick and Oubre was expected to go in the top-20. It’s hard to say “no” when those are your circumstances, especially as draft classes and stocks change quickly on an annual basis. Before he played a college game, Cliff Alexander, another fellow KU recruit who was actually rated higher than Oubre coming out of high school, was perceived as a Top-5 to Top-10 pick. Less than a year later? He’s undrafted and fighting for a roster spot, his future most likely destined for a D-League or International team next year. You can’t blame Wiggins, Oubre or any other NBA player for going while their stock is high (though Wiggins of course had the much higher stock).

In response to point number two, wings have always traditionally struggled in Self’s system at Kansas. Self runs primarily a 3-out, 2-in motion that looks to get touches and points in the paint through their big-men, and it’s obvious by the numbers that Self prefers scoring in the paint than beyond the arc (i.e. traditionalist basketball coach). Case in point, in the past four seasons, 58.3 percent of KU buckets have been assisted. A pretty good percentage and sign for a team, displaying there is more of an emphasis on passing and ball movement in Self’s system. However, in the past four seasons, only 28.9 percent of their field goal attempts have been from beyond the arc, and they haven’t rated higher than 247th in the nation in 3-point attempt percentage the past four seasons as well. What does that mean? It shows that all that ball movement and passing is going primarily to 2-point shots and 2-point shots typically are the forte of post players since they tend to be closer to the basket for closer 2’s (nobody game plans for mid-range jumpers, unless you’re Byron Scott). That is not necessarily something that corresponds with the trend in play going on in the NBA right now and what is wanted from wings at the college level (i.e. shooting from beyond the arc).

So what can you take away from Self’s system? It means that you have to take big-man production with a grain of salt and give a little more understanding to wing players who may struggle initially. So, the Thomas Robinson’s and Perry Ellis’ of the world are going to look good playing for Self while Wiggins and Oubre may leave some to be desired. But it’s not necessarily the latter wing players fault, as it seems to be more of a by-product of Self’s “post player preference” offense (common in 3-2 motion offenses).

Despite an offensive system that doesn’t typically play to wing players’ successes, Wiggins and Oubre still succeeded and improved over the course of their career, even if it was one season. At the end of the year, against Tier A competition (Top-50 opponents), according to Ken Pomeroy, Wiggins posted an adjusted offensive rating of 101.4, a True Shooting percentage of 53.6 percent and usage rate of 27.8 percent. Despite an offense geared toward posts, and against elite competition (in 2013-2014, KU had the toughest overall schedule in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy), Wiggins became effectively “the Man” for KU and carried the Jayhawks offensively. To compare to No. 2 pick, Jabari Parker of Duke, though Parker edged him slightly in the same category (Tier A opponents) in adjusted offensive rating (101.7), he did have a higher usage rate (31.8) but a lower true shooting percentage (51.5 percent). So Wiggins did improve in his career, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wiggins ended up having the Rookie of the Year season that he did. He flourished as much as he could have in Self’s system, and he got out while his stock was high.

As for Oubre, he didn’t have quite the same success that Wiggins had, but he wasn’t necessarily the same prospect either (Oubre was always a Top-10 guy, not a Top-2 player like Wiggins). His offensive rating over the year was a lot lower than Wiggins (108.7 to Wiggins’ 112.3) and he wasn’t as featured in the offense as Wiggins either (22.1 usage rate to Wiggins’ 25.5 rate). But Oubre, started the year horrifically (he only played double digit minutes in 2 of the first 7 games) and then really came into his own in Big 12 play. In conference play alone, his offensive rating stood at 110.0 with a true shooting percentage of 53.6 and a defensive rebounding rate of 19.3, which was actually the fifth best mark in that category in the Big 12. And much like Wiggins, Oubre proved to be a menace defensively, with Wiggins being better at blocking shots (3.1 to 2.5) and Oubre better at swiping the ball from opponents (3.6 to 2.3). Oubre still has to develop his outside shot, as he only shot 32.1 percent from the arc in Big 12 play and 32.7 percent against Tier A competition (compared to Wiggins, who shot 36.8 percent in Big 12 play; though he did only shoot 30 percent from beyond the arc against Tier A competition). But Oubre offers the same kind of athletic, offensive and defensive flexibility that made Wiggins such a success at Kansas and in Minnesota his first year in the League.

