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Malik Monk could help Philadelphia complete the puzzle

He may have few projectable NBA skills, but the Sixers desperately need them.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Kentucky Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

On Dec. 17, Kentucky freshman Malik Monk put together one of the best collegiate shooting performances in recent memory, in what was easily the best game of the young season. Monk single handedly willed the Wildcats to a victory over No. 7 North Carolina, dropping an unconscious 47 points (a new Kentucky freshman record) on 18-28 shooting from the field and 8-12 from three-point range.

Just four days later, the 18-year-old put up a dud against No. 10 Louisville, getting many of the same looks as he did against UNC, yet only converting on six of his 17 attempts, and just one three-pointer.

That is the peril of being a gunner cut from the same cloth as the likes of Lou Williams, J.R. Smith, and Jamal Crawford: some nights you’re more of a bricklayer than a bucket getter.

Despite the apparent flaws of employing that style of play, there’s undoubtedly a place in the NBA for someone with Monk’s skill set, and he’s a player the Sixers should and likely will target in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Even with the poor shooting performance against Louisville, Monk’s still putting up insane numbers. He’s averaging 21.4 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from beyond the arc on 8.3 attempts per game. Outside shooting has been and will continue to be his bread and butter, and he’s shown a proficiency getting those baskets in a multitude of ways.

Kentucky does a good job of using their bigs as screeners to provide Monk with catch-and-shoot looks from different spots on the floor.

Even when tightly contested, Monk rarely seems to have trouble getting a clean look. He typically steps into his shot, explodes off the ground like his knee ligaments are made of springs, and his high release point makes his shots nearly impossible to block. It’s no surprise he not only has one of the most efficient jumpers in basketball, but also one of the prettiest to watch.

Outside of his strengths as a catch-and-shoot perimeter threat, what makes Monk so special is his ability to create scoring opportunities for himself off the dribble. While he rarely gets to the rack in half court sets (more on that later), Monk does a good job of keeping defenders guessing and he rises up quickly to get his shot off.

Again, the high release point certainly helps, because even when he struggles to create separation, the hand in his face doesn’t necessarily phase him.

Monk is also smart enough to realize he’ll be the recipient of a hard closeout every time he touches the ball, and is effectively using ball fakes to provide himself easier shots off the dribble.

The floater hasn’t become a huge portion of his game yet, although I certainly think it’ll be one of the many useful tools in his bag of tricks. He’s got great touch, and shots like these sort of remind me of an older Jamal Crawford.

Monk’s step-back jumper is easily the most elite move in his bag of tricks, and he displays it consistently. The separation he’s able to create is unreal for someone at his age, and he’ll only get even better at it, especially when he learns to become more of a north-south player as opposed to east-west.

Although he focuses basically all of his efforts in the half court to either getting off a three, or a pull-up jumper at either the foul line or the baseline, there’s room to believe he can become a good finisher at the rim as well.

Monk’s been really good at pushing the ball in transition, and when his jumpers weren’t falling for him against Louisville, he used his burst to get some quality looks around the basket.

Monk doesn’t get to the rim often in the half court, but loves getting out on the break. With an open court to his advantage, he’s proven to be a solid and creative finisher around the rim.

The key to his development as a well-rounded threat will be to put more of an emphasis on playing downhill as opposed to settling for the long contested twos he covets.

Which leads us to his downside: Malik Monk’s shot selection is really bad. That ridiculous jumper from the top of the key he made against UNC with Justin Jackson draped all over him? Maybe not his best idea. The three he splashed against Cleveland State from right in front of the UK logo with 21 seconds left on the shot clock? Probably not a great decision. Just because they fall doesn’t make them good looks, and his willingness to chuck up any shot from anywhere is a tad bit concerning. It’s even worse when he’s foregoing some obvious passes to do it, like against UCLA, where he took (and somehow made) this tough shot over two defenders while ignoring a wide open Wenyen Gabriel in the corner.

Against stiffer competition in the NBA, he won’t get away with these kind of plays nearly as much as he is right now.

On the defensive end, Monk’s probably about as mediocre as it gets. His steal percentage (1.9 percent) and block percentage (1.1 percent) are the worst amongst the group of elite guards in this draft, including Dennis Smith Jr., who is an absolute slouch defensively. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. Monk is certainly engaged on that end of the floor, he’s just not much of a playmaker. A portion of that has to do with his size. Standing at just 6-foot-3, and a listed weight of 200 lbs., Monk’s not all that physically imposing. He doesn’t have the length to deflect passes, and stronger guards will muscle right through him. Off the ball, he’s still learning how to combat screens and switches (natural for someone his age), and he’s got a tendency to over help on ball handlers, which leads to open shots for his assignment.

All those issues taken into account, Monk probably gets pigeonholed as a two guard who defends point guards, dependent on the situation. In a league where the back court players are getting bigger (even though lineups in general may be getting smaller), he’ll likely be outmatched physically against other shooting guards.

Based on both his needs offensively and defensively, Philadelphia would be a perfect destination. Although Philadelphia’s pace is down from previous seasons, head coach Brett Brown still continues to preach tempo, and Monk would have no issues with that. Kentucky plays at breakneck speeds under John Calipari, and Monk excels at it.

Playing next to point god Ben Simmons, Monk could be the complimentary shooting guard the Sixers desperately need. Between Monk’s penchant to run off screens and Simmons’ knack for facilitating, the two are basically a match made in heaven. And since the onus of creation will fall more so upon Simmons than his counterpart, it may also eliminate some of the difficult jumpers Monk has shown a liking for over the past few months.

Monk’s ability to create for himself will still be useful if they let him run the second unit a la Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams of years past, but with Simmons, he can focus on getting open for threes and cutting to the rim.

On the defensive end, the Sixers can basically plug him in wherever the opposing team has a weak spot in their lineup. Simmons can guard 1-4, Robert Covington is one of the top end wing defenders in the NBA, and Joel Embiid is a premier rim protector. They have plenty of ways to hide his deficiencies there.

Philadelphia obviously wouldn’t use their top selection on Monk, although taking with him with the Los Angeles Lakers pick (which currently has the eighth best odds in the lottery) certainly shouldn’t be out of the question. It would stray away from their previously employed draft philosophies of best player available, and this draft is especially deep, but frankly, the Sixers need to be more focused on finding pieces that fit as opposed to trying to hit home runs. If the organization believes Joel Embiid and Simmons are their cornerstone pieces -- which they certainly should -- then the attention needs to be on surrounding them with players who complement their skill sets. Of course, there is a certain risk to taking a player with as few apparent translatable skills as Monk. For every Devin Booker there’s a Mario Hezonja. For every Zach LaVine there’s a Nik Stauskas.

Still, there’s just as much danger in trying to bank on upside, especially with a Sixers team struggling to find a viable solution for its ill-fitting pieces. If OG Anunoby --who’s only taken 60 career three-point attempts and is a dismal free-throw shooter -- can’t find his shot, then he only adds to the Sixers woes. Trying to mold ball-dominant guards like Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonzo Ball into complimentary options next to Simmons presents its own set of problems. (If the Sixers had the opportunity to select Fultz, then you find a way to make that work. In all likelihood, Simmons slots back in as a power forward.)

Even though the ceiling for Monk may be lower than others, general manager Bryan Colangelo needs to find someone who can fit seamlessly with Philadelphia’s expected core of the future. Right now, Malik Monk looks like one of the easiest fitting pieces in the Sixers offensive puzzle.

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