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Why Isaiah Livers should be a target for the Sixers in the 2021 NBA Draft

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For a team that won’t have a high pick in the upcoming draft, Livers might be the perfect second-round option.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t like the University of Michigan.

Raised as an Ohio State fan from birth due to #FamilialConnections, the only thing in sports that gave me more joy than a Buckeye win was a Wolverine loss. Sure, the hatred skewed more toward the gridiron than the basketball court, but my disdain for the maize and blue was present nonetheless.

I tell you all this because it’s important for you to understand just how good a Michigan-raised player has to be for me to overcome my feelings of animosity and support him. The Eagles’ Brandon Graham reached said level (for obvious reasons). Tim Hardaway Jr. progressively earned my respect with his burst-happy scoring ability. The Sixers’ own Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas never even came close to winning my favor (not that it should matter to them, for I am a loser and they are accomplished NBA players). A UM player has to be dope or play in a way that really, REALLY appeals to alter the anti-Michigan hardwiring in my mind.

Isaiah Livers has slowly become that guy. Enabled by the Sixers’ desperate need for a wing who can both shoot and play defense and his own fantastic play this season, the 6’7” senior from Kalamazoo has stood out to me as a realistic target given the team will likely be drafting in the bottom five of the first round. The Sixers also own the Knicks’ second-round pick instead of their own this season, which will likely fall somewhere in that 40-50 range.

There are other potential solutions to the Sixers’ bench problems outside of the draft that could help them this season. George Hill and P.J. Tucker are popular trade targets among the fanbase. I suggested on an episode of the Talking About Podcast that the OKC Thunder’s Kenrich Williams and Darius Miller are gettable but worthwhile swings for 3-and-D role players. Unfortunately we don’t yet have the technology that was used in Pokémon Black and White 2 to merge the legendary dragons together, so creating “Furkisse Korkbulle” is off the table for now.

The other non-trade/non-biological fusion path would be to hand over more minutes to rookie Isaiah Joe, who saw increased during Shake Milton’s roughly two week absence. It even looked like one night Doc Rivers was willing to experiment and give him Furkan’s spot in the rotation, but uneven shooting from him crossed with some hot nights from Korkmaz seems to have quelled that movement.

It would be great if the Sixers could upgrade the wings on their second unit during a season in which Joel Embiid is the frontrunner for MVP, Ben Simmons has made his case as the best perimeter defender in the league, and Tobias Harris is back to 2019-Clippers level efficiency. This is a window of championship contention that needs to be maximized. But trades and in-season moves are tricky matters of cost evaluation, whereas the draft is more or less an expense free accumulation of potentially impactful players. If Daryl Morey can’t find the move he wants this year, Livers might be the 3-and-D bench wing Sixers fans have always wanted.

Livers’ three-point numbers have “dropped” to 44.8 percent on 9.7 attempts per 100 since I sent out that above tweet — still good enough numbers to wet a one’s appetite for floor spacing and shot making. That stroke is the main selling point for him, as he’s shot 41.2 percent from deep on nearly 400 attempts during his four seasons at Michigan while also drilling 85.4 percent of his free throws in his college career.

But simply being able to make threes isn’t enough in and of itself. A player needs to be able to can shots over heavy contests and be capable of getting attempts off in difficult situations to truly make it the NBA with that as a primary skill. While Livers isn’t a movement shooting demigod akin to J.J. Redick or Duncan Robinson, he is far from a stationary corner-only spacer. Juwan Howard has utilized three-man sets where he jogs around the area a la Danny Green style, either setting ball screens or merely floating in circles around the free throw line before receiving a flare screen or pin down from the big on the court to spring him free. So long as he has time to set his two feet in line with the basket, he’s taking it and most likely making it no matter what the defender does from there.

Overall Livers ranks in the 88th percentile nationally on jump shots of any kind and in the 85th percentile on catch and shoot’s specifically. He doesn’t posses a supremely tight handle nor the quick burst ability that is needed to be a self-creator (that’s more in-line with his current teammate and likely top-20 pick Franz Wagner), but he has enough strength and on-ball skills to be trusted with a few pick-and-roll opportunities each game in ways that wing players like Green and Thybulle cannot.

