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2017 Prospect Primer: The Returning Risers

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Chattanooga v Indiana Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Alrighty, we’re close to wrapping up this series. I’ve spent way more time on it than I should have, but it’s been a blast, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to dive into these guys for the first time this year. Today, I’ll be recovering returning players whose chances I like as risers in the draft. I’ll wrap up tomorrow with a piece on returners I’m not particularly high on. Here are the point guard, wing, big men, and foreign player primers from the weekend and the beginning of the week.

First up: Ivan Rabb.

Ivan Rabb, California

DX: 8, ESPN: 10

6’10 with shoes, 7’2 wingspan

Age: 19.5 years

Why you should be excited:

Despite playing on a team that featured 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown, Rabb was the best player on a Cal team that won 23 games and earned a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament. Rabb plays with a motor and energy that flows out to his teammates, and his best trait was his rebounding, where he brought in nearly 12 per 40 minutes. While he didn’t excel on the offensive end, Cuonzo Martin did him no favors by frequently playing him at the 4 alongside a non-shooting center, a non-shooting Jaylen Brown, and a non-shooting point guard, in Tyrone Wallace.

With Wallace and Brown gone, Cal is Rabb’s team now, and he’ll be featured much more prominently. Where before, he had to fight for O-boards to simply touch the ball on O, he’ll have plays called for him more frequently now, and will be featured as the roll man in more PnR’s, his biggest strength on offense.

Rabb has shown the makings of a nascent jumper, showing comfort out to the elbow and extending his range a bit since high school. Should he continue to grow, he should have a nice niche in the league as a small-ball 5 off the bench who brings energy and shooting.

Why you should be worried:

He’s likely underskilled to play at the 4 and not a strong enough defender to be a 5. I like Rabb well-enough as a player, but I have a hard time seeing him with a starting ceiling in the league. His 4.1% block rate puts him in the worst quartile of big man prospects, while his DBPM last year was not terrible, but below average.

Meanwhile, scouts keep trying to talk themselves into Rabb as a jump shooter, but he didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer last year and shot only 66.9% from the free throw line. He’ll need to show real progress as a shooter and passer to be taken seriously as a 4 in the NBA.

What to watch for:

His shooting and his defense. If Rabb can’t improve his defense, he’ll need to improve his shooting to play in a 4-out setting. If he can’t improve his shooting, he’ll need to improve his rim protection. Otherwise, he’ll be too much of a tweener to find a useful role as a NBA starter.

OG Anunoby, Indiana

DX: 16, ESPN: 16

6’8 with shoes, 7’3 wingspan, reportedly

Age: 19.1 years

Why you should be excited:

Anunoby’s breakout in the NCAA tournament was about as enticing an introduction to a toolsy prospect as there has been in recent years. At 6’8 and with a reported 7’3 (in some places it has even been reported to be 7’6) wingspan, and with outstanding lateral mobility, Anunoby has the type of body you might build in a lab to defend elite NBA wings. He can also throw down causal 360 dunks in game action.

Anunoby’s defensive prowess was on full display against Kentucky, where he turned Jamal Murray’s life into an inmate’s, denying ball, blocking jumpers, and preventing drives all game. If there is a prospect in this draft who may be taking the Kawhi Leonard track to NBA stardom, it might be Anunoby. (To be clear, I am not projecting Anunoby to become the full-fledged superstar Leonard is, but his tools and and skills could allow him to become a very productive player in Leonard’s mold.)

You can read a great scouting report by Cole Zwicker at Upside Motor. And here is his season’s highlight reel:

Why you should be worried:

Anunoby’s offensive game is still pretty raw, and he wasn’t featured much in the IU offense last year (his usage rate was only 17.5%), mainly scoring after defensive breakdowns, on offensive rebounds, or in transition. There are also some questions about his shot— while Anunoby made an impressive 44.8% of his 3-pointers last year, he only took 29 attempts, and his (similarly small sample) free throw percentage of 47.6% indicates that either his free throws or his 3-pointers were highly irregular last year.

Additionally, Anunoby’s passing numbers were disappointing last year, and, for someone with such a low usage, he had relatively high turnover numbers.