One of the main arguments though against Oubre by traditional Jayhawks fans though was that Oubre needed another year to develop. Unlike big men, who have gotten better with more years at Kansas (i.e. Robinson, who blossomed as junior, and Ellis), that hasn’t necessarily been the sure-fire case with perimeter players. Yes guys like Frank Mason got better last year (his offensive rating jumped from 105.8 to 111.5 his sophomore season), but Wayne Selden saw his offensive rating drop from 104.9 his freshman season to 98.0 his sophomore season, last year. Sure, Oubre could have seen an increase in efficiency and production his second season at Kansas, but it could also have gone south, like Selden, a late first-round to second round pick projection at the end of his freshman season who looks like a NBA longshot at this point. Oubre has a NBA game, and while his skills need some refinement, he still did enough his first year at Kansas to merit a NBA team using a first round pick on him.

As far as the last comment from Jayhawk fans about neither Wiggins nor Oubre winning anything as collegiate players? I think that is vastly overrated when it comes to evaluating college players and whether or not they’ll be successful at the NBA level. First off, neither Wiggins or Oubre had complete teams when they entered the Tournament. Wiggins’ squad had lost Joel Embiid, who was playing like one of the best big men in the country, while Oubre’s team struggled all year along with a go-to guy, that amplified even more when Alexander was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season after 28 games. Furthermore, in college, it is hard for one player to transcend a team over the top, especially in the one-and-done style of the Tournament. In the NBA Playoffs, the best teams usually wins because it’s a 7-game series. In a single-elimination tournament, it’s a crap shoot that is fun to see because of the upsets, but usually results in Final Four matchups that usually underwhelm because the best teams aren’t in the championship (i.e. Butler and UConn circa 2011 and UConn-Kentucky circa 2014…yes, I do not like watching UConn).

And remember these facts: Kevin Durant lost in the 2nd round his freshman year at Texas; Parker lost in the first round with Duke; Chris Paul lost in the 2nd round of the tournament his sophomore year at Wake Forest; and Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t have won a championship if not for Gerry McNamara going insane or Hakim Warrick blocking that shot against Kansas down the stretch. Throw a packing zone defense or have one player hit an insane amount of threes for a half and even a slightly-above average or even average can knock off a college team with LeBron James. You cannot blame Wiggins and Oubre for not winning it all in the college landscape. In the NBA? You have an argument, but not college where the rules (longer shot clock, no zone defense limits) and circumstances (single-elimination postseason) make it far too difficult for one player to carry their team to a championship.

So, despite what many “Jayhawk Purists” think (i.e. fans who still hang onto players becoming the next Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Heinrichs, Nick Collison, Scott Pollard, Greg Ostertag, etc.), Wiggins had a successful year at Kansas and it transitioned to the NBA, and Oubre had a successful season at Kansas, even if many Jayhawk fans might not admit it (do not point to the 9.3 ppg…per game numbers can be deceiving due to pace and the offense a coach employs, and neither really helped Oubre all that much last year, especially with the offense lacking direction and definition immensely at times beyond Oubre’s control). Will that transition to a successful season for Oubre his rookie year though? Can Oubre prove to the KU naysayers much like Wiggins did with Minnesota?

As of two Summer League games, Oubre is trying to make his case. He leads the Wizards in minutes at 29.5 per game, he is scoring 19 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game, and showing flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, averaging 1.5 steals per game along with some highlight reel blocks. However, Oubre is only shooting 35.1 percent from the field and a ghastly 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. His shaky 3-point shot has been a critique from scouts of Oubre as well as his shot selection and that seems to be evident in the limited 2 game sample in Summer League. That being said, Oubre is showing the strong rebounding ability and offensive and defensive versatility that made him a weapon at Kansas and persuaded the Wizards to trade for him at 15 in last year’s draft (the Hawks had the original pick).

It will be tough though for Oubre to match the heights of Wiggins’ Rookie Campaign in Washington. First off, unlike Wiggins, Oubre is coming to a playoff team with a strong (but still young) veteran presence. With John Wall and Bradley Beal leading the way, and Otto Porter coming off a strong second year, minutes will be tough to come by for Oubre in the Wizards rotation. I would not be surprised at all to see the same growing pains for Oubre that Porter had his rookie year, where he only played 37 games and struggled to find minutes. The Wizards are looking to compete for a Eastern Conference title with Cleveland, and Randy Wittman has displayed a short leash with his rookies in the past.

