The NBA Finals have come and gone, and we’ve settled into the terrible time of year that features zero basketball games. (I’ve decided not to write anything about the Warriors winning the title. I ranked them as the best team in the league every time I did my Tuesday Top Tens and picked them to win the series in 5 games. To me, the only thing about their win worth talking about is their place in history, which based on the season they just had, is among the best of all time. I don’t feel like running up the hill that is comparing them to the Showtime Lakers and Fo Fo Fo Sixers. Maybe once it settles in, later this summer, I’ll do the necessary research and write that post. Anyway….)
Despite the lack of games, this time of year features my favorite basketball event: the NBA Draft. We’re mere days away from the craziness of the draft, and I can barely contain myself. I’ve spent the last several weeks injecting Chad Ford columns and DraftExpress videos directly into my bloodstream.
That brings us to today’s blog post, which I came up with title of months ago. It came to me, probably from some form of divine intervention, before I even knew what it would be as a post. For those unfamiliar, the Phoenix Suns drafted a man named Bogdan Bogdanovic last season. When he was drafted, someone from the broadcast team was under the impression they had drafted Bojan Bodganovic, who the Nets chose two years prior. See if you can notice the fact that the player who comes to shake hands with Adam Silver looks nothing like the player they feature in the highlights:
It’s all very confusing. In fact, when I tried to originally write this story from memory, I had both the teams and the Bogdanovic’s mixed up somehow. Bojan gave the Nets solid minutes this year, while Bogdan has yet to arrive in the states (but is threatening to come over soon).
The Boys Bogdanovic, though similar names, have very different games and will likely have wildly different careers. Foreign imports seem to be a crapshoot. For every Nowitzki, Gasol, Gasol, Ginobili, or Giannis, there’s inevitably a Jiri Welsch, Nikolas Tskitishvili, Jan Vesely or Darko Milicic. Is the batting average any worse than with domestic players? No, probably not. Fans can process the guy they watched score 25 per game in the ACC not working out in the league, but when your only prior knowledge of a prospect is grainy YouTube videos where he plays against what look like middle schoolers, it’s tougher to stomach. If you can’t pronounce his name, it’s even worse.
When Fran Fracshilla famously said Bruno Caboclo was “two years away from being two years away”, he wasn’t wrong, but UCLA’s Kevon Looney is by no means ready for the NBA. Trainers had to teach Myles Turner how to run. HOW TO RUN. There are riddles throughout the draft.
Let me, to the best of my ability, try to help answer this year’s riddles that happen to be written in a different language. There are three prospects doing their best Eddie Murphy impression (Coming to America) this season, and then a drop off to the next level of talent. Here’s what I’ve seen from those three players:
I’ll start with the man who embodies the phenomenon I just wrote about. Kristaps Porzingis is the antithesis of every tall, skilled, young, smooth, soft European big that’s ever come to the NBA. Some of those are the Darkos of the world. Others are Dirk and Danillo Gallinari and Nikola Vucevic (who is certainly not soft anymore). I find it hard to see Porzingis as anything but a stiff or a stud.
Oddly, the best comparison for ‘Taps, is none of the players I’ve listed above. Nor a European at all. When I see his game (7-footer with ball skills and unlimited range, but questions about toughness), I’m reminded of his fellow 2015 draft prospect, Frank Kaminsky. That may scare some of you. It may interest you. Frank is a divisive player. There aren’t a lot of people who feel so-so about Kaminsky, which is why he’ll be drafted in the late lottery or early teens.
Porzingis, however, has had his name flirted as high as the Lakers picking at number two. The reason? Kristaps Porzingis has the same game as Frank Kaminsky does right now, only he’s three years younger. When Kaminsky arrived in Madison, he was a lanky goober who Bo Ryan couldn’t give minutes. Porzingis is lightyears ahead of that. Were he to have walked on to any college campus this season, his coach would have salivated and made him the focal point of most offensive possessions. In Grantland’s mini-documentary about Kristaps, ESPN’s Chad Ford says he thinks if Porzingis had played college basketball this year, he’d be heavily in the discussions for the top pick.
I tend to agree. Porzingis is incredibly skilled for his size. You just don’t see 7-footers not named Dirk Nowitzki come off a double screen and nail a three.
You don’t see guys this size make centers guard their man 25-30 feet from the basket.
You do see soft Europeans get pushed around by stronger men in the NBA. Strength, in theory, is a developable skill. He’ll never be Jonas Valanciunas or Marcin Gortat, but given the time to grow, mature, and find his body, the very young Latvian can let his other elite skills cover for his trouble in the paint.
