It may not seem all that special, but this play has been on my mind for weeks:
Tristan Thompson lays the ball up—whoop-de-doo! But consider the context. The Cavaliers immediately focused on Thompson as soon as Celtics guard Terry Rozier switched onto him off a screen. Despite the fact that Thompson ran a grand total of 14 (ineffective) post-ups all season. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Kevin Love are on the floor. Despite the fact that Rozier is a tough, gritty defender. But the Cavs picked on Rozier throughout the Eastern Conference finals with James, Love, and even Thompson, and forced the Celtics to use creative switches to remove Rozier from mismatches.
Boston had the NBA’s best defense, but Rozier proved to be its weak link in the playoffs simply because he’s small (6-foot-2 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan). Rozier wasn’t the only point guard who had to cope with that new reality this postseason. The Pelicans bullied Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum possession after possession, and then the Warriors did the same to Rajon Rondo in the next round. Jeff Teague got put through the Houston pick-and-roll spin cycle. The Cavs ran screens like a broken record to attack Steph Curry.
Mismatches get exploited regardless of the size or position of the defender, but in a league that switches everything against the pick-and-roll, smaller guards are more vulnerable than ever. Which brings us to a 2018 NBA draft class. There are four point guards likely to be drafted in the middle of this year’s first round:
- Trae Young, 19.7 years old, Oklahoma
- Collin Sexton, 19.4 years old, Alabama
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 19.9 years old, Kentucky
- Elie Okobo, 20.6 years old, France
All four guards have drastically different skill sets. Young is the best offensive player of the bunch; he possesses a rare combination of scoring prowess and passing vision. Young earned Curry comparisons before defenses homed in on him and his shooting percentages fell back down to earth. He also struggles defensively, which is notable considering how much size mattered in the playoffs.
Here’s how those four prospects stack up against the 30 starting point guards in the NBA this past season, aside from Ben Simmons (since he’s the size of a big):
Gilgeous-Alexander’s length stands out—he’s comparable physically to Dejounte Murray—and both Sexton and Okobo find themselves clumped with most guards. Then there’s Young, who is among the smallest of the group at 6-foot-0.5 without shoes, 178 pounds, and a 6-foot-3 wingspan. Mike Conley and De’Aaron Fox are a little longer. Curry and Kyrie Irving are a few inches taller. Dennis Smith Jr. and Kyle Lowry are a lot bulkier. Young is comparable in size to small starting point guards like Kemba Walker and Darren Collison, or rotation point guards like Shabazz Napier, Joe Young, and Patty Mills. Considering we just witnessed small guards being attacked relentlessly in the playoffs, what does that mean for Young’s NBA upside?
Small point guards are capable of defending; Lowry and Chris Paul have been excellent defenders for years. But Young is the worst defensive point guard projected to land in the lottery since Trey Burke in 2013. He rarely stays in his stance, struggles to fight over screens, gets bullied on drives and post-ups, and doesn’t cover much ground even when he’s engaged sliding laterally. He’s not a rebounder, either, and he often loses focus off-ball. Even if Young reaches his defense upside, opponents will still try to feast on him.
The common counterargument to acquiring a limited defender is that he can be hidden when surrounded by better athletes. But the Celtics couldn’t hide Rozier, and they had the best defense in the NBA. (They also had to invent an odd zone scheme to try hiding Isaiah Thomas the previous year.) The Warriors—with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant—still end up with Curry mismatched onto LeBron James. And Curry, contrary to popular belief, is a good defender—and he’s bigger than Young.
Defense will be a tall task for Young in the NBA. It will be a risk for any team thinking of drafting him in the middle of the lottery, even Orlando, which already has several long defenders like Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon (a restricted free agent this summer). The Magic, who have the no. 6 pick, have worked out Young and have interest according to multiple league sources, as do the Knicks. The Suns also have interest in trading up for Young, per a league executive. Young’s offensive upside makes him worth selecting at some point, but that’s the big question when projecting his future: At what level does Young need to perform offensively to make his bad defense worth it? And is there a situation that can provide him the opportunity to reach that level?
Russell Westbrook’s offense makes his lackluster defense worth it (though he can lock in when he wants to). Same goes for Irving (though he’s taller with a wider frame than Young) and Lillard (though his arms are 4 inches longer than Young’s). But even today, after being named to three All-NBA teams, Lillard’s poor defense is still an eyesore that limits Portland’s upside in the playoffs. Young’s freshman season was far better than any of the aforementioned point guards’—and even Curry—which makes him such a tantalizing prospect. But one successful college season doesn’t guarantee an even better future. Lillard was a late bloomer in college who made an immediate impact in the NBA. Young burst onto the scene, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be better or worse than Lillard. Each player’s trajectory is different. The odds are, however, it’ll be a steep learning curve for Young, as it is for most point guards; 24 is the average age active point guards are named to their first All-NBA team.
Young’s destiny is unknown. I would bet strongly against him being a complete bust; he’s unafraid and capable of jacking up shots from deep off the catch, off screens, and off the dribble. And he’s a wonderful passer, too. Had his teammates actually hit shots, he’d have averaged even more than 8.7 assists.
