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The NBA Draft Sleeper’s New Awakening

SMU’s Ben Moore probably isn’t on your radar, but he should be — even if he isn’t drafted on Thursday night. He is exactly the type of player that fits the mold of a successful undrafted player. Moore’s old coach, Larry Brown, would know — he’s coached some of the NBA’s best.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The NBA’s fascination with defining and redefining positions has recently reached a new chapter. Any draft prospect who fell somewhere in the middle of a positional spectrum was once asked to self-assess his place on the court: Are you a 1 or a 2? A 3 or a 4? These days, the answer is usually the same, whether you’re auditioning as a point guard or a center: I don’t have a position. I’m just a basketball player. But in a league where versatility is a crown jewel and no one wants to be put in a box, how do we make sense of all of these basketball players?

Draymond Green serves as a poster boy of this type, a pliable player capable of taking on different roles. Teams are digging to find them in all corners of the planet, because, as Draymond proved, they can be found anywhere. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the reason they’re so hard to find. The draft’s annual Swiss army knife is usually hiding in plain sight, which very well might be the case this year.

The deep sleeper in the 2017 NBA draft is Southern Methodist University senior Ben Moore. His position? Doesn’t have one. He’s just a basketball player. He’s 6-foot-7 and 203 pounds and has a 6-foot-11 wingspan. The 22-year-old Bolingbrook, Illinois, native plays bigger than his measurements would indicate, and he’s flying far under the radar.

You won’t find Moore on the top 100 of DraftExpress, CBS Sports, or NBADraft.net. He’s ranked 99th on ESPN. In The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, we have him going 60th in our mock draft. He’s 46th on my board. Moore was overshadowed by his teammates at SMU — forwards Semi Ojeleye, a potential first-rounder, and Sterling Brown, who could go in the early second — but could end up just as good, or better. It has to do with his temperament, and how it held up after three years under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.

"I’m sure a lot of the times he thought I was the devil," Brown told me over the phone last week. Brown coached Moore for three years at SMU before Tim Jankovich took over this past season. "A lot of the guys I’ve been lucky enough to coach always felt I was better than they were, and that I was maybe expecting too much of them. But Ben came to practice every day with an unbelievable will to win. He’s one remarkable kid. I’ve been so lucky to be around great teammates and he’s a special teammate."

Brown knew right away that Moore was special. In the summer of 2012, Brown and his coaching assistants — including Jerrance Howard, regarded as one of the best recruiters in the nation — went to Las Vegas to watch Moore play on the Derrick Rose All-Stars AAU team at a basketball camp. Brown’s assistants gave him a list of players to watch; elite high school recruit Cliff Alexander was the high-profile prospect at the event that every school was there to see, but Moore’s effort had given Brown a wandering eye. "I was going to see big Cliff play, not that I thought we had much chance [of signing him]. And I just kept seeing this long, athletic kid that just tried to make everybody better," Brown said. "I just kind of fell in love with him."

Moore’s recruitment went from a cluster of Division II schools at the beginning of his junior year to Missouri Valley–type mid-majors by the end of his junior year to Brown’s SMU only a few months later after playing in Vegas. Northwestern and Illinois were among the other schools that chased Moore, but SMU went the hardest and they were the first. "I’ve heard back from Big Ten schools … and almost to a man, each one of them has told me, ‘Man, we totally missed on Ben,’" said Rob Brost, Moore’s coach at Bolingbrook High School. "It took somebody like Coach Brown to see it."

Brost said, even back then, Brown used to compare Ben Moore to Derrick McKey, who played 15 years as a defensive stopper, playing under Brown for portions of his career. "All Derrick McKey cared about was winning, defending, and making people better," Brown said. "That’s Ben Moore."

McKey carved out a long career for his stout defense and reliable offensive production. Moore could follow a similar path by playing his role, and focusing on winning. Moore played a lot of center for SMU and frequently found himself defending guards or wings in the Mustangs’ switch-heavy defense. He slides his feet well, but more impressively, he does an excellent job of swatting at the ball handler or contesting shots without fouling. Watch Moore on this possession:

Moore contains the ball handler with his arms extended, like coaches used to teach you to do playing at a young age. Then after the ball gets swung to the opposite side of the floor, he shows the presence of mind to rotate over and jump vertically, with both arms extended, to alter and block the shot. It’s 14 seconds of textbook individual and team help defense.