I don’t know that he’s a franchise guy. I don’t think you’ll ever win a title with Kristaps Porzingis as your best player. But I won’t bet against him. With the right coach and the right guards playing with him, he could be scary effective in the up-tempo NBA of 2015.
When I heard the next John Wall was headed to China to hone in skills and become a top 5 pick, I was certainly intrigued. In today’s NBA, if you’re going to be a great point guard, you’d better have a transcendent skill (Steph Curry’s shooting, Chris Paul’s ability to run an offense) or you need to be a freak athlete. Everything else about Mudiay’s game, (shooting, court vision, decision making) leaves a lot to be desired. But if he were the Wall or Westbrook level athlete, that would erase some of those concerns.
The problem is, I’m not sure he is that level of athlete. He’s capable of flashy warm-up dunks and his measurables are attractive. Watching his play in China though, Mudiay never reaches a gear that suggests it will translate to the NBA. He was able to get to the rim and finish in the Chinese Basketball Association, but struggles to do so with authority. Other prospects in this draft, namely Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson, have been described as freight trains in transition, but I don’t see the same level of explosion from Mudiay. When he does show flashes of that ability, he looks like a future All-Star:
Other times, he fails to burst at the rim and finish. Contested layups in traffic may work in the CBA, but that will fail to translate to the NBA.
If he isn’t a terror on the break, his mediocre passing and downright putrid shooting aren’t going to cut it in the half court. Even if that athleticism is better than I’m giving him credit for (he was injured during part of the Chinese season), he can’t shoot 58% from the foul line. Poor free throw shooting is a bad attribute, but for a guard to shoot that poorly suggests something much worse, like faulty shot mechanics.
Despite all of this, Mudiay is still intriguing. He’s only 19 years old. Though he might not have Russell Westbrook or John Wall’s pop, who does? He’ll be able to get to the rim and he has the physical tools to be a pest on the defensive end.
Can he be Victor Oladipo? Absolutely. But in a draft full of prospects I really like, that isn’t enough to get me really excited about Mudiay in the top 5.
I don’t want to do this. I really don’t. This is on the record. People will be able to come back to this and shove it in my face when it’s laughably wrong.
But I cannot deny it.
I LOVE MARIO HEZONJA. I NEED HIM IN MY LIFE.
That being said – NO WE’RE STAYING IN CAPS LOCK SCREAMING MODE FOR A BIT.
WHEN ASKED IF HE’S SEEN LIONEL MESSI PLAY, HE SAID “Let Messi come see me.”
HE’S BEEN DESCRIBED AS “KLAY THOMPSON WITH KOBE BRYANT’S ATTITUDE.”
HE REVERSE DUNKS ALLEY-OOPS LIKE I SLAM BURRITO BOWLS AT CHIPOTLE – OFTEN AND AGGRESSIVELY.
OK, with that out of my system, I will now attempt to somewhat rationally talk about America’s Future ManCrush, Mario Hezonja. If he’s not the best shooter in this draft, he’s in the top three (with D’Angelo Russell and RJ Hunter). Athletically he’s at least on par with the other top wing prospects in this draft (Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow), if not even better.
He’s got weaknesses and questions. Like Bill Murray in Space Jam, he’s not fond of defense. That’s not to say he’s not capable of being good at it. Offensively, his free throw rate is scary low. Those GIFs and videos of him driving for dunks look great, but they might be the only times he’s ever gone to the rim. Mario likes to shooter jumpers. Contested, step back, fall away. All of the above. And unless he sees a dunk opportunity, he’s settling for the jumper. Part of that could be a flaw in the way he plays. Part of it could be his role on a veteran laden Barcelona team.
He no doubt has the skills and physical makeup to be one of the NBA’s premier threes-and-D swingmen. If he plays some defense and uses his athleticism to get to the rim once in a while, the sky is the limit.
His attitude is something people will call distracting or polarizing, but I’ve talked myself into being excited about it. What would Jimmy Butler play like if he had that Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant pyscho ego? What happens if you give Rudy Gay a silky jumpshot and the brain of an angry spider monkey?
It’s concerning but hopeful when a prospect’s flaws aren’t with the toolbox, but in the way the tools are used. He could be a guy capable of shooting great from outside and getting to the paint. He just hasn’t shown that yet. The right coaching staff could develop Hezonja into a very nice player, if he’s willing to listen. The wrong situation could result in poor play snowballing with a bad attitude.
Either way, the Mario Hezonja Experience is coming stateside, and I can say one thing confidently: It won’t be boring.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.
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