What to watch for:

How he handles more playing time and an increased role in Tom Crean’s offense. Anunoby was perfect as a defensive stopper and energy wing off the bench, but it will be interesting to monitor his shooting stroke and his ability to create off the dribble.

Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

DX: 17, ESPN: 22

6’9 with shoes, 7’0 wingspan

Age: 20.3 years

Why you should be excited:

Marquese Chriss and Skal Labissiere got all the publicity as shot blocking 4’s who could step out and take a jumper, but Tyler Lydon was the freshman with that skill set who actually had the best season last year.

Whereas Chriss’ shooting was above average and Skal’s was hypothetical last year, Lydon was actually a knockdown shooter for Syracuse, hitting 40.% of his 121 attempts from 3 as a freshman. Additionally, Lydon was by far the most intuitive of the three players, as he maintained a decent assist percentage, especially as compared to his relatively small usage. The tape backs this up with several impressive passes in his repertoire, particularly by following an up-fake and drive with a dump-off for a fellow big man.

Lydon’s block rate of 7.0% was also impressive for a power forward and above average for all big men. While he did benefit from playing the center role in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, it does demonstrate his instincts and footspeed, as he put himself in the correct position to contest and block the shots.

Here’s another scouting report from Cole Zwicker. We share quite a few scouting philosophies, so it is unsurprising that we should agree on some under the radar prospects.

Why you should be worried:

As is often the case when my assessment differs from traditional scouts, Lydon had a relatively low usage of only 16.6%. He showed off some line-drive ability against close-outs, but it remains to be seen how efficient he can be in an expanded role.

Additionally, while he was an extremely effective defensive big, his rebound rate will leave you a bit wanting. However, it seems more than likely that there will be a ready-made role for Lydon at the next level as a floor-spacer and shot blocker at the 4 position.

What to watch for:

How Lydon operates in an expanded role. The loss of Malachi Richardson and Trevor Cooney means there will be more touches for each of the returning players, and a larger role for Lydon to step into. If he can maintain his efficiency and increase his passing numbers while possessing the ball for longer periods of time, expect him to be a great candidate for a late lottery selection.

Mikal Bridges, Villanova

DX: N/A, ESPN: 35

6’6 with shoes, 7’1 wingspan

Age: 20.0 years old

Why you should be excited:

All the same reasons as with Anunoby. Bridges has excellent wing size and length, plus the athleticism and mobility to channel it into elite defensive ability. He was, very quietly, one of the unsung heroes of Villanova’s championship run last year, as he had a NetRtg of 35.9 in 20 minutes per game. In Jay Wright’s 4-out system, he was often used as a 3/4 hybrid off the bench, with his length used to initiate a three-quarters press, and his mobility allowing him to switch coverage constantly on defense.

You can see his impact pressuring the ball at the point of attack and finishing emphatically while displaying his athleticism in this clip against St. John’s.

Moreover, there are very few peripheral skills at which Bridges was less than good. He kept his turnovers low, rebounded effectively, had sky-high steal and block rates (plus DBPM), and got to the line frequently. Creation (both for himself and for teammates) was the only skill that lagged for Bridges.

Why you should be worried:

If Anunoby’s offensive usage was low, Bridges’ was downright anemic. He was a smart player who didn’t try to do things he was unable to do, therefore not harming the offense in any way, but he also rarely finished plays or found teammates for assists. His 14.5% usage is among the lowest by any prospects in my database (only Theo Pinson, at 14.4 is lower). To be a real threat on offense, he’ll need to grow into a larger role.

In addition, Bridges had trouble from 3, where he shot only 29.9% on a healthy 77 shot attempts. His free throw percentage was solid, at 78.7%, but he’ll need to do better as a jump shooter to have a future in the league.

What you should watch for:

How Bridges plays in a larger role and how his shot looks. Everything else looks great for Bridges to be a useful NBA player. If he can up his usage closer to 20% while maintaining efficiency and keeping his turnovers low and also show that he can become a real threat from 3, he’ll have a real shot to play a 3&D role in the league.