Brown resigned as SMU head coach last July and was replaced by assistant Tim Jankovich, who Brown credits for giving Moore "a lot more freedom" on the court by increasing his ballhandling opportunities. Moore’s NBA future is still contingent on doing the little things, however, like making the right plays offensively. The first thing that pops up watching Moore on the offensive end is that he has excellent body control and ambidextrous ballhandling ability:

Moore mixes in Eurosteps and crossovers on drives and finishes with either hand at the rim. Though he isn’t an explosive leaper off one foot, he does a good job of absorbing contact at the rim, whether it’s off a drive or an offensive rebound. Moore’s minutes at center also gave him opportunities to screen-and-roll:

Moore shot 19-of-23 when rolling to the rim, per Synergy, showcasing the ability to throw down lobs or finish with finesse — and, like any NBA coach will require, set solid screens. He does a tremendous job of cutting to the rim when he’s playing off the ball, making himself available for passes. Hearing Brown rave about Moore’s will to win, it’s unsurprising to see him motoring up the floor in transition:

Everything Moore does relates to feel and fundamentals, including his passing ability:

"I made him play point guard one whole year in practice because of his IQ, and I wanted him to learn to do more and more," Brown told me. Up to that stage, he’d only run point in games with friends and family — never in an organized setting. "I wasn’t used to running plays and getting into the body of the guard," Moore said. "It was a great experience and really helped me out."

Moore never took on significant point guard responsibilities at SMU, but after teammate Nic Moore graduated in 2016, he did have more opportunities to take the ball up the court and get his team into motion sets. Talking to those who have played a role in Moore’s on-court development, there are two consistent takeaways: They think he’s capable of more, and often they need to push it out of him.

During Moore’s sophomore year in high school, Brost pulled Moore up to the varsity team about 10 games into the season. He asked Moore if he was ready. Moore mumbled a quiet response. But it didn’t take long on the court for Brost to get a full answer: In his first varsity game, Moore ended up having 18 points in the second quarter alone. Brost walked into halftime with his assistants and said, "I am the dumbest high school coach on the planet! I’ve had the best player in our program playing on the sophomore team for half the season!"

Moore is a first-guy-in-the-gym type of player, but there’s a reason his coaches have had to coax more out of him: He loves being the energy guy. But he’s always had coaches who wholeheartedly believed he’s capable of reaching new heights. As his high school star developed, Brost said he always encouraged Moore to shoot more. Brown said he had to do the same in college. Moore plays like a winner, and his shot is his weakness — naturally he’d avoid taking it. NBA teams won’t need him to shoot more, but they will need him to fire when he’s open. That will be his next step, because the knock on Moore, in the eyes of some teams, is still damning: Moore is undersized, underweight, and doesn’t shoot well.

Moore shot only 20-of-57 on jumpers in the half court, per Synergy, and only 66.3 percent over four years from the free throw line. His mechanics in college were poor: He’d bring the ball back behind his head and catapult it toward the rim. Watching Moore play, sometimes it appeared he lacked confidence in his range — he’d frequently take a one-dribble pull-up into a midrange jumper when he was open for a 3, like in one of the the clips above. He’ll need to extend his range, otherwise the value of the rest of his glowing offensive traits — ballhandling, passing, screening — will all be minimized. There’s hope for his shot: He has good, natural touch. But his mechanics need to change. At the least, he needs to be a threat.

This is 90 seconds of Moore shooting around at the end of a workout with the Lakers. The angle isn’t great for analysis, but when scouting from the couch, we have to take what we can get. It was clear upon viewing the video that Moore has overhauled his mechanics. The ball isn’t hovering above his head when he shoots, and his shot looks fairly consistent. "I’m getting more legs into the shot so I’m not throwing my arms back as much," Moore said, adding that he watches YouTube videos of Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving to mimic how they shoot, and also works with his trainer, Jeff Pagliocca. "I’ve been trying to get the mechanics squared down. I’ve been working on getting consistent, getting my legs underneath me, and showing teams that I can shoot."

A reliable jumper wouldn’t change everything for Moore, but it would absolutely enhance his profile as a prospect. There’s little doubt he’ll be able to defend multiple positions, especially in small-ball lineups. His passing ability is obvious even to a casual observer. He has a high basketball IQ, makes the right plays, and is a good teammate. But a lack of a jumper can be a fatal flaw for first-round picks, never mind a prospect like Moore, who might not even get drafted.

The question now is which team will give Moore a shot. Come Thursday evening, Brown will have worked out with the Warriors, Wizards, Pacers, Mavericks, Lakers, Bucks, and Magic. He’s had to cancel on other teams, including the Nets, due to scheduling conflicts. Maybe he won’t be one of the 60 names called, but his odds of catching on with an NBA team are higher than they would’ve been in years past. New rules as a result of the collective bargaining negotiations could help Moore’s chances.

