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Malik Monk’s Other Dimensions May Be Hiding in Plain Sight

The Kentucky product is one of the safest bets in the lottery — a bona fide scorer with limitless range. But for him to live up to his potential draft slot, he’ll have to show more in the NBA than he did in Lexington. There’s a history of Wildcats who have done just that.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Malik Monk is the most explosive scorer in the draft. The Kentucky freshman became a household name when he dropped 47 points on North Carolina, including a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds, in December. Monk has a rare combination of athleticism and shooting ability, with unlimited range and a lightning-quick release that allows him to get a shot off from anywhere on the floor. He could go as high as no. 3 overall to Philadelphia, but he may not have the upside of some of the more versatile players projected to go in that range, like Kansas freshman Josh Jackson or De’Aaron Fox, his backcourt partner at Kentucky. There’s a ceiling to how good a one-dimensional player can be, no matter how good he is at that one dimension.

The 76ers need players like Monk, who can fill it up from beyond the 3-point line, to space the floor for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. However, taking a player with a lower ceiling because of how his game meshed with the rest of the young core would be a dramatic reversal of former GM Sam Hinkie’s draft philosophy, unless the Sixers think Monk would be able to handle a bigger role in the NBA than the one he had at Kentucky. The difficult part about projecting Monk to the next level is that he wasn’t asked to do much in college beyond get buckets. Big-time scorers aren’t normally considered role players, but that’s exactly what Monk was in his only season in college. What teams picking in the lottery have to figure out is whether he could have done more in a different situation. If volume 3-point shooting is the foundation of his game, but not the full extent of it, he could be worthy of a high lottery pick.

Monk would hardly be the first Wildcat unable to show everything he could do under John Calipari. Since Cal came to Lexington, he has made bringing in all-star teams an annual tradition. In seven seasons, he has had 28 players drafted in the NBA, including 14 lottery picks, and he will likely have three more (Monk and fellow freshmen Fox and Bam Adebayo) taken this year. Most college players change their game to adjust to playing with more talent in the NBA. Cal’s players have the opposite problem. Eric Bledsoe went from being an average spot-up shooter in college to a star point guard in the NBA. Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the most versatile offensive big men in the league, played almost exclusively out of the low post at Kentucky. Two seasons after being a shooting specialist who came off the bench on a team that went 38–1, Devin Booker scored 70 points in an NBA game.

Calipari’s recruiting philosophy has always been to go after as many elite prospects as possible and then figure out how they all fit together once they get to campus. For the most part, his teams are able to overwhelm opponents with the sheer weight of their combined length and athleticism, even if the skill sets of his best players don’t complement each other all that well. One of the common problems on many of his teams at Kentucky has been a lack of perimeter shooting, and that was especially glaring this season, when Monk was often the only Wildcat on the floor who defenses respected from behind the 3-point line. He will never be in a situation like that in the NBA, and playing with more skilled perimeter players around him could allow him to diversify his game.

The only other shooter in Kentucky’s starting lineup throughout the SEC and NCAA tournaments was senior Derek Willis, and he played significantly less than the other four starters. Monk averaged as many 3-point attempts per game as the rest of their starters combined:

When Monk turned the corner this season, there was nowhere for him to go. His inability to get to the rim (according to the numbers at Hoop-Math, he took only 20.4 percent of his shots there, compared with 48.1 percent for Fox and 55.3 percent for Briscoe) is a big red flag in his offensive profile, but he rarely had driving lanes to the basket. There were a lot of games where defenses sat in a zone and dared his teammates to shoot them out of it. Monk couldn’t space the floor for himself. He attracted a ton of attention whenever he put the ball on the floor, so the degree of difficulty on many of his shots was extremely high:

Because Monk played with two five-star point guards in Fox and Briscoe, he rarely created with the ball in his hands. His two backcourt partners were at their best when they were collapsing the defense and then kicking it out, and neither needed to be guarded on the perimeter. The Wildcats offense was optimized this season when they got the ball to Monk, and the threat of his outside shot opened up the rest of the team’s offense. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Monk was in the 91st percentile of college players as a spot-up shooter and in the 69th percentile coming off screens. Kentucky had the 19th-rated offense in the country, so it’s hard to blame Calipari for the way the roles were distributed, but Monk won’t be used the same way in the NBA.