But, Oubre has potential, and he could be a sleeper from this 2015 draft class. Though he certainly was a polarizing figure at Kansas (like Wiggins) and while some Jayhawk fans felt he was a disappointment, Oubre was a lot better than people thought last season and he left to be a professional at a good time, considering the circumstances (offense, Self’s history with producing NBA wings) back in Lawrence. Maybe Oubre and Wiggins could have benefited from another year at KU. It certainly would have been fun to see Wiggins or Oubre as sophomores. But considering the situations they both faced, it was obvious that the benefits would have helped the Jayhawks more than them as individuals in the long-term and that is a risk that certainly wouldn’t have been worth it for either of their professional futures.

I know that’s something Kansas fans don’t want to hear (i.e. a player cares more about his individual future than the team’s). But I know most Kansas fans (and myself) and even would be thinking about their own livelihoods too if they had a chance to accumulate millions of dollars immediately too, degree acquired or not.

Kings Retro Draft Journal: The Short, but Lasting Negative Legacy of Tyreke Evans

Despite winning Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans failed to live up to expectations in Sacramento
Despite winning Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans failed to live up to expectations in Sacramento

With the Draft coming up on Thursday, I felt it was time to look at some of the Kings’ previous draft classes. In this post, I am going to focus on the 2009 draft and specifically Tyreke Evans, the Kings’ first draft pick (No. 4 overall) out of Memphis. Though Evans was a highly heralded prospect out of college (and even high school), he is best remembered for being drafted over All-Star players Demar Derozan, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday (who he is teammates with ironically) and famously Stephen Curry (yes…All-Star, Regular Season MVP, NBA Champion and father of cute kid Riley Stephen Curry). And yet, Evans has been productive in his NBA career (he ranks 11th in Win Shares in a loaded draft class that also includes Blake Griffin, James Harden and Ty Lawson just to name a few) despite injuries, and he did win the 2009-2010 Rookie of the Year award, which gave a lot of Kings hope in his future initially. So he hasn’t heard total bust status in the Greg Oden or Adam Morrison mold, but it’s obvious that the Kings got hosed in what was a legendary draft class.

Let’s take a look at the brief, but lasting legacy Evans left with the Kings and if there is anything the Kings or Kings fans can learn from Evans’ four years in Sacramento.

The Theus-Natt Disaster, Looking to Rebuild and Settling for Fourth

The 2008-2009 season, you could argue with good and valid reason, was the worst in the history of the franchise. After a 6-18 start, the Kings fired second-year head coach “Hangtime” Reggie Theus and assistant Kenny Natt took over in the interim to disastrous results. Under Natt, the team finished 11-47 and 17-65 overall, the worst record in the NBA that year. The Theus-Natt-led Kings that season were catastrophic on all kinds of levels and let’s compile a list of what they were putrid at:

  • They ranked dead last in SRS (Simple Rating System) at negative-8.60.
  • They were awful defensively, as they rated dead last in defensive rating, allowing 114.7 points per 100 possessions, and were second to last in points allowed per game, allowing 109.3 ppg.
  • Kings fans noticed this too, as they ranked second-to-last in attendance. While you could contribute the empty seats mostly to a lousy team with no recognizable stars, this season was also the beginning of the Maloofs losing money and looking to sell and possibly move the Kings.

The Kings had a couple of pieces to build around. Rookie Jason Thompson had a decent, though unspectacular rookie campaign, helping satisfy fans who thought the product out of Ryder was an over-draft at No. 12. (For a while former GM Geoff Petrie was really good at drafting unheralded guys and getting the most out of them). Thompson averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg and put up a 49.7 percent field goal percentage while average 28.1 MPG. Furthermore, Thompson was the only King to appear in all 82 games that season. Second-year center Spencer Hawes complemented Thompson in the low block, and greatly improved from a lackluster rookie campaign. In his second year, Hawes appeared in 77 games and started 51 and put up a similar stat-line to Thompson, averaging 29.3 MPG (over double his 13.1 MPG average his rookie year ) as well as 11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.9 apg and 1.2 bpg. With his balance skill set and surprising passing ability for a big, Hawes reminded many Kings fans of Vlade Divac and Chris Webber, who also were adept passing big men during the Adelman-era Kings.