This pick-and-roll possession struck me as emblematic of what he can do given the freedom to dribble and freestyle. His feet are too heavy for him to blow past the defender Keegan Murray (another guy I’ve liked a lot this season), and he doesn’t have a move in his bag to counter being walled off. But instead of forcing a shot or plowing through a fruitless drive, Livers is patient and kicks out to his guard, flows immediately into setting a ball screen, and expertly slips it as he sees Murray show and drills a tough three.

That’s not the type of play that can consistently supplement an offense, but it’s a great action to sprinkle in from time to time to keep things fresh and unpredictable. Often you want your best players to be the ones experimenting with difficult reads and moves (i.e. Simmons and Embiid), while the supporting cast stays within their roles and avoid detrimental plays (i.e. Green and Seth Curry). Livers has played for a team on which the top six players each average between 6 and 10.3 field goal attempts per game, and as underclassmen he served more as a tertiary option for a team that made the NCAA Championship. He’s an adaptable piece that you can slot into rotation, give him instructions and he’ll fulfill them.

And while his assist numbers aren’t gaudy and I don’t expect manipulative passing anytime in his basketball playing future, he can process reads and choose correctly in static situations. On the play below he sees the roller get tagged and quickly recognizes that the corner where the ball should go.

Defensively the lack of upper echelon movement skills and so-so length can rear their ugly head in spite of Livers’ solid awareness and fundamentals on the end. Covering ground and closing space between their man is what makes defenders like Simmons and Thybulle so special. It doesn’t matter if Livers knows how to mirror an opponent and stay in front of him if his feet just don’t allow him to be in the spot he needs to be.

A quicker guard in Geo Baker (No. 0 for Rutgers) is able to separate from him pretty easily on two occasions, and even when Livers recovers for the block his getting beat at the perimeter led to his teammate rotating over to help and exposing the glass for a put back. Then in the last clip, a few crosses from a guy in Ron Harper Jr. who isn’t exactly a speedster gets Livers stumbling, and RHJ eventually used that advantage to get to the spot he wanted. His defense on all three of those plays isn’t atrocious, but it’s also worse than what you want out of an NBA-level wing.

This sequence of screenshots occurring all within the same second illustrate the problems brought on by slower than preferred twitches and reactions.

However, Livers is still strong enough and tall to bang inside and not have giant Red X on his back that says “I’m a defensive liability, attack me!”, and he’s constantly displayed good effort on that end.

Offensively, the lack of horizontal and vertical burst shows in his low at-rim and free throw attempt volume. His average of 2.5 free throw attempts per game this season is actually a career-high, and though he shoots a fairly decent 62.8 percent on at-rim shots, he’s only taking said shots about 2.4 times a game, which isn’t a particularly high mark for a player who leads his team in minutes played per game this season.

Take this late-game fast break opportunity vs. Rutgers where Livers just gets swallowed up when trying to challenge the massive Myles Johnson.

Livers loads up with both of his feet, likely thinking that if he can’t soar above Johnson that he might be able to bump and adjust mid-air for the finish, only to be so far below the center’s contest that he has no chance of getting this off. If you’re drafting Livers, it’s for his outside offensive game that relies on his quick and accurate jumper, steady decision making and acceptable on-ball acumen, not for any slashing and rim attacking prowess.

But if you place Livers in a system where his role is to move around and convert jumpers when the defense falls asleep for a brief moment, he’s stellar. Only 33 players in college basketball are shooting over 44 percent from three on more than 9.5 attempts per 100 possessions, and of those 33 Livers is third in Box Plus-Minus behind likely first round picks Corey Kispert and Jared Butler.

The constant conundrum for the Sixers is that most of their bench and wing depth is composed of shot makers who can’t be trusted on defense or solid defenders who can’t cash in open shots. Livers is not a shutdown defender but has played long minutes in a unit that ranks 6th nationally in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and his size alone should insulate him somewhat. And on offense he’s a killer when given space (90th percentile on unguarded jumpers per Synergy), and his height allows him to make contested shots over defenders in situations such as this one below.

Yeah, that’s tough.

Livers has not made his way onto the Big Boards at The Athletic or on Tankathon, and ESPN currently has him at No. 52 on their prospect rankings. That indicates he’s likely to be available in the middle of the second round where Knicks’ pick that the Sixers own will likely convey. Should this 6’7” sharpshooter from UM still be available at that point on draft night, I’d gladly swallow my Ohio State pride to welcome the Wolverine to Sixers land.

Statistics referenced in this piece are via BartTorvik, College Basketball Reference and Synergy Sports Tech.