While Monk played more minutes and took more shots than Booker did two years ago, they were used in similar ways in their seasons at Kentucky:

Booker was taken by the Suns at no. 13 in 2015, much lower than he would go in a redraft two years later. No one on draft night knew that he was such a well-rounded offensive player. Booker’s usage in isolations and pick-and-rolls increased by a factor of 10 when he got to the NBA, going from 3.5 percent of his total offensive possessions at Kentucky to 39.7 percent this season with the Suns. While there’s no guarantee that Monk would do as well in a bigger role, a deeper dive into his NCAA numbers shows that it is a possibility.

Monk was excellent in the pick-and-roll this season, in an admittedly small sample size of 66 possessions. When you include the shots that came from his passes, he generated 1.015 points per possession, putting him in the 85th percentile of NCAA players. Defenses have a tough time guarding Monk in the two-man game because of how quickly he can rise and fire off the dribble. You can’t go under the screen on Monk, and dropping back even a little is an invitation for him to shoot:

Monk doesn’t have the natural instincts of a traditional point guard like Fox, but the threat of his shot creates more openings for him than for a guy defenses can sag off of. Switching isn’t much of an option either, since big men have to stay attached to Monk on the perimeter, creating room for him to attack off the dribble:

Defenses almost have to send two guys at Monk, and he knows how to make them pay. When given the opportunity, he shows way more patience in the pick-and-roll than you would expect, considering his reputation as a gunner:

He makes some advanced passes for a player his age, manipulating the second line of defense with a live dribble and creating an easy layup for his big man cutting to the rim:

To be sure, Monk is still prone to some head-scratching decisions with the ball, and he’s definitely more comfortable looking for his shot than setting up his teammates. He barely averaged more assists per game (2.3) than turnovers (2.0), and when he was given the chance to be more of a playmaker, it often helped the opposition as much as it did Kentucky. Fox missed two SEC games this season: in a 90–81 win against Georgia in January, Monk had one assists and five turnovers; in a 76–66 win over Florida in late February, Monk had five assists, but he also had six turnovers. Any NBA team that gives him a bigger role in the offense will have to live with plays like this:

At the same time, the lack of shooting around Monk meant there weren’t many obvious places for the ball to go, and the way defenses collapsed the floor against him meant the passing lanes he did have were extremely narrow. He was essentially a freshman quarterback being asked to complete a high percentage of his passes to wide receivers who couldn’t get open. It’s no wonder he often elected to do the equivalent of tucking the ball and running it himself.

As Kevin Pelton explained in an article about Steph Curry last week, the pull-up 3 pointer is becoming an increasingly important weapon in today’s game. The vast majority of the NBA’s top point guards have it in their arsenal, and among the guards in this year’s draft, only Markelle Fultz is a better shooter off the dribble than Monk. The team that drafts Fox will have to develop his outside shot in order to maximize his ability to run a team and get to the rim, but it might be easier for Monk to leverage his already-elite jumper to improve as a slasher and passer. While Monk will never be as comfortable a playmaker as guys like Fox and Dennis Smith Jr., he should be a much better fit on NBA teams who don’t need their point guard to dominate the ball.

Players who aren’t primary options on offense have to be at least decent defensively to stick in a starting lineup, and how Monk develops on that side of the ball will go a long way toward determining his ceiling. He was surprisingly decent as a freshman, considering he was being forced to play out of position as an undersized wing (6-foot-3 and 197 pounds), with Synergy Sports rating him in the 60th percentile as a defender in isolation situations. Like most 19 year olds, he will need to get stronger to succeed defensively in the NBA, but his athleticism will give him a chance to compete. Watch him guard UNC junior Justin Jackson, a first-round pick in this year’s draft who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 193 pounds, in this sequence, getting into his dribble and forcing him to take one of the worst shots in basketball, a contested midrange fadeaway:

Monk had a good block rate for a 6-foot-3 guard (1.5 percent), and he saved Kentucky’s season by blocking Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie (6-foot-8 and 212 pounds) in the final seconds of their second-round win in the NCAA tournament:

Put it all together, and Monk has the tools to become a much more well-rounded player in the NBA than he was at Kentucky. Even in a worst-case scenario, he should be an elite bench scorer à la Lou Williams, but there’s a chance he develops into the perfect secondary playmaker at point to complement a ball-dominant wing player. Think a significantly bigger and more athletic Patty Mills, or a more defensive-minded Jason Terry. In the NBA draft, the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean an evidence of absence. Sometimes, the best way to help your team is to shoot the ball every time you touch it. Malik Monk was great in the defined role his college team needed him to play. We will have to wait until he gets to the NBA to see if he can do anything else.