Beyond Thompson and Hawes though, things looked rather bleak roster-wise. The Kings the past couple of years tried to toe-the-line in NBA no-man’s land, trying to still be competitive as a playoff team even though they didn’t have the firepower to get past the first round. Theus kept the team respectable in his initial season as coach, helping the Kings go 38-44 after the 1 year disaster of Eric Musselman when the Kings went 33-49 after making the playoffs the year previously. But it was obvious that the Kings needed to go a different direction after 3 seasons with Ron Artest (i.e. Metta World Peace) and playing in that 8-12 seed level. The Kings traded Artest to the Rockets before the season, and as the team floundered, they also traded John Salmons and Brad Miller (a long-time Kings standout) for practically peanuts (i.e. Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, Michael Ruffin and Cedric Simmons). Martin was heralded as the “star” of the group and he put up gaudy numbers (24.1 ppg and team-leading 19.1 PER and 4.7 win shares), but he only played in 51 games, and his frail frame and lack of defensive value made Kings circles wonder if he really was the “man” going forward.

Due to a mixture of incompetency and subtle tanking, the Kings earned the worst record and thus, the most ping-pong balls in the lottery. It was obvious that Blake Griffin was going to go first, and even though the Kings were already set with Thompson and Hawes in the post, Griffin was such a special player that they could make room for him amidst their crowded front court. However, as typical with the Kings, luck bounced them out of the Top-3 (LAC, Memphis and OKC earned the top-3 picks), and they had to settle for the fourth pick, which put them out of the franchise-changing Griffin sweepstakes.

“Stuck Between a 1 and 2”: Evans vs. Curry

With Griffin out, it was obvious that the Kings needed to focus on the perimeter (Center Hasheem Thabeet was a consensus Top-3 pick, but with Hawes, he wouldn’t fit in the Kings’ plans anyways). Beno Udrih was expendable, as he put up a lackluster 12.3 PER and 1.2 win shares in 73 appearances the previous season. So, the shift focused on upgrading the point guard position, (James Harden was known as the most polished player in the draft, but with Martin manning the same position, there didn’t seem to be a lot of outcry for Harden from Kings fans at the time).

That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as the draft was loaded with point guard prospects such as Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, just to name a few. However, the “pure” point guard prospects certainly had their concerns. Rubio wasn’t averse to playing in Sacramento, but he was still signed with his Spanish club DKV Joventut, and he would have required a $6-8 million dollar buyout to come state-side. Though Rubio certainly had the most upside out of any of the point guard prospects in the draft (he was only 19, and he impressed people with his performance with the Spanish National Team in the Olympics the previous summer), it didn’t seem like the Kings were all that hot on Rubio sporting a Kings hat on Draft Day. Jennings was another impressive prospect who ended up skipping out on college to play a year in Europe, but stories about his struggles with Roma as well as maturity issues seemed to push him out of the No. 4 pick discussion.

So the discussion centered on two guys who were considered point guard prospects in the draft but really weren’t pure point guards in college: Memphis’ Evans and Davidson’s Curry.

If you look at Evans and Curry’s Draft Express profiles, it is funny how they both are labeled “stuck between 1 and 2”. Evans made the transition to the Point midway through the year at Memphis and helped Memphis rally to a No. 2 seed in the tournament (though they did get bounced in the Sweet 16 by Missouri). Evans size and ability to get to the rim was lauded and pointed out as a key reason why Memphis was able to not miss a beat after their National Runner-up campaign a year ago. Furthermore, Evans’ strong season at Memphis was constantly compared to Derrick Rose, who led the Tigers as the point the previous season. Evans averaged 17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.9 apg, and some people at the time preferred Evans to Rose due to Evans’ size and rebounding ability, which was superior to Rose in college.