But Young had a far longer leash in college than he’ll have maybe ever in the NBA, which helped boost his scoring numbers to the top of the college leaderboard. His flaws were also on full display. Young is a subpar athlete who struggles to finish around the rim and frequently gets his shot blocked or altered. That’s not all that different than Curry’s predraft scouting report, but Curry became an elite finisher by mastering creative touch finishes off the glass. Young can do that too, but there are no guarantees considering he’s smaller and not quite as athletic as Curry.
Young’s decision-making as a passer and shooter were issues in high school and college. He attempts too many risky passes that he has no business even trying; he averaged 5.2 turnovers with the Sooners. Young also takes far too many deep shots early in the clock and hits them at a low rate—Bjorn Zetterberg of Cleaning the Glass found that a 102 of Young’s 325 triples came from 30 feet or deeper, and he hit only 26 percent of them. Taking those shots is cool. Making them is a different story. Curry didn’t become the player he is now until later in his NBA career, but Young hasn’t displayed the makings of an all-time great shooter like Curry did at Davidson. Young never shot above 37.2 percent from 3 at any level in his life, while Curry has never shot worse than 38.7 percent. Young can become a great shooter, but he’s not Steph.
Every prospect can be nitpicked to death, but there’s significant pressure on Young to become either a transcendent offensive player like Curry or even just a great one like Lillard. Nothing less will suffice because no matter what scoring level he reaches, opponents will hunt him on defense.
I recently spoke to an executive about Young, and he summed up the debate in simple terms: If you don’t believe point guard defense matters, then pick Young. If you do believe point guard defense matters, then don’t pick Young.
How about the other options at point guard? You may remember Sexton as the player who scored 40 points to keep Alabama alive while playing three-on-five.
Sexton is speedy and fearless, a shifty ball handler who can get to the rim with ease, but he needs to improve his decision-making and shot selection. He has good defensive potential, but largely disappointed as a freshman, and lacks the beefy frame of players he’s often compared with, like Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Beverley.
Gilgeous-Alexander, at 6-foot-6 with a near 7-foot wingspan, could be post-injury Shaun Livingston with a 3-pointer: a long defensive guard who offers smart, complementary offense. He’s lean now, but has the frame to pack on more muscle. However, shot creation is a critical skill for lead ball handlers, and that’s where SGA is lacking. He’s an average athlete who doesn’t get much lift inside on layups, and has an ugly jump shot that worked at Kentucky, but only on a small sample. Both Sexton and Gilgeous-Alexander can lean on defense as a foundation, but Young is light years ahead of both on offense. It’s only fair to ask a similar question we asked of Young earlier: At what level do Sexton and SGA need to perform offensively to make them worthy of being selected in the lottery?
As of now, it’s unclear where these guards fall. The Magic, who draft sixth, have some interest in Young, as mentioned previously. The Cavaliers, at no. 8, need one too, and they’ll likely decide between Sexton and Duke big Wendell Carter. The Knicks will consider Young at no. 9. After that, I could see one of these guards falling to the back of the teens. Phoenix (at no. 16), Milwaukee (no. 17), and Atlanta (no. 19 and no. 30) should all think about drafting a point guard. But they’ll have to decide between drafting a flawed point guard, an oversaturated position in the NBA already, over a 3-and-D wing like Josh Okogie, a sharpshooter like Kevin Huerter, or a do-it-all wing like Troy Brown. There will be a Sexton or SGA again in the future, but strong and versatile defensive wings are hard to find.
The most overlooked point guard is Elie Okobo, who is a 20-year-old rising up the rankings to the middle of the first round while playing for Pau-Orthez in France. Okobo is 6-foot-3 with a reported 6-foot-8 wingspan, (which is slightly above average size for a starting point guard) and a body comparable to Ricky Rubio’s or Elfrid Payton’s, but his game is totally different than that of those two: Okobo is a score-first guard who can get buckets from all over the floor. He showed that in a recent 44-point explosion.
Okobo is hitting more than 40 percent of his 3s, but he’s streaky with subpar shot selection and decision-making—much like Young. He was a 2-guard growing up and only recently switched to point guard, so he’s still learning the intricacies of the position as a passer and ball handler. He lacks Young’s handles, but he’s a tad quicker off the bounce and more explosive and skilled finishing with either hand inside. Much like Young, Okobo shows passing flashes by making cross-court kickout passes with velocity that raise your eyebrows. Okobo is taller, longer, and has a wider frame, which manifests in his gritty on-ball defense and active off-ball effort.
Okobo is still small though compared with every other position on the floor. But he’s not a liability. Then again, neither was Rozier until the playoffs. The nature of today’s league, with so much pick-and-roll and switching, means any player can be targeted by defenses. Especially smaller ones. But I still find myself wondering whether Okobo will develop into the best all-around point guard of this group. Point guards may not be able to hide on the court, but one week before the draft, Okobo seems to be hiding in plain sight.