The NBA has added two-way contracts, named as such because players signed to said contracts will be in limbo between the NBA and the G-League. They can be called up to the big leagues for a maximum of 45 days, while spending the rest of their time in the G-League. Each team will have a pair of two-way contracts, effectively extending its roster to 17 maximum spots by having two designated G-League players that it has exclusive rights to. Two-way players will make a guaranteed $75,000 with the potential to earn just over a quarter million, depending on how much time they spend in the NBA. As you might expect, front offices are largely in love with the CBA addition; agents I’ve spoken to, on the other hand, are less enthused, for a number of reasons.

The new two-way distinction slightly changes the way the NBA uses its minor league. Up until the two-way structure was announced, all D-League players were essentially free agents, no matter which NBA affiliate they played for. The D-League’s 2014–15 MVP Tim Frazier, for example, played for the Celtics’ affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, and was then scooped up by the Sixers on a 10-day contract. Then the Blazers signed him to a multiyear deal before releasing him that offseason. Frazier went back to Maine, and then earned a roster spot with the Pelicans, where he’s found success this past year. If Frazier had been signed to a two-way contract, his parent team would’ve had exclusive rights.

It’s a significant advantage for the team to hold onto the rights of a player. For the player, it can limit opportunities if they aren’t called up to the big leagues. But being part of a talent pipeline that can seamlessly be called up — outside of the restrictions of a 10-day contract — will allow for more teams to get creative with their player development. If the Spurs are resting the entire starting lineup, they can bring in reinforcements. If a player gets hurt, a player on a two-way deal can be called upon. What teams simply had done until now was "stash" these project players on the back of their roster to avoid the risk of losing them. The bottom line is that 60 new jobs opened in the league, increasing the probability that sleepers like Moore get an opportunity.

Teams will get two shots at players who they think have a shot at making it. A lot of those gambles will be on hyper-athletes — like Arizona freshman guard Kobi Simmons — who are years away from processing the game at an NBA level. Or, it could be on a player like Moore, a college graduate who wasn’t a high-level recruit and doesn’t pop up on highlight reels. Depending on a team’s wishes or philosophy, it might lean in either direction. You’ll find a lot of fans clamoring for the seemingly high-upside athletes, and it isn’t a wrong mind-set to have, but the idea that a raw athlete without lottery potential will "learn the game" doesn’t hold much water looking at the history of successful undrafted players.

Brown happened to coach three of the greatest undrafted players ever. He was head coach during Raja Bell’s rookie season with the Sixers, and coached Bruce Bowen for half a season in 2000 before Bowen ever played for the Spurs. "Those two guys couldn’t shoot at all coming into the league," Brown said. "Then they ended up [being among the league leaders] in 3-point percentage because they worked at it." Most notably, Brown coached Ben Wallace for two seasons in Detroit. Wallace blossomed into a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, and was the anchor of one of the most ferocious defenses of all time on the 2004 championship team. "We gave up only [81.8] points per game in the Finals to one of the greatest teams ever," Brown said. "And coming out of college, nobody ever considered Ben Wallace [a potential Defensive Player of the Year]."

The thread linking Bowen, Bell, and Wallace is defense. It’s intelligence. It’s feel. It’s a knack for chasing down a loose ball or grabbing a long rebound. It’s the ability to make intangibles tangible. Those also happen to all be qualities found in some other undrafted successes, like Udonis Haslem, Brad Miller, Avery Johnson, and Wesley Matthews. "It’s the natural stuff," Brown said. "There’s so many ways I think you can impact your team and help your team win that we don’t put enough stock into."

I asked Brown what type of team he’d like to see Moore play for. He started talking about the Warriors, how they shoot a ton of 3s, and the way they play makes sense based on their roster. But at their core, Brown said, "they value guys who know how play basketball." Players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Draymond Green didn’t come into the league as quality outside shooters, but they could defend, rebound, pass, and make the right play. "I love the playing style when guys are facilitating and no one’s scared to make the extra pass," Moore said. "I’d do well in that."

Naturally, every rookie would like to play for Golden State. But it’s less about the actual team and more about the qualities they embody. The Warriors are a team that relies on everyone from its stars to its role players to its rookies — Pat McCaw was playing big minutes, for goodness’ sake. Who doesn’t want to play on a team like that? "I guess my point is," Brown said, with a pause, "Ben has to be picked by a franchise where they value winners."

Sometimes what’s important is staring us right in our face. Moore might become a great success in the NBA. He might not make it. He could spend his playing years in Europe. Who knows? No matter the results, it’s curious that a player who embodies so many of the obvious, universal qualities that pertain to winning has been so overlooked. "I look around the league and if there’s not a place for Ben Moore, with his qualities," Brown said, as his voice trailed off and he softly sighed, "I’m gonna be surprised."