As for Curry, he was known for his strong performances in the 2008 tournament, but he played mostly off-guard that year and had a much deeper, polished Davidson team. In 2009, with a lot of players gone, Curry took the reigns as point, and suffered some growing pains, as the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament after making the Elite 8 the previous year. Despite missing the tournament, Curry was lauded for carrying the shorthanded Wildcats, as he averaged 28.6 ppg and 5.6 apg his junior season, all career highs.

Curry had the shooting touch, NBA pedigree (his dad was long-time NBA sniper Dell Curry) and the “star” value to merit the No. 4 pick in the draft, but Evans had the size, the tutelage (Calipari was being dubbed a “point-guard whisperer after getting successful one and done season from Evans and Rose back-to-back) and the versatility that attracted Kings fans more. Even if Evans didn’t pan out as a point guard, the thought amongst Kings fans was that he would develop into a versatile enough wing that would eventually push Martin out-of-town, and then the Kings could get the point they wanted down the road. In Mock Drafts, the consensus seemed to be Evans at 4, even with the sharp-shooting Curry available.

Quick Start, Regression and Internal Strife Lead to Departure

For a season, it looked like the Kings made the right decision. Evans got off to a hot start with a couple of buzzer-beaters, and his strong, confident demeanor was backed up by an impressive 20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, and 5.3 rpg line in 72 games for the 25-57 Kings. Evans was most impressive in the beginning of the year, as were most of the Kings, as they got off to an 8-8 start and were 18-34 at the All-Star break, not bad considering that was 1 win better than they had all season a year ago. But new head coach Paul Westphal failed to keep any momentum as they struggled in the second half (they went 7-23 post All-Star break) and on the road (7-34 away from Arco). Evans also suffered regression after the All-Star break, with his scoring declining (from 20.3 to 19.8) and shooting regressing as well (53.8 to 51.3 True Shooting pct. from first to second half). The silver lining in all of this? Evans’ rebounding jumped (from 4.8 to 6.2) as well as his assists (5.1 to 6.9). Despite all the concerns with his “tweener” status, Evans showed hope to Kings fans that he could be the Kings primary playmaker (the assist jump was a nice sign) as well as bring different strengths to the Kings lineup (such as rebounding).

Despite Curry’s solid campaign (17.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 43.7 3-PT percentage), Evans’ hot start and gaudy triple category numbers (points, rebounds, assists) earned Evans the Rookie of the Year award. After that season though, Evans simply struggled to replicate his rookie year in the subsequent seasons with the Kings. Evans battled through injury (he suffered through plantar fascitis) and played in only 57 games through a rough 24-58 campaign. Evans’ numbers tumbled down as his PPG (17.8), RPG (4.8), True Shooting (48.2%) and PER (14.4) all regressed greatly. And to make matters worse, the Kings, hoping Evans would turn into their versatile point guard of the future, rarely played the position. After earning 10% of his floor time at point his rookie year, Evans only played the position 1% of the time his sophomore season. This proved to be a trend, as Evans hasn’t played point guard more than 1% of the time until this season (where it bumped up to a whopping 2%).

As Evans floundered, Curry improved, posting 18.6 ppg and a 19.4 PER his sophomore campaign under Keith Smart. But a coaching change to Mark Jackson his third season, who gave Curry more leash and ability to be creative really marked the difference in Curry going from fringe-star to bonafide-star. Since his third season, Curry hasn’t posted a PER less than 21.2 and has totaled 49.1 Win Shares from his third-year on. And Curry has been a two-time All-Star, won a MVP award and helped the Warriors win their first title since 1975.

As for Evans, well he didn’t quite have the continuity in Sacramento that Curry benefited from in Golden State. Though the Kings upgraded in talent the following year by drafting Demarcus Cousins, the two never really fit and struggled to concede Alpha Dog status in the three seasons they were together in Sacramento. And it made sense. Cousins needs the ball to be productive, and Evans, who showed glimmers of ability to be a playmaker, ended up showing his true colors: as a score-first guard. These two styles were bound to clash (which they did) and considering where both players were at in their careers (just starting out) and without good leadership on the coaching staff or front office, it was just bound not to work out in the long run for both of them despite their talent. Add that with the fact that Evans never seemed to mesh with either Paul Westphal or Keith Smart (who replaced Westphal in the middle of the 2011-2012 season and coached the entire 2012-2013 season as well), and the emergence of another shoot-first guard (Isaiah Thomas) and Evans, who was originally seen as the cornerstone of the franchise, seemed expendable.

