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The Two Biggest Sleepers in the 2017 NBA Draft

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley and Nevada’s Cam Oliver could be case studies in the folly of letting a player’s college role determine his ultimate NBA upside

(AP Images/Ringer Illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer Illustration)

The most difficult aspect of evaluating players for the NBA draft is separating their performance in the NCAA from the situations around them. No man on a basketball court is an island, and everything a player does is affected by his teammates’ skill levels, the way his coaching staff uses him, and how opposing teams try to match up with him. College basketball is not an efficient sorting mechanism: The best recruits clump together on a few top programs, making it more difficult to evaluate their games, while guys more suited to being role players in the NBA are left to carry less talented teams, forcing them to stretch themselves beyond their natural abilities.

A good example from last year’s draft of a prospect who slipped through the cracks due to a difficult college situation is Skal Labissiere, who fell to the Kings at no. 28 despite being considered one of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school. John Calipari tried to force Skal to play out of the post, much like he did with Karl-Anthony Towns the year before, except Skal wasn’t nearly as strong as Towns, and he was manhandled by older and more experienced NCAA big men. Kentucky, like it does almost every year, had more highly-touted big man than it could use, and Skal gradually fell out of the rotation as the season progressed. He rode the bench in the first half of the season in Sacramento, but he broke out once the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins and he was given the chance to play as a more perimeter-oriented power forward next to either Willie Cauley-Stein or Georgios Papagiannis.

Skal’s production came in a relatively limited sample size of 33 games, and he will have to prove he can maintain his shooting efficiency over the course of a full season, but there’s no question he would be selected much higher in a redraft given what we know now. If we are looking for big men who could similarly outperform their draft position this year, we should be looking for guys who were not put in a position to either maximize their strengths or minimize their weaknesses in college. Two guys stand out to me: one who was asked to do too little, and one who was asked to do too much.

Tony Bradley, North Carolina

Here’s some food for thought: The two best big men in the draft might be two freshmen who came off the bench for their respective teams in the national championship game. Everyone knows about Zach Collins, who is widely seen as a lottery pick. However, his counterpart at UNC, Tony Bradley, is currently projected as a late-first-round or early-second-round pick, even though his per-40 minute numbers this season (against much better competition in the ACC) were roughly similar, with the exception of his block rates:

The case for Bradley starts with his potential as a rebounder. The ability to crash the boards almost always translates from college to the NBA, and Bradley is one of the best offensive rebounders to come out of the college game in recent memory:

Numbers courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
Numbers courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

While some of Bradley’s success stems from the way Roy Williams unleashed his big men on the offensive glass, he still has by far the best offensive rebounding percentage of any UNC player since the stat was first tracked in 2009. At 6-foot-11 and 249 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Bradley will be able to step in immediately and hold his own in the paint in the NBA. Watch him push John Collins, a likely first-round pick in this year’s draft, under the rim on this free throw and use his length and touch to get an easy basket:

Where Bradley separates himself offensively from specialists like Tristan Thompson and Kenneth Faried is that he’s also a legitimate post presence who can create his own shot with his back to the basket. Post play has become de-emphasized in the NBA over the last few years, but it’s still a nice weapon to have against a team that goes small or switches screens, and Bradley is a natural. Watch him feel his defender cheating to one side, spin around him and then go to the opposite side of the basket to fend off the shot-blocker:

Bradley didn’t get many chances to be a featured player on offense on a veteran team that wound up winning the national title, but he showed flashes of intriguing skill when he was asked to make plays for others. He can stop short on a roll to the basket, read the floor, and hit the open man as the defense rotates:

Williams is a traditional coach who likes to play two big men and pound the ball inside in the half court, and Bradley spent about half of his time this season playing with either Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks, neither of whom is much of a shooter. When he played with either Luke Maye (a stretch 4) or Justin Jackson (a small-ball 4) spreading the floor next to him, the Tar Heels were dominant. According to the numbers at hooplens.com, in the 517 possessions that Bradley played without either Hicks or Meeks on the floor, UNC’s offensive rating jumped from 1.15 to 1.19 points per possession while its defensive rating dropped from 0.99 points per possession allowed to 0.93. In the NBA, Bradley will spend a lot more time as the only big man in the game.

The great unknown about Bradley is whether he will be able to space the floor at the next level. He took only seven jumpers all season, but that may have been more about the way he was used than his ability. I talked to two NBA executives who attended one of Bradley’s workouts and both believe he will be a good perimeter shooter who may eventually stretch his shot out to the 3-point line. While he was only an average free throw shooter for a center (61.9 percent on 2.8 attempts per game), his limited number of attempts means we can’t rule out the possibility.

One of the reasons Bradley declared for the draft despite his limited playing time is a disagreement about how he was used in college. Despite losing out on the recruiting trail to Kentucky and Duke in recent years, Williams has made UNC one of the most consistent programs in the country by getting elite recruits to stay in school for multiple years. With Meeks and Hicks set to graduate, it was in his best interest to hide Bradley’s talents in order to keep him around.