And he was. With a new ownership (Vivek), a new coach (Mike Malone) and new GM (Pete D’Alessandro), Evans seemed to be a relic of the old guard that wasn’t worth keeping around. On July 10, 2013, Evans was traded to New Orleans in a three-way trade (along with Portland) that basically saw Evans swiped with more pass-first oriented Grievis Vasquez.

What went wrong with Evans in Sacramento?

After being traded to New Orleans, Evans signed a four-year extension worth a little over $43 million. The money really isn’t that bad when you think about it. Despite the disappointing tenure in Sacramento, he still has a career PER average of 17.3 and has accumulated 21.7 Win Shares. In terms of traditional stats, his career ppg average is 16.8, his career rpg average is 4.9 and his career apg average is 5.2. Yes, Evans struggles from beyond the arc (career 27.8 3 PT percentage), and he still seems privy to taking that shot (he shot 2.9 3 point attempts per game last seasons). But Evans finishes well around the rim (55.8 fg percentage on shots 0-3 ft out) and has demonstrated a decent mid-range (39.8 fg percentage on 16<3-pt shots) to still merit himself as an above-average NBA player. Also, his improvement defensively (he was consistently less than 1 when it came to defensive win shares, but he actually earned 2.2 defensive win shares a year ago) also demonstrates that his game is maturing and becoming more well-rounded in New Orleans than it was Sacramento.

However, why didn’t things work out for Evans after so much promise his rookie season? How come Evans didn’t progress like Curry did in Golden State? Yes, a NBA title and MVP for Evans might have been a bit of a stretch, but you think a guy who earned Rookie of the Year in that draft class would have at least one All-Star appearance in Sacramento, right?

Well, what killed Evans was management’s lack of building around him in the right way. Yes, it’s hard to argue the drafting of Demarcus Cousins, but if the organization was really serious about making Evans the centerpiece of the Kings, they would have drafted somebody more complimentary, such as a Greg Monroe, who would have complemented Evans more with his passing ability from the high post. (And I am NOT supporting drafting Monroe over Cousins BTW…I am just saying that is what they should have done if they were serious about building the team around Evans). And Cousins is really the tip of the iceberg: the drafting of Jimmer Fredette, the acquisitions of John Salmons and Marcus Thornton, these were all decisions that really clashed with Evans truly being the “man” in Sacramento. If you look at Golden State, they took the opposite route of Sacramento. Instead of getting talent that clashed with their “franchise” player, they built around him, even letting talent go (Monta Ellis) in order to build around their star player. That lack of foresight didn’t just hurt the Kings (they have consistently been a lottery team since drafting Evans), but hurt Evans as well, who was never able to find the right cast around him to succeed beyond his individual numbers.

Of course, to play Devil’s Advocate, you could argue that all the chaos in ownership and the front office hurt Evans’ development in Sacramento. You could also argue that they never felt Evans was a franchise guy to begin with, and that when they had a chance to draft Cousins, the writing was on the wall for Evans in SacTown. You could also argue that Evans was subject to bad coaching in Sacramento, and if that he had the kind of coaches that Steph Curry had in Golden State maybe Evans would have closed that gap between them a little more and maybe he would be wearing purple and black still. There are a lot of scenarios of course, and all are plausible. Evans really is a fascinating case because the talent is there, still productive and he is still young at 25 years old. One would think there is still hope for the guy even if he will never, ever touch Curry’s career heights.

And really, a comparison to Curry isn’t fair because they aren’t the same player. Curry really is a point guard who needed time in the position. Evans probably never was and was unfairly expected to be one because he played half a season in the position at Memphis in a pinch. But it’s tough to stomach for Kings fans because they were initially seen as the same type of player in the draft, they were only 3 picks apart, and they were just hours apart in terms of their respective teams’ distance. Maybe the Kings would be celebrating their title and the Warriors would be looking at the lottery if Curry and Evans swapped. Maybe the parade would be a couple of hours north in Downtown Sac rather than in the Bay Area.

It’s those kinds of things that gnaw at Kings fans. And it’s those kinds of things that really make the drafting of Evans over Curry hurt more and longer than it really should.