There are also concerns about Bradley’s athleticism, which were compounded by his poor showing at the draft combine, where he had a max vertical of only 27.5 inches, the lowest of any player in Chicago. However, leaping ability isn’t as big a deal for a player who tied for the second-highest standing reach (9 feet and 4.5 inches) at the combine, and his lane agility score — which is a good measurement of a prospect’s ability to change directions — is actually better than more explosive big men like Bam Adebayo and Ike Anigbogu. Bradley isn’t a stiff: He moves well for a guy his size and he can slide his feet in space. In this sequence, he picks up the ball handler in the pick-and-roll for a second, and then recovers back to his man at the rim to block his shot:

Even in a league getting smaller by the year, Bradley is too good a rebounder and too skilled around the basket to not have a long and productive NBA career. He has a high floor, and there’s no way to know how high his ceiling is given his situation in college. While he’ll struggle stay in front of the league’s fastest point guards on perimeter switches, an extremely long big man who can move his feet and play sound positional defense can still have a big role on a high-level defense. If Tony Bradley had returned to UNC and been a featured player as a sophomore, he could have played his way into next year’s lottery. The team willing to gamble on him this year could wind up with an elite talent at a bargain price.

Cameron Oliver, Nevada

No player in this draft made more highlight-reel plays that you didn’t see this season than Oliver, a sophomore at Nevada. If he had played at a more high-profile school in a bigger conference, he would have been a household name. Guys as big as Oliver (6-foot-8 and 239 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan) should not be able to get as high off the ground as fast as he can. This is just senseless:

He puts his leaping ability to use on both ends of the floor, averaging 2.6 blocks per game in both seasons at Nevada. Even when he gets beat off the dribble, like he does by Monte Morris (a likely second-round pick in this year’s draft) in this sequence, he has the quickness and recovery ability to pin the shot off the glass:

Oliver’s athleticism alone would put him on NBA radar screens. Combine that with shooting range well behind the NCAA 3-point line (38.4 percent from 3 on 4.9 attempts a game) and he is an interesting prospect:

Oliver originally signed with Oregon State out of high school in 2014, but he wound up transferring to Nevada before ever playing in Corvallis after Craig Robinson, the coach who recruited him, was fired. Oliver sat out one year in Reno before helping former NBA head coach Eric Musselman turn Nevada’s program around, averaging 16.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.6 blocks, and 0.8 steals a game on 46.5 percent shooting as a redshirt sophomore and leading the Wolf Pack to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. Nevada went 28–7 this season, but the Mountain West had a down year, and the Wolf Pack didn’t have a particularly strong nonconference schedule, so Oliver didn’t get many chances to make a splash on the national stage or address the lingering concerns about his level of competition.

The biggest question mark scouts have about Oliver is his tendency to settle for contested fadeaway jumpers. The way his shots were distributed this season shows a player who was not used as efficiently as he could have been:

(Numbers courtesy of hoop-math.com)
(Numbers courtesy of hoop-math.com)

Nevada had four different players who averaged at least 10 shots per game, and there was never a clear distribution of roles as to who would be the primary initiator. The ball didn’t move that much, and it often seemed like players were taking turns going one-on-one instead of operating as a unit. If Oliver gave the ball up, there was no guarantee it was coming back to him, and he often forced the issue rather than trusting his teammates to make the right play.

"Nevada played a lot of transfers this season, and there seemed to be a lot of agendas on that team," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told me.

Oliver certainly played a part in that, and he’s better as a finisher than a creator at this stage in his career. But while he wasn’t a great decision-maker, averaging more turnovers than assists this season, he can read the floor and thread difficult passes through traffic:

The other issues scouts had with Oliver is that he wasn’t always locked in defensively, although few big-time scorers are at his age. He’s better at coming off the weak side and making plays than he is as a primary rim protector who has to quarterback the defense and tell everyone where to be. Nevada didn’t have much size on their roster, forcing Oliver to play as a small-ball center, but he will probably be more of a power forward in the NBA who occasionally slides up a position when opposing teams go small. Oliver will go from being a shot-creating center in the NCAA to a stretch 4 in the NBA. The two biggest concerns about his game have more to do with his role on his college team than his ability to fill his natural role at the next level.

Stretch 4s are being phased out of the NBA game, but Oliver has the athleticism to survive as a perimeter defender, while also helping his team as a shot blocker, rebounder, and secondary playmaker. It’s easy to dream on a guy who makes plays like this in transition:

There is some question about his jumper, since he shot only 69.2 percent from the free throw line on 3.7 attempts per game this season, and he may need to spend a season in the G-League proving to teams that he can consistently knock down 3s from NBA range. However, any player that showed Oliver’s combination of shot-blocking and 3-point shooting ability in college should get a shot in the NBA, and he would hardly be the first 20-year-old who needed to improve his defensive awareness and shot selection. If he had been paired with an elite point guard on a power-conference team, it would be easy to see him playing his way into the first round. Don’t let the fact that he played for an inconsistent team at a mid-major conference fool you. Cam Oliver has the talent to play in the NBA for a long time.